ARLINGTON, Va. – More than 150 years after the USS Monitor sank off North Carolina during the Civil War, two unknown crewmen found in the ironclad's turret when it was raised a decade ago were buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.
The evening burial, which included a gun salute and a band playing "America the Beautiful," may be the last time Civil War soldiers are buried at the cemetery overlooking Washington.
"Today is a tribute to all the men and women who have gone to sea, but especially to those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf," said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who spoke at a funeral service before the burial.
The Monitor made nautical history when the Union ship fought the Confederate CSS Virginia in the first battle between two ironclads on March 9, 1862. The battle was a draw.
The Monitor sank about nine months later in rough seas, and 16 sailors died. In 2002, the ship's rusted turret was raised from the Atlantic Ocean floor, and the skeletons of the two crew members were found inside.
On Friday, the remains of the two men were taken to their gravesite by horse-drawn caissons, one pulled by a team of six black horses and the other pulled by six white horses. White-gloved sailors carried the caskets to their final resting place near the cemetery's amphitheater. A few men attending the ceremonies wore Civil War uniforms, and there were ladies in long dresses from the time. The ceremony also included "Taps," which was written the same year that the Monitor sank and became associated with military funerals as early as the Civil War.
The sailors buried Friday would not have recognized some parts of the graveside service, however. The military band played "America the Beautiful," which wasn't written until three decades after the Monitor sank. And the flags that draped the silver coffins were modern ones with 50 stars, not the 34-star American flag of the early 1860s.
The cemetery where the men will lie, however, has strong ties to the Civil War. Arlington was established as a military cemetery during the war and is on grounds formerly owned by the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. One of the cemetery's first monuments was a memorial to unknown Civil War soldiers.
A marker with the names of all 16 men who died onboard the Monitor will ultimately be placed at the gravesite of the sailors buried Friday. Researchers were unable to positively identify the remains, though they tried reconstructing the sailors' faces from their skulls and comparing DNA from the skeletons with living relatives of the ship's crew and their families. Medical and Navy records narrowed the possibilities to six people.
What is known is that one of the men was between 17 and 24 years old and the other was likely in his 30s. A genealogist who worked on the project believes the older sailor is Robert Williams, the ship's fireman, who would have tended the Monitor's coal-fired steam engine.
Relatives of some of the men who died attended Friday's ceremony. Diana Rambo of Fresno, Calif., came with four other family members. She's related through her mother, Jane Nicklis Rowland, to Monitor crewman Jacob Nicklis, who died when the ship sank. The family didn't know a relative had served on the ship until they received a letter requesting DNA, but Rambo said she's since learned more about the "connection to history that we never knew we have." She said after the ceremony that she's less concerned about knowing for certain who was buried Friday.
"It kind of doesn't matter. It was all about honoring the 16," she said of the ceremony.