May 28

The Lost Men of the Monitor

Tuesday, May 28, 2019 12:01 AM


Each year on Memorial Day, we stop to remember the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives for this nation. This year we share a story over 150 years in the making from the May 2013 issue of Naval History.

More than 150 years after sinking, on 8 March 2013, thousands attended the interment at Arlington National Cemetery of two of the 16 officers and men who died on the USS Monitor. (Richard Latture)

After years of forensic and genealogical research, the remains of two Monitor sailors who went down with their ship more than a century and a half ago were laid to rest.

Early on 31 December 1862, the pride of the U.S. Navy, the Monitor, was about to die. For several hours, her crew fought to keep the ship afloat amid a foaming sea whipped by wind into waves that topped the Monitor’s solid iron decks and washed around her solitary turret. The seas struck the turret “with a force to make it tremble,” according to Paymaster William F. Keeler. Landsman Francis Butts, standing atop the structure, later wrote that the waves “would leap upon us and break far above the turret” with “a shock that would sometimes take us off our feet.”

The night of 30-31 December 1862, the ironclad Monitor foundered in heavy seas off Cape Hatteras. (NOAA)

Two days earlier the Monitor departed Hampton Roads, Virginia, under tow by the steamship Rhode Island, en route to Beaufort, North Carolina. By the evening of 30 December, the two ships were passing Cape Hatteras and heading into a storm. Overpowering the bilge pumps, the flooding steadily increased through the hours to cover the engine-room floor plates and inch toward the boiler fires.

Just after 2230, Commander John Bankhead, the Monitor’s captain, gave the order to hoist a red lantern to signal the ironclad’s distress to the Rhode Island. He also ordered the towline cut. Three men—Master Louis Stodder, Boatswain’s Mate Wells Wentz (who shipped under the alias John Stocking), and Quarter Gunner James Fenwick—fought their way forward through heavy seas to the bow with axes in hand. The waves swept Wentz and Fenwick into the sea, drowning them. Stodder, clinging to a lifeline, managed to sever the hawser and return to the turret.

With his vessel in danger of sinking, Bankhead ordered abandon ship, and Commander Stephen Trenchard had the Rhode Island’s first cutter and launch lowered to take off the Monitor’s men. While the steamer’s boats made their way across the water, men heroically struggling at the oars, the Monitor’s crew gathered in the turret to await rescue. Once the boats arrived, some men, racing across the flooded deck to board them, were pitched overboard. Paymaster Keeler noted later in a letter to his wife that he had heard through the wind and waves “the bubbling cry of some strong Swimmer in his agony” as officers shouted “hoarse orders through the speaking trumpets.”

The USS Monitor sinking. (NOAA)

Soon after 2330, the sea reached the fires inside the engine room, and the Monitor’s mighty iron heart slowed and stopped. As the ship heaved and rolled, Bankhead ordered the anchor dropped in an attempt to allow his vessel to ride more smoothly. Climbing into a boat that once again approached, Bankhead and more of the crew looked up to see “several men still left upon and in the turret who, either stupefied by fear or fearful of being washed overboard . . . would not come down.” After discharging his overloaded boat, Rhode Island Acting Master’s Mate D. Rodney Browne took half of his crew and rowed back for the last of the Monitor’s men. At about 0100 on 31 December, they arrived where she was last seen but found only an eddy on the surface.

The Monitor, filling with water, capsized, sinking by the stern as the heavy turret, held in place only by gravity, slipped off the deck, overturned, and sank. The crewmen who stayed on top were swept into the sea, but inside the turret, two men, perhaps struggling to climb the ladder to the top, were knocked off their feet. They fell onto the overturned roof as the massive Dahlgren guns, loose gear, and the cold sea followed, pinning them down. After the flooded structure hit the seabed, the Monitor’s hull followed, coming to rest atop the turret as tons of coal poured from the ship’s bunkers, sealing the two men in an iron tomb.

Discovery off Cape Hatteras

Navy divers begin excavating the upside down structure. (NOAA)

In August 1973, a team from Duke University Marine Laboratory, headed by John G. Newton, Robert E. Sheridan, Harold E. “Doc” Edgerton, and Gordon P. Watts Jr., on board the research vessel Eastward, succeeded in pinpointing the wreck in 235 feet of water 16 miles off Cape Hatteras Light.

