Crewmen from USS Monitor laid to rest at Arlington; Holden descendant attends service

Posted March 09, 2013, at 5:29 a.m.
Last modified March 09, 2013, at 6:12 a.m.

WASHINGTON — A century and a half after their deaths aboard one of history’s most famous warships, two sailors from the USS Monitor were laid to rest at sunset Friday on a hillside in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

In what might be the last funeral of the American Civil War, the two shipmates were buried with elaborate military honors, their flag-covered caskets carried on horse-drawn caissons as a throng of dignitaries, crew descendants and bystanders looked on.

The burial came on a blustery afternoon that was one day short of the 151st anniversary of the Union ship’s legendary battle in Hampton Roads, Va., with the Confederacy’s CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack.

The battle at Hampton Roads was history’s first between ironclad warships, and perhaps the most important naval battle of the Civil War.

The sailors were two of the 16 men who died when the Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras in 1862. The Navy said a gravestone bearing the names of all 16 men will be erected later. The lost 16 sailors were a kind of cross section of mid-19th-century America: three African Americans, two natives of Ireland, one each from Scotland, England, and Wales, and a coal heaver from Maine, among others.

The bodies of the other 14 crewmen were not recovered. Most of the 62-man crew survived.

Numerous family descendants of the Monitor crew attended.

Andrew Bryan, of Holden, Maine, said he was a descendant of Monitor yeoman William Bryan, who died when the ship sank. The sailor appears in one of the old photographs of the ship’s crew, Bryan said.

“This was a story my grandfather told when I was really young,” he said. “I think it’s great. The moving part, the emotional part for me is my family. … This will carry on the family history. … This a part of our heritage. This is how we got here.”

Friday’s ceremonies came after a reunion of sorts in an Arlington hotel of crew descendants, scientists, government officials and historians.

“It’s a very solemn occasion,” said James McPherson, professor emeritus of American history at Princeton University and a leading Civil War scholar. “These sailors deserve just as much praise for their contribution to saving the Union as the soldiers that Lincoln acknowledged at Gettysburg.”

The funeral “is a recognition of their contribution and importance,” he said. “It’s a chance for Americans today, 151 years later, to pay their respects to people who died to save the country.”

Anna Holloway, curator of the USS Monitor Center of the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, said the gathering was like a family reunion.

“We are like this whole big Monitor family,” she said, referring to the Navy, the museum and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “And all these descendants. It is like old home week.”

Robert Sheridan, 72, was a University of Delaware scientist on board the research ship that found the Monitor in August 1973. “I saw it on a sonar device that we had,” he said. “The first sign of it. I just went, ‘Whoa.’ ”

“This is what we always thought should happen,” he said of Friday’s burial. “To do any less would be a shame.”

NOAA’s David W. Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said Thursday: “It’s been very emotional . . . very satisfying . . . and very peaceful, I think.”

The lost 16 sailors were a kind of cross section of mid-19th-century America: three African Americans, two natives of Ireland, one each from Scotland, England, and Wales, and a coal heaver from Maine, among others.

The burial marks 40 years of research into the Monitor by the Navy, NOAA, the Mariners’ Museum and other organizations.

And it will lay to rest perhaps the last of over 600,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines who died in the long-ago Civil War, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Juan M. Garcia III said Thursday.

The nation is currently commemorating the sesquicentennial of the war, which ran from 1861 to 1865.

Almost 10 months after the March 9, 1862, Hampton Roads battle, the two sailors buried Friday were aboard the Monitor when it sank in a gale off the North Carolina coast on Dec. 31, 1862. The ship capsized and settled on the bottom upside down.

The wreck of the Monitor was located in 1973 by a Duke University research ship in a stormy region off the North Carolina coast called “the graveyard of the Atlantic.”

In 2002, more than a century after the ship sank, the almost-complete skeletons were found, one on top of the other, amid a tangle of huge guns and debris in the turret.

“I think . . . one was helping the other” in the ship’s last moments, said James Delgado, director of NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program. “Seasick, hurt, whatever.”

“Those two guys together were trying to get out,” he said Wednesday. “There but for the matter of a few moments, they might have made it out onto that deck; they might have made it onto that last (rescue) boat.”

“But the Monitor finally slips,” capsizing, under the waves, he said. “It tumbles. They go head over heels. They land on the roof of the turret upside down. Everything comes down on them. The cold sea pours in and they’re gone.”

“I think we can all picture ourselves caught up in something like that,” he said.

The study of the sailors’ bones yielded DNA but few other clues: the younger man’s broken nose, and indications of a limp in the older man, the ring on a finger of his right hand and a groove in his front teeth where he bit down on his pipe.

The turret today resides in a state-of-the-art exhibit and research facility at the Mariners’ Museum.

“This a powerful moment,” Delgado said. “This is so gratifying to see, that after this time these men . . . interred in this hallowed ground, that they will be honored by the nation.”