A century and a half after USS Monitor sank, the interment of two unknown crewmen found in the Civil War ironclad’s turret is bringing together people from across the country with distant but powerful ties to those who died aboard.
The ceremony Friday at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington will include Monitor kin who believe the two sailors — whose remains were discovered in 2002 — are their ancestors, despite DNA testing that has failed to make a conclusive link. But the families stress that the interment pays homage to all 16 Union sailors who died when the ship went down, and nearly 100 people from Maine to California are expected to attend.
“When I learned they were going to do a memorial and have the burial at Arlington, it was like, ‘I can’t miss that,’” said Andy Bryan of Holden, Maine, who will travel with his daughter Margaret to the capital. He said DNA testing found a 50 percent likelihood that Monitor crewman William Bryan, his great-great-great-uncle, was one of the two found in the summer of 2002, when the 150-ton turret was raised from the ocean floor off Cape Hatteras, N.C.
“If it’s not William Bryan, I’m OK with that,” Bryan said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I feel like I should be there.”
The same holds true for Diana Rambo of Fresno, Calif. She said her mother, Jane Nicklis Rowland, was told of the ceremony for Monitor crewman Jacob Nicklis a week before her death in December, at age 90. He was Rowland’s great-uncle. That, Rambo said, makes the interment especially poignant.
Rambo, too, suspects Nicklis was one of the two in the turret. “We know he was on the ship,” she said. “We know he was one of the 16.”
Two weeks ago, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the two would probably be the last Navy personnel from the Civil War to be buried at Arlington. He’ll speak at the interment. “It’s important we honor these brave men and all they represent as we reflect upon the significant role Monitor and her crew had in setting the course of our modern Navy,” he said.
The ceremony is scheduled on the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, which took place on March 8 and 9, 1862. On the second day, the Brooklyn-made Monitor fought the CSS Virginia in the first battle between two ironclads. The Monitor was the Union’s answer to the Confederate Virginia, built on the carcass of the U.S. Navy frigate USS Merrimack. The battle of the ironclads ended in a draw.
The Monitor sank about nine months later in rough seas southeast of Cape Hatteras while under tow by the USS Rhode Island. Dubbed a “cheese box on a raft,” the Monitor was not designed for rough water. Sixteen of the Monitor’s 62 crew members died. The crew of the Rhode Island was able to rescue about 50 people. Most of the dead were lost at sea. The wreck was found in 1973.
Retired Navy Capt. Barbara “Bobbie” Scholley was commanding officer of the team about 40 divers who descended to the Monitor wreck in 2002. The turret was upside down and filled with coal, sand and silt that had hardened into a solid mass. Divers chipped away until the turret could be lifted.
“We knew there was a good chance we would find sailors in the turret because they would escape that way,” said Scholley, who will travel from her home in Annapolis, Md., for the Arlington ceremony.
“I think everybody realized, yes, this is a piece of history, but it’s more than that,” Scholley said of the mood among divers, archeologists and others on a support barge when the remains were found. “These are men who fought for us and died for us, and here they are and we’re bringing them home. It was very powerful.”
The turret has gone through restoration and is on display at the USS Monitor Center of The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News.
Meanwhile, in a longshot bid to identify the remains, the skulls of the sailors found in the turret were used to reconstruct their faces about a year ago.
Some families whose ancestors had served on the Monitor came forward — including Rambo’s mother and Bryan — but DNA testing did not produce a conclusive match.
But some are confident their own detective work has sealed the family links to the two found in the turret.
Gaydee Gardner, Rambo’s sister, said it’s surreal to know “I am a blood relative to Jacob … a 21-year-old kid off to sea on the first ironclad, whose president was Abraham Lincoln.” She will travel from Rancho Mirage, Calif., for the ceremony in memory of “a kid who must have been terrified during his final hours.”
Bryan said the Navy is sending a DNA kit to a maternal descendent in Australia in hopes of cementing the link with William Bryan.
“The more I’ve learned about him, the more I’m attached,” said Bryan, who will join 20 family members in Washington. “It doesn’t hurt that my father was William Bryan, so that always make it feel that it’s pretty personal.”
The remains were sent to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii. They concluded the sailors were white, each was 5-foot-7, and one was 17 to 24 years old while the other was in his 30s. They narrowed the possibilities to six among the 16 Monitor sailors who died.
Forensic anthropologist Robert Mann said the command has not given up hope and is conducting more DNA testing. Genealogists have been able to determine possible descendants for 10 families of the missing 16 sailors.
But while efforts to identify the two continue, “let’s lay the men to rest,” said David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor sanctuary.
Alberg — along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Maritime Heritage Program and descendants of the surviving Monitor crew members — have pushed for the Arlington honors.
“It’s their final voyage,” Alberg said. “They sailed out in 1862 and never made it home, and now they’re finally being laid to rest 150 years later.”