Maritime History: Two Unidentified Sailors From the USS Monitor to Be Buried at Arlington Cemetery

In a strange twist of fate the USS Monitor, the nation’s first ironclad warship that made history at the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, met her end in the fury of a winter storm. As she slipped beneath the raging waves, she took 16 of the 62 crewmen aboard to their deaths. Now the remains of two unidentified sailors will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Friday, March 8.

Months before she went down near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Monitor was heralded as “the little ship that could” when she leveled the playing field against the much larger Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) in a four-hour battle that would chart a new course for naval warfare by signalling the end of the era of wooden warships.

Revolving Gun Turret

Monitor’s ingenious and iconic revolving gun turret marked a significant technological change as it was the first time in history the firing of weapons was separated from the navigation of a ship. Discovered in 1973 and raised in 2002, the turret was found upside down and wedged under the hull of the shipwreck, filled to the brim with sediment and representing a fascinating time capsule of the night she sank. It is where the two sailors died while on duty.

Monitor #1 and Monitor #2, as they are currently identified, were both Caucasian men. Monitor #1 is estimated to be between the ages of 17 and 24 and 5’ 7”, Monitor #2 between 30 and 40 and 5’ 6 ½. . Both are believed to be enlisted men due to the type of clothing they were wearing. “Despite having good DNA records of the two crewmen, no one who is a maternal blood line match has yet come forward with a story of being a descendant of one of the Monitor crew who died,” says David Alberg, Superintendent, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. “It’s possible some family lines have died out or, because so many crewmen were immigrants, surnames were changed when they became American citizens.”

“Cheesebox on a Raft”

Even Monitor’s creator was an immigrant. John Ericsson was a noted Swedish-born inventor, designer and engineer who amazed his contemporaries by delivering the war-ready vessel in just 118 days. Public reaction was mixed -- the unprecedented iron ship was often referred to as a “cheesebox on a raft.” Even the crew who readied to sail her down to Norfolk toward what would become a legendary battle were uncertain they would survive the trip.

In an attempt to make it impossible for the South to sustain itself economically, the North had placed large blockading squadrons in the ports of Norfolk, Charleston, Mobile and Savannah to prevent the import or export of goods and services. On March 8, 1862, Union fears were palpable following the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, in which Virginia had decimated the Union fleet -- the worst naval disaster until Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Arriving in heavy fog that spring evening and one-third smaller than the Virginia with only two guns to Virginia’s 10, the Monitor perplexed onlookers, who were anticipating a more robust adversary. But Virginia’s 10 guns were still lined in fixed positions whereas Monitor’s two could revolve in a 360-degree pattern. Although the next day’s famous battle was considered a tactical draw with each side claiming victory, Monitor had done her job of keeping the Virginia from getting out of the Union blockade.

Her legacy lives on as the first of NOAA’s 14 national marine sanctuaries, which was established in 1975. She lies in 240 feet of water just 16 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras. Approximately 85 percent of the wreck remains untouched on the seabed. It serves as a war grave for the other 14 crewmen who were not recovered and may still be inside. Close to 1,500 recovered artifacts are on display at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

In operation for less than a year, Monitor was lost in high waves while under tow on December 31, 1862 -- her low freeboard design and heavy turret sealing her fate.

Surgeon Grenville Weeks, who survived the sinking, gave an account of the horrific events published in the Atlantic Monthly in March 1863, ending with these immortal words: “…and so long as we remain a people, so long will the work of Monitor be remembered, and her story told to our children’s children.” – MarEx

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.