Civil War: After 150 years, two USS Monitor sailors to be buried

Photo: Discovery of USS Monitor buried deep in the ocean

VIENNA,Va., March 6, 2013 — On Friday, March 8, two sailors from the USS Monitor will be buried with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery, arguably the last Civil War military men to be so honored. And it happens on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads.

The battle is famous in art, poetry and history for one thing: It was the first meeting of two ironclad ships, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, which had been built upon the sub-structure of what had been a U.S. Navy frigate, the USS Merrimack. The battle lasted a full two days and, depending on which historians you talk to, is normally considered a draw in the annals of naval history.

Battle of Hampton Roads

Monitor Lost Off Cape Hatteras

Some nine months later while being towed by the USS Rhode Island, the Monitor came upon some rough seas in a not unexpected place off the coast of Cape Hatteras. At that time, sixteen of the Monitor’s 62-man crew died.

While most of the dead were lost at sea, the crew of the Rhode Island did accomplish the rescue of some 50 sailors. But it would be over one hundred years before the wreck of the Monitor would be found in 1973 and the final recovery of the remaining two bodies.

When the ship was found, a band of historians and salvagers made the decision that whatever remained of the ship must be brought up. A group descended to the Monitor in 2002 and discovered that the turret of the ship had been turned upside down on the bottom of the ocean where it had filled up over time with coal, sand and silt deposits. They, in turn, had hardened into an impenetrable solid mass, what restoring folks refer to as “concretions.”

Turret Held Remains

USS Monitor, 1861

Since the obvious method of escape from a ship like the Monitor was the turret, it was a given that if they could get through the concretion layer, they would doubtless find human remains.

A retired Navy captain Barbara “Bobbie” Scholley, was the officer in charge of the team of divers who first visited the Monitor in  2002,  and she will be present at the interment of the sailors on Friday.

There was a great sense of discovery, which always pervades such an exercise in retrieval as well as the feeling that “these were men who fought for us, and here they are, and we are bringing them home,” said Capt. Scholley.

Much of the extensive restorative work was done on the Hunley in Charleston, S.C., while the  Monitor’s turret is now on display at the USS Monitor Center of the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Va.

Modern Technology Lends A Hand 

The remains of the two individuals, including the skulls, were sent to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii to see what secrets might be revealed. Their examination and logistical work determined that the two men were Caucasian and each was 5’7” tall.

Reconstruction of the two last sailors found AP

They were able to determine that one man was between the ages of 17 and 24, while the other was in his 30s. Genealogists working in concert with the command have narrowed the search to ten families of the total 16 missing sailors.

While at least two men, descendants of possible sailors, are under consideration for determining whether the sailors are ancestors, nothing yet has been deduced.

Additional DNA testing is still going on, but it was decided that enough time had passed and that the two unknown sailors should now be laid to rest. The Superintendent of the Monitor sanctuary, David Alberg, said it best, “It’s their final voyage. They sailed out in 1862 and never made it home; and now they’re finally being laid to rest 150 years later.”

Skulls Provide Clues

In scenes reminiscent of “Bones” or “CSI,” scientists have been able to reconstruct the basic facial characteristics of the two skulls which were retrieved, providing as good a representation of what the men looked like when they sailed as can be made. This type of facial reconstruction is extremely difficult but has become more common. There is a possibility that the two men are William Bryan and Jacob Nicklis, though further DNA work will be required before any final decision can be made.

Several representatives of the two families, who may be descendants of the two men, will also attend the burial Friday, along with Superintendent Alberg and other dignitaries, including Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who will speak.

Informal photo of the enlisted men, 1862

Their final interment at Arlington bestows upon the sailors the honor which they richly deserve.

Perhaps the Bible said it best:

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business in great waters; These see the deeds of the Lord, and his wondrous works in the deep.

For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.

Then they cry unto Him in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distress.

He made the storm be calm, and the waves  of the sea quiet.

Then they were glad because they had quiet; so he brought them to their desired haven.

Psalms, 107:23-30 

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Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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