Every sailor in the Navy was a volunteer at the time. McPherson said the sailors aboard the Monitor knew they had a hazardous assignment. In an age of wooden ships, people were afraid the Monitor "would be a coffin for the crew, and that it would sink, not float."
He described Friday's burial as "our chance as a nation to pay our respects and say goodbye" to the Monitor's sailors.
Recalling the language of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, he said, "They did pay their last full measure of devotion and in turn we ought to recognize and acknowledge that."
The remains of the 14 other sailors who perished aboard the Monitor may be contained in the ship's wreckage, too large and fragile to be raised from the ocean floor, 250 feet deep.
The wreck site is now designated as the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary,. It is believed that 85 percent of the ship's structure is located at the site.
David Alberg, the sanctuary's supervisor, called the location hallowed ground. "We treat it as a gravesite," he said. "It is a place where tremendous sacrifice was made in defense of our country."
On Thursday, Alberg accompanied the sailors' remains as they made the final trip from the military's forensics lab in Hawaii to their final resting place.
He said the interest and respect afforded the remains on their final trip tell him Friday's burial is a unifying event. He thought it was appropriate that for their final journey the two unidentified sailors who served to preserve the Union flew across a country "at 30,000 feet, seeing coast-to-coast the nation they helped create."