Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Heroes Get Remembered, but Legends Never Die: The Ongoing Fascination with USS Monitor

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the sinking of the USS Monitor.  It is as much a front story headline over a hundred and fifty years ago as it remains today.  The burial of the two unidentified sailors at Arlington National Cemetery in March hit worldwide popularity among the major news outlets.  It is by far one of the most intriguing stories of the American Civil War.  But why?  

This post is but one of many written about the Monitor today.  That is no secret.  It's an anniversary, after all.  In a block of major commemorations already occurring (WWII, 1812, WWI, Korea), it seems only natural.  Our own American love affair with commemorations continue to drive many history-based blogs and social media outlets such as the CWN 150.  History happens within these parameters.  The job of the historian and the general public is to remember it in whatever way they seem fit: ceremonies, stories, publications, lectures, etc.  It is an unspoken "social contract" Civil War enthusiasts signed back in 2011 at the commemoration's beginning.  The story of the Monitor, however, is still alive and thriving.  Others already faded into the distant sleep of the bicentennial.  

Battlefields around the country also received their attention this year.  Thousands of visitors braved the heat and flocked to the Gettysburg and Vicksburg sesquicentennial commemorations.  Their stories certainly deserve equal praise and reverence.  What is particularly interesting about the USS Monitor, now 151 years later, is its adaptability.  Her story constantly evolves.  Like some creature lost in the evolutionary chain, the men of the Monitor adapt to the changing time periods. 

Dozens of books about the Monitor currently line your book store's Civil War section.  The majority of these published over the course of the last decade.  Timeliness is next to godliness.  Many monographs claim "new developments" or "uncovered history."  This is perhaps an intentional play on the ship's 2002 recovery.  Even after the hoopla of the ship's sesquicentennial anniversary during the Battle of Hampton Roads in 2012, books, articles, and news stories continue to surface.  Far beyond the typical "15 minutes" of historical fame, the Monitor has overstayed its welcome.  We are okay with that.

The continued fascination exists on everything from wine bottles to memorial plaques and challenge coins.  In the grand scheme of collective memory, the Monitor is THE BRAND for the Civil War navies.  At a time when branding takes up so much time and energy for museums and institutions around the world, enthusiasts for this subject have known theirs for years.  Whether you like the publicity or not, the Monitor is here to stay.  

Heroes get remembered.  Legends like the Monitor, however, never die.  That is a promise as ironclad as the ship itself.  

Here's to 151 years.  As you toast your champagne tonight, save a little bit for the Monitor boys.    

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