Members of a Virginia family whose ancestors fought against each other in the American Civil War will be among the thousands to gather Friday in Arlington, Virginia for somber ceremonies honoring sailors lost when one of history’s most innovative warships, the USS Monitor, sank in 1862.
The observance will include a funeral service for two unknown sailors who died when the Monitor went down off the coast of North Carolina. The sailors’ remains, recovered when part of the iconic warship was raised in 2002, will be buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Monitor was the U.S. Navy’s first ironclad warship, marking a turning point in military history.
Michael Luchs, an assistant professor at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia who will attend the ceremony with his three sons, said the realization that he is descended from brothers who were on opposing sides during the bloody conflict makes him feel “more wholly American.”
Luchs’s ancestor, James Bryan of Savannah, Georgia, served in the Confederate Army. James Bryan’s brother, William Bryan, was a crewman aboard the Monitor.
William Bryan was one of 16 sailors lost when the ship sank on December 31, 1862.
Luchs recalled hearing his mother talk about his family’s involvement in the Civil War when he was a child. “I’m feeling a whole bunch of different emotions, and sadness is one of them,” Luchs said.
Luchs’s son Matthew, a fourth-grader in Williamsburg, said that it’s “strange to know that brothers fought each other” in the Civil War. “I’d like to know some of the reasons, find out why they fought each other.”
The Monitor’s 63-member crew reflected the melting pot of immigrants and cultures that had found their way to the United States by the mid-19th century. The crew included sailors born in Wales and Scotland, as well as African-Americans who were former slaves.
Noel Day, a landscape designer who lives in Long Beach, California, is descended from Daniel Moore, a former slave on a plantation in Prince William County, Virginia. Moore was one of two African-American sailors lost when theMonitor sank.
Day can’t attend the Friday ceremony but says he’s glad the unknown sailors are being buried with honors.
“I am very happy that we have a closure for these men,” he said. “The remains of the two men that have been found represent all sailors that died that night. This is a way of honoring all 16 of them.”
Day also is glad that the presence of African-American sailors on the Monitorhas been recognized. “I think it’s been overlooked for so long,” he said. “I grew up learning about the Monitor in school, and I had no idea there were African-Americans on board.”
When the war began in April 1861, Union military leaders were uncertain about allowing African-American men to serve in the Army and Navy. But as more former slaves fled from the South and sought to join the fight against the Confederacy, Union leaders warmed to the idea.
In July 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles opened the Navy to African-American men, and the number of blacks in the military grew as the war progressed.
The ceremony honoring the Monitor crew is being held on the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads. That epic naval slugfest, fought on March 8 and 9, 1862, marked history’s first battle between ironclad warships.
The meeting technically was a draw, since both the Monitor and its Confederate opponent, the ironclad CSS Virginia, were still afloat after hours of pounding each other with heavy cannon fire.
Still, the Monitor prevented the Virginia from breaking the Union naval blockade, which was seriously hampering the Confederacy’s ability to wage war. Had theMonitor failed to stop the Virginia, the blockade would have been broken and the course of the war could have been changed.
The Monitor was the creation of Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson. The ship was crammed with cutting-edge 19th-century technology, including a rotating turret housing the ship’s two powerful guns and a cleverly designed steam engine that could operate in the cramped quarters of the small warship.
The ship also rode very low in the water, earning the nickname “cheese-box on a raft” because of its unusual appearance.
Union military leaders knew in late 1861 that the Confederate Navy was building a powerful ironclad in Norfolk, Virginia. The Monitor was rushed to completion at Brooklyn Navy Yard and sailed for Hampton Roads in early March 1862.
Shortly after nightfall on March 8, the Monitor arrived at Hampton Roads, where the Virginia had destroyed two wooden Union warships before withdrawing because of darkness and the falling tide. When the Virginia returned the following morning, intent on destroying the rest of the Union fleet, the Monitorconfronted the Confederate warship, forever changing the course of naval warfare.
Unable to destroy the Monitor, the Virginia returned to Norfolk. Confederates destroyed the ironclad a few months later to prevent its capture by Union forces.
An Enduring Legacy
The Monitor remained at Hampton Roads until December 1862, when Union commanders decided to move it to Beaufort, North Carolina. But the Monitor and the USS Rhode Island, which was towing the ironclad, were caught in a winter storm off Cape Hatteras on December 30.
The Rhode Island rescued 47 members of the Monitor‘s crew, but 16 unlucky sailors couldn’t get out before the Monitor was swamped and sank in the early morning hours of New Year’s Eve.
Although the Monitor‘s service career was brief, its impact was permanent. Soon after Hampton Roads, the world’s navies were building warships of iron and steel.
Michael Luchs’s son Andrew, a seventh-grader in Williamsburg, has seen a full-size replica of the Monitor at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, where theMonitor‘s turret, engine and other artifacts are undergoing a painstaking conservation process. He thinks the Monitor‘s innovative design “looks like some stealth craft made today.”
“I thought it almost looks modern,” Andrew Luchs said. “Whoever came up with this is pretty imaginative.’”
Part of the Monitor‘s wreckage still lies on the ocean floor, where it settled a century-and-a-half ago. Howard Lowell, a credit union officer in Freeport, Maine who’s descended from Monitor commander John Worden, wonders if moreMonitor artifacts could be recovered.
“I hope the burial of the remains sparks more interest in the Monitor,” Lowell said. “An assessment of the wreckage ought to be made. If any remaining parts of the ship should be saved, then we need to move forward and raise funds and get it done.”
The burial has sparked new interest in Matthew Luchs, the fourth-grader. “As I get older,” he said, “I might like to do research about the Monitor and the Civil War and other things that happened.”