The turret was the last major piece of the Monitor recovered, and raising it involved the combined efforts of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the Navy Supervisor of Salvage (SUPSALV), Naval Sea Systems Command, Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) TWO, Phoenix International Ltd., the Mariners’ Museum, Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock, and the U.S. Coast Guard. The 2002 expedition was led by Captain Chris Murray (SUPSALV) and Captain (Select) Bobbie Scholley (MDSU TWO). It included Sanctuary superintendent and archaeologist John D. Broadwater, who had been NOAA’s lead contact on the Monitor project since the wreck’s discovery.

The turret raised on 5 August 2002. (NOAA)

Inside a ‘Damp Tomb’

On 26 July, Senior Chief Wade Bingham uncovered a bone as he slowly removed silt from inside the turret. NOAA archaeologists, joined by archaeologist Eric Emery from the Honolulu laboratory of what is now the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), confirmed that the bone was human. Over the next few days, they carefully excavated and removed much of the skeleton, which was rusted into the roof of the turret, to allow the recovery work to continue.

While removing silt, one of the divers discovered a bone; a careful excavation by underwater archaeologists revealed the skeleton of one of the lost sailors. (NOAA)

At eye level, he saw the remaining skeletal remains of “a sailor who had not escaped. All sensations of the barge’s motion disappeared, along with all thoughts of the two people behind me, a flood of emotions and questions filled my head.”

An Intense Search for Information

Over the next decade, JPAC’s team of forensic scientists carefully analyzed the remains of the two men, designated as Monitor #1 and Monitor #2. Mitochondrial DNA was obtained from the remains, and a quest to find descendants of the 16 Monitor officers and men lost that December night began in order to try to obtain a DNA match. The skulls were carefully scanned with a three-dimensional laser, and casts were made to guide an eventual facial reconstruction. The remains were studied to determine the men’s race, age, height, and any injuries or diseases they had suffered during their lifetimes. Chemical analysis of their bones indicated both men were likely European immigrants. They were Caucasians, Monitor #1 between the ages of 17 and 24, and Monitor #2 between the ages of 30 and 40. The older man had suffered injuries in his lifetime, including a broken nose.

The facial reconstruction of two sailors whose remains were discovered inside the gun turret of the USS Monitor revealed during a ceremony sponsored by the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation. (U.S. Navy Class Gina K. Morrissette)

At the same time as the forensic work took place, genealogists and historians from NOAA and the Mariners’ Museum, as well as dedicated volunteers, scoured archives and contacted descendants of the ironclad’s crew to learn more about all of the sailors, and especially the lost 16.

The unveiling of the two faces in a tangible way helped reconnect Americans with the fact that these two men were more than a pair of remains in a laboratory; they were once alive. Moreover, they were members of a shipboard family, the Monitor’s crew, who had served, fought, and died with their ship.

Final Resting Place

NOAA, and particularly Director of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Daniel J. Basta, and Navy reservist and Superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary David W. Alberg, firmly believed that these two sailors deserved to be honored with burial at Arlington National Cemetery. In early 2013, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus concurred and ordered the men to be interred at Arlington in time for the 151st anniversary of the MonitorVirginia fight.

Members of the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard escort the remains of two sailors recovered from the ironclad USS Monitor during a military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. (U.S. Navy Todd Frantom)

Alberg joined the military escort that met in Honolulu to escort the Monitor sailors to Arlington. Carefully wrapped, and with freshly pressed enlisted dress blues of the World War II–era Navy laid inside their caskets, the two sailors flew in the hold of a Delta commercial flight from Honolulu to Atlanta and then to Dulles International Airport, outside Washington. On 8 March, the anniversary of the Monitor’s entry into Hampton Roads the evening before her fight with the Virginia, descendants of the Union ironclad’s crew gathered for a lunch and later, along with hundreds of servicemen, dignitaries, and members of the public, attended a funeral service at Fort Myer Memorial Chapel.

Loaded onto horse-drawn caissons, the flag-draped caskets then slowly rolled through Arlington National Cemetery to the grave site, close to the resting place of men lost when the battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. Before a crowd of thousands, the formal burial ceremony began as the sun sank low in the sky on a cold, blustery day. With a crack of 21 rifles and the sounding of “Taps,” the two sailors, perhaps the last Civil War naval dead our country will ever inter, were laid to rest.

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