Early on 31 December 1862, the pride of the U.S. Navy, the Monitor, was about to die. For several hours, her crew had 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.”
Two days earlier the Monitor had 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. As the evening progressed, the wind increased and the seas grew heavier. The Monitor, with a low freeboard of only 18 inches, no longer rode the waves but plunged through them. Water began to pour down from the turret into the ship. 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. One hawser had parted in the heavy seas at 1930; the remaining line served only to impede the Monitor as she yawed and jerked on it. Three men—Master Louis Stodder, Boatswain’s Mate Wells Wentz (who had 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.”
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 had 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 had last been seen but found only an eddy on the surface.
The Monitor, filling with water, had 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 had 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
The ironclad’s quick construction, epic battle with the CSS Virginia off Hampton Roads on 9 March 1862, and loss less than a year after her launching had made the Monitor a national icon. The Union mourned her sinking and the loss of 16 crew members—4 officers and 12 enlisted men. As a century passed, America never forgot the Monitor, and expeditions by the U.S. Navy and private organizations searched for the sunken ironclad. 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 7 March 1974 announcement of the Monitor’s rediscovery made national headlines. It also sparked a four-decade-long quest to protect, preserve, and study the wreck, and to share its story with the public.
The Monitor site was named the nation’s first National Marine Sanctuary in January 1975; it was also listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic Landmark. Under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the Monitor has been successively documented, analyzed, and partially excavated. At the request of Congress, NOAA, working with the U.S. Navy, would raise the ship’s anchor, engine, propeller, and turret from the seabed. The recovered machinery and many artifacts now reside in the USS Monitor Center at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, many of them undergoing conservation treatment after nearly a century and a half in the sea.
The turret was the last major piece of the Monitor that was 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.
Working on the bottom, Navy saturation divers removed the deteriorated armor-belt and hull structure pinning the turret to the seabed, braced the Monitor’s hull, and began partially excavating the silt-filled turret as it lay exposed, upside down, on the seabed.
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. With the remaining bones protected by plastic and sandbags, the turret was readied for its lift. A massive steel “spider” encompassed and grabbed the steel structure, which was partially filled with coal and sediment and weighed several hundred tons. At 1730 on August 5, the turret broke the surface and within minutes was safe on the deck of the crane barge Wotan.
As the Wotan approached the shore with her precious cargo, Broadwater, along with NOAA’s Jeff Johnston and Wayne Lusardi, prepared to enter the turret through the hatch that had once been on its roof, to recover the remaining bones of the skeleton. Broadwater, the first to go in, recalled that he stopped in awe in the entrance to what he described as a “damp tomb.” 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.”
Some answers to what had happened in the turret were forthcoming as its excavation later uncovered the sailor’s boots, still on his feet, and then the articulated, laid-out remains of another sailor lying beneath the first body. Personal effects soon appeared, too: a gold ring on the finger of the first sailor’s right hand; a rubber comb, stamped “US Navy,” in one of the boots; badly corroded coins; a silver spoon that likely had been in the first sailor’s pocket; and glass and rubber buttons from both enlisted men’s frocks and overcoats. Eric Emery worked closely with the team as they carefully removed all the bones of the two Monitor sailors and prepared the remains for shipment to JPAC’s laboratories in Honolulu. NOAA and Mariners’ Museum archaeologists and conservators would excavate and recover some 400 artifacts before the cleared turret began its decades-long bath in a preservative solution in preparation for eventual public display.
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.
At the same time 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. Historian John V. Quarstein’s 2011 book, The Monitor Boys (History Press), helps share some of the stories. Building on that and exceptional work by USS Monitor Center Chief Curator Anna Gibson Holloway, NOAA genealogist Lisa Stansbury conducted an exhaustive search in immigration papers; naval pension requests; census, birth, marriage, and death records; and a host of other sources to learn more not only about the lost 16 but also their surviving families.
Stansbury’s work was helpful in determining more descendants for possible DNA testing; it also demonstrated, in often poignant detail, the impact the deaths had on their families. Her research tied together the family history of one of the young officers who died, Third Assistant Engineer Samuel Auge Lewis, and she discovered the service and medical records of First Class Fireman Robert Williams. In the case of First Class Fireman Thomas Joice, Stansbury found that his widow lost her pension due to remarriage, spent her last days in a poor house, and in 1908 was buried in an unmarked grave.
Another heart-tugging set of records are the requests for a pension by the mother of Landsman Daniel Moore. A freed slave, Moore helped support his mother, and his death meant her continued labor as a domestic servant until the pension came through. The original document records Mrs. Moore’s mark; as a slave, she had never learned to write.
Despite the excellent genealogical research and the evidence obtained from the two men’s remains, the quest to positively identify them remains elusive. But in 2012, Louisiana State University’s Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services laboratory completed clay facial reconstructions of the two sailors. The models, built up over casts of the skulls, were then photographed and lifelike skin, eyes, and hair digitally added. Extremely fragile, the reconstructions were carefully transported by UPS at no cost to Washington, D.C., for a national unveiling at the U.S. Navy Memorial just prior to the 150th anniversary of Monitor’s battle with the Virginia.
The unveiling of the two faces in a very 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 Monitor-Virginia fight.
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.