On Friday two sailors who went down with the American Civil War ironclad USS Monitor 150 years ago were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. The sailors’ skeletons were found inside the vessel’s turret, which was discovered on the floor of the Atlantic in 1973 and was raised in 2002. Descendants of those sailors who perished in the sinking attended the burial.
The Monitor is perhaps the most famous vessel of the Civil War. A Swedish-born inventor, John Ericsson, designed it just after the war broke out in 1861. The U.S. government wanted a steam vessel made of iron that could compete with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (known as the wooden frigate USS Merrimack before the war). The most distinguishing feature of the Monitor, aside from its iron hull, was the revolving gun turret. This allowed the ship to fire its guns in any direction, regardless of its position. The turret was frequently referred to as a giant “cheesebox” due to its odd cylindrical shape and eight-layered, bolted plates. It mounted two 15-inch Dahlgren guns, each weighing 16,000 pounds (7,300 kilograms).
On March 9, 1862 at Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Monitor clashed with her nemesis the Virginia in the most famous naval conflict in U.S. history. It was the first-ever engagement between two steam-powered iron ships and it ushered in a new era of naval warfare. The battle itself was a draw, although the Monitor was successful in defending the federal stronghold at Hampton Roads. She later participated in the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on the James River.
In December 1862 the Monitor was being towed to Beaufort, North Carolina by the USS Rhode Island in preparation to an attack on Wilmington, NC. On the 30th a gale struck about 16 nautical miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Cape Hatteras. Sixteen of the 62-member crew drowned during the vessel’s sinking, including the two unidentified sailors in the turret. (Note: a rescue party of the Rhode Island later found shelter onboard the supply hulk USS William Badger…please click the “Blubber Book” tab for info regarding my biography of the Badger).
The identity of the two sailors is as yet unknown. Forensic evidence reveals that both were Caucasians, about 5-foot-7-inches tall, with one sailor in his late teens or early 20s and the other in his 30s. DNA tests of the remains are ongoing.
Acclaimed Civil War historian James McPherson believes that Union sailors deserve to be honored as much as the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. Most were volunteers, and those who served on ironclads knew that, unlike wooden ships, their vessels would immediately sink once enough water broke through the hulls. They knew that such a vessel could be “a coffin for the crew.”