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The Civil War Ironclad Monitor’s Unknown Sailors Are Remembered and Honored at Arlington

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While the guns of the USS Monitor went quiet 151 years ago, the final rifle volleys fired into the brisk evening air this March brought her back to life for just a brief moment in time.   Crafted for a war fought over slavery, the Monitor – a first of her type – an ironclad – revolutionized the fighting vessels of not only the American Navy but navies around the world.  For as quickly as she went into service in the Union Navy in the opening months of the Civil War, she made an immediate impact in early March 1862 in the Battle of Hampton Roads.  Battling to a notable draw against the Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia (the former steam frigate USS Merrimack, which had been seized and renamed by the Confederate Navy), the Monitor became one of the most talked about technologies of the era.  Sadly, as quickly as her notable service began, it swiftly and tragically ended off of the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., when she was swallowed by stormy waters on New Year’s Eve, 1862.  Of her crew of sixty-two men, sixteen would be lost, with the rest being saved by rescue boats from the nearby ship Rhode Island.

It was those sixteen Monitor sailors that would be remembered and saluted on one of the highest points overlooking the nation’s capital.  The sea that had once swallowed the Monitor whole had yielded back two of the lost sixteen when the warship’s gun turret was raised to the surface by NOAA and U.S. Navy divers in 2002.   Those two unknown Union sailors would represent their lost shipmates as they took their final rest at Arlington National Cemetery on a chilly March afternoon.  Surrounding them this particular day – exactly 151 years to the day from when her guns fired on Confederate positions in Hampton Roads , were persons they may have recognized by their garb as well as their conversation.  With woolen uniforms of navy blue and even some Confederate gray mingled amongst the crowd of several hundred, Civil War reenactors stood alongside civilian leaders, U.S. Navy officers and sailors, and other curious onlookers to offer final tribute to sacrifices now only remembered in history books.  With bowed heads surrounding him, the presiding Navy chaplain offered words of praise for the lost sailors as well as reassurance to those present that every effort, no matter how hard or how long, will be taken to bring those in their nation’s service back to where they belong – home.

Monitor sailors

In this undated photograph provided by Naval History and Heritage Command the crew of USS Monitor relax just outside of its turret. The Brooklyn-built Monitor made nautical history after being designed and assembled in 118 days, and then commissioned Feb. 25, 1862. Monitor fought in the Battle of Hampton Roads March 9, 1862 against CSS Virginia. It was the first battle between two ironclads and signaled the end of the era of wooden ships. U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command

In observing this scene with my two sons, I could not help but be struck by those that were assembled at this most unique event.  For as comforting as it was to have the Civil War reenactors there to see two of their own kindred brethren joined to the garden of heroes that is Arlington, it was the faces of the attending sailors that stood out strongest for me.  The two men being interred this day – one estimated to be in his early twenties, the other in his mid-thirties when they died, like their other fourteen colleagues might have easily fallen into the straight lines of sailors standing at attention on a late afternoon.  They surely would have recognized some of the barked orders coming from a superior officer.  For as much as they may have recognized the shouts and replies, they easily would have been awe of those standing shoulder to shoulder with them.  Instead of the bearded, pipe smoking sailors that are captured in archive photos of the Monitor crew from the Library of Congress archive, cleanly shaven, taller and far more muscular sailors would be their compatriots.  Furthermore the color of their faces and skin would also be dramatically different.  A sea of purely white faces and skin is no longer the norm of the American Navy as it was when they served more than a century ago.  Even the gender make up the service has changed, as evidenced by the addition of female sailors, enlisted and officer, that were there to pay their respects to the fallen Monitor crewmen. Progress truly was on display in color, size and gender this chilly afternoon.

While the era in which these sailors fought and died has been dramatically changed by time, technology and social evolution, the ritual by which they were honored maintains its hallowed traditions.  From the muffled cadence of drums to keep marchers in time, the clacking of the horses’ hooves that bring funeral caissons to their final stop, and the snapping of the American flag in the wind to the final salute and playing of “Taps” by a lone bugler, the precision and words of each moment and action reinforced the unofficial Navy motto of “strength and honor” without the words ever being spoken aloud by anyone.

Such was the scene on a windy Virginia hilltop.  The Monitor crew had been remembered in a way far more fitting than the footnote in American naval history that they had previously been.  They now rested near the mast of the Maine, the Tomb of the Unknowns and the graves of astronauts and other military personnel whose own pages in American history were made possible by the Monitor’s service, and that of their forebears from every service branch and era.

History is never as serene, quiet or calm as the garden of stone that Arlington unfolds to those who visit.  Violence, tragedy and the cycle of life are what ultimately bring its permanent residents, but in witnessing the moment when Arlington literally opened up its grounds to make these two unknown and her lost crew of the Monitor part of its permanent landscape, is an honor that I will never forget.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...