Two Navy sailors slated for heroes’ burials at Arlington National Cemetery have waited a century and a half for the honor.
The men were among the crew members who perished aboard the legendary Union battleship the USS Monitor, which fought an epic Civil War battle with Confederate vessel The Merrimack in the first battle between two ironclad ships in the Battle of Hampton Roads, on March 9, 1862.
Nine months later, the Monitor sank in rough seas off of Cape Hatteras, where it was discovered in 1973. Two skeletons and the tattered remains of their uniforms were discovered in the rusted hulk of the Union ironclad in 2002, when its 150-ton turret was brought to the surface. The Navy spent most of a decade trying to determine the identity of the remains through DNA testing.
“These may very well be the last Navy personnel from the Civil War to be buried at Arlington," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said. “It’s important we honor these brave men and all they represent as we reflect upon the significant role Monitor and her crew had in setting the course of our modern Navy."
Although testing has narrowed the identities of the men down to six, descendants of all 16 soldiers who died when the ship sank are expected at the ceremony. Diana Rambo, of Fresno, Calif., said DNA testing showed a 50 percent chance that one man was Jacob Nicklis, her grandfather’s uncle. A ring on his right finger matched one in an old photograph, adding to the likelihood he was her relative. She plans to be at the cemetery when he is buried.
“It’s been interesting to be connected to something so momentous, and we’re looking forward to the ceremony,” Rambo told FoxNews.com.
She said the development has brought several branches of the family together as they sift through old letters and photos and piece together their shared genealogy. One letter in particular made her long-lost relative seem real.
“I’ve started doing the research, and even read letters he wrote to his father saying he really didn’t want to go,” said Rambo, who was able to tell her 90-year-old mother of the Navy’s revelation a week before her death. “And you think about how many of these kids today are in that situation.”
David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor sanctuary, pressed for the pair to have Arlington burial honors, as did the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Maritime Heritage Program and descendants of the surviving Monitor crewmembers.
Although most schoolkids learn that the Monitor fought the Merrimack to a draw in 1862, the ship that the Monitor took on was actually dubbed the Virginia, and built on the hull of the U.S. Navy frigate USS Merrimack. Some 16 sailors died when the Monitor sank, while about 50 more crewmembers were plucked from the sea by the crew of the Rhode Island.
Although the Monitor sank soon after the battle, it still outlasted the Virginia, which the Confederates were forced to scuttle in early May. The Monitor sailed up the James River to support the Army during the Peninsula Campaign, taking part in the Battle of Drewry's Bluff before sinking while being towed during a storm off the Carolina coast. The ship’s gun turret, engine and other relics are on display at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia.