“Never leave your comrade behind!” A serviceperson’s creed with no statute of limitation.
After Over a Century at Sea, 2 Sailors Are Laid to Rest
ARLINGTON, Va. — Older women in hoop skirts and petticoats came together with youthful sailors in their dress blues for a rare public double interment at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday.
After a chapel service that included remarks by the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, more than 500 people, including regiments of Civil War re-enactors and teenagers in camouflage-patterned pants, watched as the coffins, carried by horse-drawn wagon, were prepared for burial by a 76-member ceremonial guard.
The dead were two unidentified sailors from the ironclad warship Monitor, buried with full military honors 150 years after their ship sank during a storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C.
“This may well be the last time we bury Navy personnel who fought in the Civil War at Arlington,” Mr. Mabus said. “But we do not hesitate to keep faith and to honor this tradition, even more than 150 years after the promise was made.”
The flags over the sailors’ coffins had 50 stars, not the 34 they fought under. And their bones, a Navy official said, were covered with contemporary dress blues.
The funeral was inspired by an enduring fascination with the sunken ironclad, which is credited with helping save the Union in the Civil War, as well as the military’s pledge to leave no one behind.
It was also a reminder that family ties, however tenuous, are reinforced as much by narrative as by science.
“I’ve had relatives who served in World War I, World War II,” said Pete Gullo, a descendent of Jacob Nicklis, whose body may have been one of those interred. “For some reason — and it shouldn’t be, because he’s farther back in time — it’s almost like a more direct connection.”
Of the 16 men who went down with the Monitor on Dec. 31, 1862, researchers have narrowed the identities of the two sailors to six possibilities. While there are no conclusive DNA matches with their descendants, forensic researchers are convinced that they will eventually find these men’s stories in their bones.
Getting to know the six has helped some descendants feel a deeper sense of the sacrifice. Mr. Gullo, 47, has never served in the military, but he has thought about how Mr. Nicklis might have felt, drowning in the ship’s turret.
“What was it like to suffer through that kind of very physical event?” he said.
The Monitor was a technological marvel that took the sailing — and in many ways, the sailor — out of sea warfare. It survived the world’s first battle between two ironclads, fending off a much larger Rebel warship that threatened to destroy much of the Union fleet. But the Monitor’s glory was short-lived.
“It’s the irony of the ship that saved the Union,” said David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. “Ten months later, it was lost in a storm.”
In early 1862, the 62 or 63 crew members knew they were signing up for an experiment that the whole Union was watching, volunteering to be submerged astronauts in a 19th-century arms race. John Ericsson’s design was unlike the wooden steamships and sailboats of the day, and only about two feet of the deck was above the water line.
Compared with the 44-gun frigates that were dominant, the Monitor was small, less than 180 feet long. It had only two guns, though with an innovation still used today: the turret rotated. The South’s ironclad, the Virginia, was a Frankenstein — the salvaged hull of a destroyed Union ship, the Merrimack, 270 feet long with 10 guns.
By the time the Monitor left Brooklyn and arrived in Hampton Roads in 1862, the Virginia had already destroyed two Union frigates. The clash between the ironclads, on March 9, 1862, was deemed a draw, but the nimble Monitor successfully stopped the Confederate naval advance.
“For the Union, she was a symbol of American ingenuity,” said Anna Holloway, the curator of the U.S.S. Monitor Center at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va.
For much of history, the Monitor’s significance has overshadowed those who lived and died on it. “It’s this real abstract notion,” Ms. Holloway said, “and that’s compounded by the fact that most of the imagery of the battle doesn’t show people.”
Researchers from Duke University first found the wreck in 1973, but it was not until 2002 that the turret was excavated and the skeletons were recovered. Through more than a decade of forensic and genealogical research, a sense of the sailors is beginning to emerge.
“For years working on this project, the challenges were technical, and it was very much an engineering challenge, an archaeological challenge,” Mr. Alberg said, “and suddenly it became very personal.”
The remains were flown to the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, where researchers extracted DNA samples and made other determinations about the men: the younger one smoked a pipe and had some teeth missing, and the older one may have had legs that were different lengths.
Based on genetics and artifacts found with the men, researchers narrowed their focus to six of the white enlisted men. The crew also included three free blacks.
A genealogist found papers showing that Robert Williams, who might be the older sailor, emigrated from Wales, had “swarthy” skin, suffered from syphilis and might have witnessed a murder on another boat. The other possibility, William Bryan, had a brother who died for the Confederacy.
Based on the genealogist’s findings, potential descendents were asked to contribute swabs of their saliva for DNA testing.
When that trail ran cold, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the Monitor sanctuary, asked Louisiana State University scientists to reconstruct the sailors’ faces, in an effort to “shake some family trees,” as Mr. Alberg put it. (Researchers acknowledged that the results might fail to capture their true essences because of the lack of bushy facial hair.)
“Naval tradition holds that the site of a sunken vessel is a sacred burial ground, and that sailors who go down with their ships belong together,” Mr. Mabus said. But since the bodies were recovered during the excavation, he said, it was fitting that they be buried at Arlington.
Military officials said they would go to similar lengths to identify and honor any service member, fulfilling a commitment that dates to the Korean War.
“Across the ages, even across the centuries, you have that military bond where they want to go back and bring them all back,” said Michael Sledge, author of “Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury, and Honor Our Military Fallen.”
“The military idea is an enhanced family idea,” Mr. Sledge said, “a family whose ties are, in some cases, stronger than the family itself.”
But the Navy was also committed to bringing family members to the burial. It spent more than $25,000 to cover travel costs for about 200 descendants of Monitor sailors to attend the ceremony.