Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus
Remarks as Prepared
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the family members who made a special trip to join us. As the families of USS Monitor’s crew you know, as all Sailors know, that the crew of a warship is a lot like an extended family. We thank you for being with us today to help us honor the two Sailors we inter today, and the 14 others who perished so long ago aboard the Monitor.
But in a larger sense, this ceremony also honors every individual who ever put to sea in defense of our country. From the Marblehead men who rowed Washington across the Delaware, to these brave souls, to those who serve today in nuclear-powered carriers and submarines, Sailors have always been the same; they are at heart risk-takers—willing, even eager, to brave the unknown to peer past distant horizons.
It is fitting that we hold this ceremony today on the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, where the Monitor engaged the Virginia for control of the James River and Southern Chesapeake Bay. Though the outcome that day was a draw, the battle enshrined each ship in naval immortality. As our guest James McPherson wrote in his book War on the Waters, “Naval warfare would never again be the same after history’s first battle between ironclads.”
Nine months later, Monitor ended her short, storied career. South of Cape Hatteras, in the area known as the graveyard of the Atlantic, Monitor and USS Rhode Island were swept up in a perilous winter gale. As the night of December 30, 1862, progressed and the storm worsened, Monitor began to take on water. As her pumps failed the 62-man crew decided it was time to abandon ship. William Keeler, one of the 46 survivors, wrote to his wife once safely ashore saying, “The heavy seas rolled over our bow, dashing against the pilot house, and, surging aft, [and] would strike the solid turret with a force that would make it tremble . . . Words cannot depict the agony of those moments as our little company gathered on top of the turret . . . with a mass of sinking iron beneath us.” Crews from Rhode Island ventured into the storm in their lifeboats to save the men of Monitor, Sailors struggling to save other Sailors. At one o’clock in the morning, in the pouring rain and pitch black darkness, Monitor slipped below the raging seas. Sixteen men went with her.
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. But eleven years ago, when a team from the U.S. Navy, NOAA, and the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News raised the turret of USS Monitor from the depths, they were surprised to the remains of two crew members. We began the process to try and identify these men, but too much time had passed to match these two Sailors to their names.
However, having raised their remains, we brought them here, to the national military cemetery founded during the same great conflict for which they gave, in President Lincoln’s words, their “last full measure of devotion,” to provide these two Sailors with a final resting place.
This may well be the last time we bury Navy personnel who fought in the Civil War at Arlington. But we do not hesitate to keep faith and to honor this tradition, even more than 150 years after the promise was made. Our nation honors our fallen Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen because we do not want their sacrifice, however distant, to be unremembered. We are joined, as Lincoln again reminded us, by “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone.”
In a coincidence of history, today also marks the 124th anniversary of the death of Monitor’s designer, Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson. The Monitor was a brand new type of ship, all steel construction; with heavy armor, heavy guns in a rotating turret, a deck barely above the waterline and screw propeller. Ericsson’s design was yet another example of American naval innovation, from Joshua Humphrey’s Fast Frigates, to the Monitor, to the ships of today, the most complex platforms the world has ever known. As it was in Ericsson’s time, so has it always been in the Navy: pioneering new materials, revolutionary weapons, innovative means of propulsion, creating a technological edge we maintain to this day.
On, above, and below the sea, our United States Sailors have always braved great danger. In times of peace, as in times of war, it is a dangerous profession. Today is a tribute to all the men and women of the sea, but especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, and an opportunity to once again pay our respects and offer our somber and deeply held gratitude for that sacrifice.
For those of you who were unable to attend the ceremony, CHINFO has released a short video of the Chapel Ceremony. You can view it on Youtube or stream it here on this blog:
Interview with Lee Duckworth, HRNM Director of Education:
A special thanks to LT Lauryn Dempsey and CHINFO for coordinating the news media/PR for this event.