Saturday, March 9, 2013

USS Monitor Sailors Laid to Rest at Arlington National Cemetery

30308-N-AC887-002 ARLINGTON (March 8, 2013) One of two Sailors recovered from the ironclad USS Monitor is escorted by Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Nathaniel Crow, a member of the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard, during a funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery. Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 1862. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers/Released)

"O hear us when we cry to thee,
for those in peril on the sea."
       - Naval Hymn "Eternal Father"

The weather was cold and dreary, but spirits were high.  Amidst the machine-gun snapping of photographers, two of the "Monitor Boys" were laid to rest yesterday.  Family members of Monitor sailors sat solemnly in front of the caskets as the burial detail gave the men full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.  It was a fitting conclusion to a story heard by countless people around the world.  Staff members of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum/Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial and the Naval History and Heritage Command were in Arlington yesterday to take part in the events surrounding the burial of these brave men who went down with their ship over 150 years ago.

My day began when I left for Arlington at 8:30am.  Hoping for little traffic ahead of me, I put on Titus Andronicus' album, "The Monitor," to get in the mood for the day's events.  If the coffee didn't wake me up, Titus Andronicus front man Patrick Stickles' lo-fi growls did.  I thought about what the sailors of CSS Virginia and USS Cumberland/Congress/Minnesota thought when the early morning sun filled their eyes 151 years ago.  What did those eyes see when the day ended?  That clear day in March would become the worst naval disaster the U.S. Navy would see until the attack at Pearl Harbor.  With such a staggering loss of life, the U.S. Navy needed something to stand up to the Confederate leviathan.  Luckily, the next day brought USS Monitor and the dawn of modern naval warfare.

During the trek up to Washington, I received several emails from the Command PAO about an opportunity for HRNM staff to participate in the U.S. Navy's first ever Google+ Hangout.  Naturally, I accepted.  Looking at my car's clock just outside of Richmond, it was 10:30am.  I could make it.   Let the traffic gods be merciful on me today, even if it I was heading towards the "lion's den" of vehicular congestion.

Google+ Hangout Session at Fort Myer 
I arrived at Fort Myer at 12:30pm, just in time to meet with CHINFO at the Community Center for the broadcast.  At 2:00 pm we went live.  The +Hangout included staff members and representatives from HRNM, Naval History and Heritage Command, JPAC, Arlington National Cemetery, and NOAAThe Google+ Hangout lasted for 52 Minutes.   Topics ranged from the history of the ship to the efforts to identify the two unknown sailors buried inside the turret.  There were several interesting viewer questions during the session, which I am grateful for.  It is always a magical thing to see the memory of the Monitor alive and thriving 151 years later.  For the full Google+ Hangout Session, go HERE.

A very special thanks to Sandy Gall at CHINFO and Junior at Google for making the event possible.

Ceremony Invitation and Program
The chapel service began at 4:00pm.  Over 200 were in attendance for the ceremony, including members of the U.S. Navy and the descendants of Monitor sailors.  Special guest speakers at the ceremony included Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Kathryn Sullivan, and award-winning author James McPherson.

The ceremony was both somber and reflective.  Church organs bellowed "Amazing Grace" and the Naval Hymn, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save."  In the corner of my eye, I could see some family members wiping tears from their eyes.  It was a funeral service after all, even if those being interred died more than a century ago.  To the family members present, the two men just feet in front of them could be the missing branch on their family tree.  Even with the help of modern scientific technology, it is too early to tell who exactly these men were.

SECNAV Mabus speaks at the Chapel Ceremony (U.S. Navy photo) 
Guest speakers spoke for approximately five minutes.  Each reflected on the loss of Monitor and its legacy in the annals of naval history.  SECNAV Mabus opened the talks, highlighting the history and heritage of these men:
"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." - The Honorable Ray Mabus
As the ceremony concluded, guests filed behind the funeral cassions to make the quarter mile trek from the chapel to their final resting place, nestled between the mast of the Maine and the memorial to the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger.

Unfortunately, I could not get a clear view of the proceedings of the burial.  The wind was blowing quite hard at this point.  The Chaplain's words flickered in and out of earshot.  What was heard were words of peace and hope. Words of love and devotion to one's country; concepts not lost on today's modern Navy.

Standing around me were many of the men and women who helped make this event possible.  A "who's who" of naval history and maritime archaeology flanked my periphery.  I could see a calmness and intensity in their eyes as the sailors eloquently folded the United States flag to a hushed crowd of hundreds.  As soon as it came, the ceremony was over.    

Mariners' Museum VP of Museum Collections Anna Holloway was one such individual who played a huge role in bringing those men to Arlington.  Looking away from the ceremony, Holloway smiled with satisfaction.  "We did it," she said, smiling with delight.  Her words likely reflected the sentiment of many there standing in our nation's most hallowed ground.  For our good friends at the Mariners' Museum and USS Monitor Marine Sanctuary, yesterday marks a triumphant end to over a decade of hard work.

It was not only the Battle OF Hampton Roads, it was also a Battle FOR Hampton Roads.  For the security of our nation.  For the preservation of the Union and the thousands of men who gave the ultimate price to protect it.  The Monitor stands as a symbol of honor, courage, and commitment resonating still today.  Their final measure of devotion was honored gloriously.  

I was happy to be there and take part in the event.  It was truly a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget.

As Chaplin Glore stated in the closing remarks of the chapel ceremony, the event gives "new energy to the past and present" history of Monitor and the men that fought beneath her iron decks and rotating turret.

Rest easy, Monitor Boys.  Your voyage is finally over.

Relevant Links to Yesterday's Ceremony: News Story
CBS News Story on USS Monitor
Washington Post (Excellent Photo Gallery)
Baltimore Sun
USS Monitor Twitter Stream

NHHC Documents on the Battle of Hampton Roads


  1. As the great-granddaughter of Alexander Leslie Bower of the USS Mendota (1864-65) I am so glad these men were honored for their sacrifice.

  2. Hey Matt, nice post. Thanks for giving us an eyewitness-overview of the event. I knew this was happening, and caught the NPR coverage, but I really liked this "man on site" coverage.

  3. Life becomes meaningful if you earn respect while dying. These sailors proved their chivalry before they were laid to rest.