For Civil War sailors, some closure 151 years later

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 8, 2013 

— Only a few years ago, Diana Rambo learned a distant relative had served on the USS Monitor, the warship that elementary school lessons had taught her played a pivotal role in the Civil War.

Soon, the Fresno, Calif., resident was consuming family stories of ironclad ships battling 150 year ago. And on Friday, she witnessed the Navy’s commitment to bringing its fallen home as it buried the remains of two unidentified sailors from that ship.

“It’s just such a tremendous piece of history,” Rambo said. “How proud it makes us of our country. The ceremony, the ritual, the fact that the Navy would do this.”

Rambo and about 15 members of her extended family were among about 100 descendants of Monitor crewmen who gathered Friday afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery. After a chapel ceremony, the Navy lay to rest two of the 16 sailors who died when the craft sank in a storm off the coast of North Carolina in 1862.

They are likely the last Civil War sailors who will ever be buried, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a statement.

At the burial Friday, hundreds of people watched a military band and honor guard procession, followed by the two flag-draped caskets pulled on horse-drawn carts. With careful, measured steps, Navy sailors carried each casket and lowered it to the ground, then held the flags taught as a prayer was read. A lone bugle sounded off a slow, haunting Taps, and the sailors folded their flags.

Amid the crowd, several women in long hoop skirts and shawls strode arm in arm with tophatted men, all National Park Service volunteers from the Arlington House – the former home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that overlooks the cemetery – hoping to lend a sense of gravity to the long overdue burial.

In an unprecedented clash 151 years ago Saturday, the Union’s Monitor and the Confederacy’s Merrimac became the first ironclad ships to grapple at sea, battling to a draw off the coast of Virginia.

About 10 months after the battle, Rambo’s ancestor – a crewman named Jacob Nicklis – was worried about the ship, she said. Nicklis had re-enlisted so he could be with his “mates,” Rambo said; letters home hinted at the worsening conditions onboard the Monitor.

“He said something about, ‘I hope it’ll make it, I hope it’ll stand up,’” Rambo said. “There was some fear, and I’m just thinking now about the people who are in the line of fire and what they go through to serve our country.”

Navy researchers found the skeletal remains of two sailors when they lifted the 150-year-old turret from the sea in 2002; the Navy is still working to conclusively identify both sailors’ remains. There’s been no trace of the 14 other men who died on the Monitor.

Andrew Bryan of Holden, Maine, said he stumbled on the history of his ancestor while researching his family’s Scottish roots. His great-great-great uncle, William Bryan, a first class fireman on the ship, moved to the United States after serving in the British navy at age 12, said another relative, James Bryan of Chapel Hill, N.C.

Months of research uncovered another twist, Andrew Bryan said. Before William Bryan died on the Monitor, the war already had splintered his family, as his brother fought and eventually died for the South.

Andrew Bryan added that he’s been thankful for the Navy’s continued commitment to bringing closure to the stories of those who served and died for their country.

“Even though it’s 150 years later, it’s not just old bones. It’s people,” he said. “If it’s not him, I’m OK with that. He’d been on the sea for 17 years and maybe that’s where he wanted to be.”

Email: rlurye@mcclatchydc.com

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