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A team of deep-sea divers plans an expedition next week off North Carolina's coast to study what is left of the Monitor, the ironclad fighting ship that made naval history during the Civil War.

The corroded hulk of the famous vessel rests upside down in 235 feet of water about 19 miles from Cape Hatteras - an area called the "graveyard of the Atlantic."In March 1962, the Union ship survived a four-hour battle in Virginia's Hampton Roads harbor with the Confederate ironclad Merrimack, also known as the Virginia.

The battle ended in a draw, but it marked the beginning of the end of the era of wooden fighting ships.

The Monitor sank in a gale in December 1862 as it was being towed down the coast for a Union siege on Fort Fisher, S.C.

A federal archaeologist this year called it "the most important American shipwreck."

The ship's encrusted skeleton is so fragile that recovering it is unrealistic, said John Broadwater, manager of the USS Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

Access to the wreck has been restricted since it was discovered in 1973, and the diver who will lead next week's expedition has fought federal bureaucrats for years for permission to explore the Monitor.

Peter Hess, a lawyer and diver from Wilmington, Del., sought approval from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which operates the national marine sanctuary at the site.

In March, Hess lost an appeal of an agency decision rejecting his proposal. But he revised his application and recently won the NOAA's blessing. He organized the expedition scheduled to begin Monday.

"Our intentions with the Monitor have always been, I think, above reproach," he said.

Hess and his team plan to collect data that could be used to devise a plan to save the Monitor from the forces of nature. A 1987 study said the wreck was in danger of collapsing into a historically insignificant heap.