RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The remains of two unknown Union sailors recovered from the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor will be interred in Arlington National Cemetery on March 8, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said Tuesday.
"These may very well be the last Navy personnel from the Civil War to be buried at Arlington," Mabus said in a statement. "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."
The two skeletons and the tattered remains of their uniforms were discovered in the rusted hulk of the Union Civil War ironclad in 2002 when its 150-ton turret was raised from the ocean floor off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Conservators of the wreck had a forensic reconstruction done on the two men's faces in the longshot bid that someone could identify the sailors who went down with the Monitor 150 years ago.
As a result, some families whose ancestors had served on the Monitor came forward, but DNA testing did not produce a match, said David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor sanctuary. While efforts to identify to the two continue, he said, "Let's lay the men to rest."
Alberg has pushed for the Arlington honors. So have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Maritime Heritage Program and descendants of the surviving Monitor crewmembers.
"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."
The Brooklyn-made Monitor made nautical history, fighting in the first battle between two ironclads in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862. The Monitor's confrontation with the CSS Virginia ended in a draw. The Virginia, built on the carcass of the U.S. Navy frigate USS Merrimack, was the Confederate answer to the Union's ironclad ships.
The Monitor sank about nine months later in rough seas southeast of Cape Hatteras while it was under tow by the USS Rhode Island. Sixteen of the Monitor's crew members died. The crew of the Rhode Island was able to rescue about 50 survivors.
The wreck was discovered in 1973 and designated the first national marine sanctuary in 1975. The turret is now on display at the USS Monitor Center of The Mariners' Museum in Newport News.
"It has long been our wish at The Mariners' Museum to see these two men buried in Arlington," said Anna Holloway, curator of the center. "We are thrilled to know that these two heroes of the Monitor will be honored in this way."
Some the Union sailors aboard the Monitor fell into the sea and died, and some remain within the crumbling hull still on the ocean floor. The remains found in the turret probably reflect the desperate attempts of two crewmembers to abandon the ship before it sank.
Alberg said it's important to remember the other men who went down with the Monitor and remain at sea. "The wreck of the USS Monitor serves as their grave and we should not forget them," he said.
As for the interment of the two unknown sailors, he said it's a "very powerful" message.
"Whether it's two weeks ago in Afghanistan or 150 years ago off the coast of North Carolina, the Navy and the nation take care of their own."
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap
The USS Monitor Center at The Mariners' Museum: http://www.marinersmuseum.org/uss-monitor-center/uss-monitor-center