March 8, 2013 -- Two unidentified sailors from the Civil War's iconic USS Monitor were buried with full military honors Friday at Arlington National Cemetery, 151 years to the day after the ironclad's famous battle with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia.
A crowd of several hundred spectators, several dressed in Civil War garb, gathered to witness the interment. The flag-draped caskets containing the remains of the two sailors were brought on horse-drawn caissons accompanied by a full Navy Ceremonial Guard and a Navy band.
At the gravesite a Navy chaplain said a prayer over the two caskets and the brief ceremony concluded with the firing of thee rifle volleys and a bugler playing Taps.
Among those who attended were several dozen descendants of the 16 sailors who perished when the sank in a New Year's Eve storm in 1862. Once the service concluded, several stood to give the caskets one last touch, a final goodbye to two sailors who may have been their ancestors.
Sitting in the front row was Andrew Bryan of Holden, Maine. He has said he has a strong suspicion that one of the two sailors buried today is his great grandfather, William Bryan, who served as a yeoman on the ship.
In the decade that has gone by since the ship's turret was raised from the ocean floor off Cape Hatteras, efforts to identify the two sailors have proved unsuccessful. Enough forensic work has been done, however, to determine that they were both Caucasians who stood about five-foot-seven. One was in his late teens to early 20s, the other in his 30s.
Based on William Bryan's age and stature it is believed he could be the older of the two sailors, though only a DNA match could make that a certainty. William Bryan's family was living proof that the Civil War pitched brother fighting brother; one of his brothers died fighting for the Confederacy.
The results from DNA samples Andrew Bryan provided to investigators proved inconclusive. But he said he is hopeful that a positive ID could be around the corner. A female relative in Australia has agreed to provide a DNA sample, making a mitochondrial DNA match possible.
"He spent his life on the ocean, so if he's still there that's fine, but if this is him I want him to be recognized," said Bryan.
Bryan said he is gratified by all the attention the burial has generated. It may fade now, he said, "but as for our family it's a continuance ... it helps keep the story going, there's an interest to it, people will better understand the roots of our country."
Another descendant has been heartened by the interest the Monitor burial has generated. William Finlayson had two ancestors who served on the Monitor. One was the ship's first captain, John L. Worden, who was injured in the battle with the Virginia; and his nephew, who served as his aide on the ship. Neither was on the ship at the time that it sank
Finlayson said the level of interest surrounding the burial has been "just incredible" but he said he and other descendants are excited by something "you can only feel in your heart if you're directly related to it by blood."
Civil War historian James McPherson called the recognition for the sailors was "fully deserved". He said he believes Union sailors deserve as much recognition as the soldiers who died at the Battle of Gettysburg.
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."