(ARLINGTON COUNTY, Va.) — Two unidentified sailors from the USS Monitor were buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery on the 151st anniversary of ironclad’s famous battle with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia. The descendants of the 16 sailors who perished aboard the ship when it sank in a New Year’s Eve storm in 1862 are grateful for the considerable interest in Friday’s interment.
A decade has gone by since the ship’s turret was raised from the ocean floor in the waters off Cape Hatteras in 2002. Efforts to identify the two sailors have proved unsuccessful so far, though it has been determined that they were Caucasians who stood about 5’7″ tall, one was in his late teens to early 20’s, the other in his 30’s.
Andrew Bryan from Maine told ABC News earlier Friday that the graveside ceremony would be an emotional event for him. His great grandfather William Bryan served as a yeoman on the Monitor when the ship sank. Based on Bryan’s age and stature it was believed he could be the older of the two sailors identified through forensic work.
The DNA results from samples Andrew Bryan provided to investigators, however, have proven inconclusive. But he is hopeful that a positive ID could be around the corner now that a female relative in Australia has agreed to provide a DNA sample, making a mitochondrial DNA match possible.
“He spent his life on the ocean so if he’s still there that’s fine, but if this is him I want him to be recognized,” said Bryan.
Bryan is gratified by all the attention the burial has generated and says this may be the last time the Monitor sailors are honored on the national stage, “but as for our family it’s a continuance … it helps keep the story going, there’s an interest to it, people will better understand the roots of our country.”
Another descendant has also been heartened by the interest the Monitor burial has generated. William Finlayson had two ancestors who served on the Monitor, one of whom was John L Worden, the Monitor’s first captain, who was injured in the battle with the Virginia. The other ancestor was Worden’s nephew who served as Worden’s aide.
Finlayson is also grateful. He says that you get a sense among the descendants of the 16 who perished that “you can only feel in your heart if you’re directly related to it by blood and to see so much interest and so many people turn up, it’s just incredible.”
Noted Civil War historian James McPherson called the recognition for sailors who fought for the Union long overdue as they deserve as much recognition as soldiers who died at Gettysburg. He pointed out that every sailor aboard the Monitor was a volunteer, just as every sailor in the Navy was at the time. However, he said they were undertaking a hazardous duty because of speculation at the time the ironclad was being put into service that it “would be a coffin for the crew and that it would sink, not float.”
He describes Friday’s burial as “our chance as a nation to pay our respects and say goodbye” the Monitor’s sailors. The attention is “fully deserved” and recalling Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he says, “they did pay their last full measure of devotion and in turn we ought to recognize and acknowledge that.”
The remaining 14 sailors who perished aboard the Monitor are likely contained aboard the rest of the ship’s wreckage which lies in waters 250 feet deep.
The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary contains about 85 percent of the ship’s structure.
David Alberg is the superintendent of the NOAA Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, which he describes as hallowed ground. “We treat it as a gravesite, it is hallowed ground. It is a place where tremendous sacrifice was made in defense of our country.” He says between 15 and 20 divers a year undertake the difficult dive to the ship’s wreckage and they all come back saying the same thing. “It’s history and they’re coming face to face with something that everybody learns about in history books.”
Alberg accompanied the remains Thursday as they were flown to D.C. He’s struck by the interest in their burial and thinks it’s a unifying event. He thought it was ironic that the sailors were fighting to preserve the union and that it was appropriate that their final trip took them over a country they had helped to create.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio