Digging holes here and there in American history.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013


     Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. performs nearly 30 funeral services each day.  Most of burials are military veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the current Middle East conflicts or their spouses.
     March 9 was no different with one exception—one funeral was held to inter two sailors in what was most likely the last burial of Civil War casualties at Arlington.  The sailors were members of the crew of the famed Union ironclad USS Monitor.

     Designed by John Ericsson in June 1861, the Monitor was an armored ship with the first-ever rotating turret atop a hull that barely cleared the water. Its high-technology vibrating lever steam engine was groundbreaking technology as well. Ericsson hurried his ship’s completion, assembling it in 118 days at the naval yard in Brooklyn Navy Yard.

     Commissioned on February 25, 1862, the Monitor was assigned to the U.S. Navy support fleet off Hampton Roads, Virginia. The warship was then towed to Hampton Roads for its fateful encounter with the CSS Virginia, which had already destroyed two wooden Union Navy warships with negligible damage to the Confederate ironclad. On March 9, 1862, the Virginia and Monitor fought for four hours.  Though the confrontation ended in a draw, the Monitor prevented the Virginia from gaining control of Hampton Roads, preserving the Federal blockade of the Norfolk area.  Although both ships served only a matter of months, their brief service proved the viability of iron vessels and the demise of wooden warships.

     Damaged in the battle, the Monitor was repaired at the Navy Yard in Washington and returned to blockade duty. On her way back to the Brooklyn Navy Yard later that year, the Monitor sank in rough seas on December 31, 1862, off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Sixteen of her 62 crew were lost.  
     In August 1973, the wreck’s location was pinpointed.  In August 2002, raising the Monitor’s turret took the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
     Inside the turret, divers discovered the remains of two crewmen.  The remains of these sailors were removed to the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. The U.S. Navy undertook DNA testing, facial identity reconstruction, and a national campaign to locate any descendants.  Their identities remained elusive despite DNA comparison to living descendants of various crew members.
     On March 8, the remains of the two sailors were buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.  It had been 151 years to the day since the Monitor battled the Virginia to a standstill at Hampton Roads.  At the funeral service in the Fort Myer Memorial Chapel, author and Civil War historian James McPherson said, "The sailors on the USS Monitor lived up to the highest traditions of courage and sacrifice in the United States Navy. To a man, they were all volunteers for service on this experimental vessel of radical new design."
U.S. Navy sailors honor the remains of two USS Monitor shipmates at their final resting place at                          Arlington National Cemetery on March 8. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)
     Describing the ironclad’s final moments at sea, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus quoted from a letter written by William Keeler, one of the ship’s 46 survivors: "The heavy seas rolled over our bow, dashing against the pilot house, and, surging aft, would strike the solid turret with a force that would make it tremble…Words cannot depict the agony of those moments as our little company gathered on top of the turret…with a mass of sinking iron beneath us."
     While two of the sixteen sailors who died when the Monitor sank now rest at Arlington, the others will forever patrol the depths of the Atlantic.  A group marker memorializing all the sailors who perished will be placed over the unknown’s graves in Section 46 of the cemetery near the Tomb of the Unknowns amphitheater. 

William Allen, landsman
Norman Atwater, ensign
William Bryan, yeoman
Robert Cook, first cabin boy
William Egan, landsman
James Fenwick, seaman
George Frederickson, acting ensign
Robinson Hands, third assistant engineer
Robert Howard, officer’s cook
Thomas Joice, first class firemen
Samuel Lewis, third assistant engineer
George Littlefield, coal heaver
Daniel Moore, officer’s steward
Jacob Nicklis, ordinary seaman
Wells Wentz (aka John Stocking), boatswain’s mate
Robert Williams, first class fireman
For the moment, the graves of the Monitor unknowns are 
indicated by temporary markers. (Photo by author)

You can find video of the funeral at www.youtube.com

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