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History and Heritage

Monitor: After the Fight

The Navy laid to rest the remains of two Sailors from USS Monitor during a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

The unknown Sailors were lost along with 14 of their shipmates when Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., Dec. 31, 1862. All 16 Sailors were memorialized on a group marker in section 46 of the cemetery, which is between the amphitheater and the USS Maine Mast memorial.

This is the final piece in a three-part series highlighting the proud service and heritage of USS Monitor and her Sailors.

Early in May 1862, the Confederates withdrew from Norfolk and the southern bank of the James River, retreating toward the Confederate capital of Richmond.

"The Union army lands troops in Ocean View, which is a northern part of Norfolk, where it meets the Chesapeake Bay," said Gordon Calhoun, Naval History and Heritage Command's Hampton Roads Naval Museum editor and historian. "They march overland virtually unopposed, come into downtown Norfolk and downtown Portsmouth, and CSS Virginia no longer has a base of operations.


It was then that the CSS Virginia's Achilles heel, its draft too deep to navigate the waterways, caused the beast to be destroyed. As it tried to reach Richmond the shallow waterways stopped it. To stop the Union from claiming it, the Confederate ironclad was set afire by its crew, May 11. It blew up shortly thereafter.

Later, Monitor steamed up the James River to gather information for Union General-in-Chief George McClellan and to strengthen the Union Army's left flank. However, on May 15, when they reached Drury's Bluff some eight miles below the southern capital, their progress was stopped by obstructions across the channel. Confederate riflemen fired on the Union ships from both shores and heavy naval guns mounted high on the cliff shelled them from an angle which minimized the effectiveness of their armor. Although Monitor moved up to protect the heavily damaged Galena, her crew was unable to elevate her guns to hit the shore batteries, and so the ironclad ships retreated downstream.

"The Monitor was not meant to fight forts, she was meant to fight other ships," Calhoun explained.

Although checked in their thrust toward Richmond, the Union ships continued to provide McClellan with gunfire support. After his defeat by General Lee in the Seven Days campaign, their guns helped save the Army of the Potomac from annihilation.

"When the Union army calls off the offensive, the Union ships are called back to Hampton Roads. That's the last the Monitor sees action," Calhoun said.

At midsummer, Monitor helped cover the Union Army as it retired from the peninsula to shift operations back to northern Virginia. Thereafter, she performed blockade duty in Hampton Roads until ordered on Christmas Eve to proceed to North Carolina for operations against Wilmington. 

Towed by Rhode Island, she departed the Virginia Capes, Dec. 29, 1862. Two days later tragedy struck both ships.

"The USS Monitor was under tow by the steam ship Rhode Island and they hit major squalls off the coast of Cape Hatteras," Calhoun said. "Monitor signaled to Rhode Island that they were taking on water. The Sailors from the Rhode Island, in heavy seas, put small boats in the water and rescued the majority of the Monitor ship's company."

The Monitor went down with 16 men aboard and the Rhode Island lost seven of their own during the rescue of Monitor's crew. 

Despite the relative nearness of the wreck of the Monitor to the U.S coastline, it took more than a century to find.


People had the idea that it had sunk off Cape Hatteras but no one was exactly sure where," Calhoun explained. "The Navy actually officially abandoned ownership of the Monitor in 1953, hoping that private salvagers would find it."

The wreckage wasn't found until 1973 by a team of scientists from Duke University, the State of North Carolina, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As part of a series of marine sanctuary laws passed by the U.S. Congress, the site of the wreck was designated a National Marine Sanctuary on Jan. 30, 1975 and placed under the protection of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

The Secretary of the Department of Commerce and U.S. Congress are authorized to designate discrete areas of the marine environment as national marine sanctuaries, under the 1972 Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act. Marine sanctuaries promote comprehensive management of special conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, research, educational, or aesthetic resources. The 
President can also use the authority of the Antiquities Act to establish Marine National Monuments to be managed as part of the National Marine Sanctuary System. 

Owing to deterioration of the wreck from storm and other damage, some artifacts-such as the propeller shaft and hull plates-were later recovered for historic preservation. Starting in March 2001, a five-month long expedition involving NOAA, the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), the U.S. Navy's Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two (MDSU TWO) and The Mariners' Museum, raised the ironclad's innovative steam engine and other parts recovered at the site. 
The following year, in July and August 2002, the gun turret was raised from the site. Found inside the gun turret were the remains of two Sailors.

The Navy honored Monitor Sailors March 8 with a graveside interment ceremony at Arlington National Ceremony for the remains of two unknown Sailors recovered from the USS Monitor shipwreck.

The artifacts were transferred to the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Va., for historic preservation and the remains were transferred to Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii for possible identification.

JPAC, with the assistance of the Navy Casualty Office and NOAA, conducted a comprehensive effort to identify the remains of the unknown Sailors, to include time-demanding and detailed genealogical research. Given the age of the remains, efforts to identify them were unsuccessful. However, JPAC was able to narrow down possible descendents of the unknown Sailors to 30 family members from 10 different families. Their remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery, March 8, 151 years to the date that Monitor arrived in Hampton Roads for its historic engagement with Virginia.