Civil War sailors laid to rest, 151 years later

Remains of Monitor crew recovered by Navy dive team

March 08, 2013|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY — — Eleven years ago, Navy Capt. Barbara "Bobbie" Scholley dived more than 230 feet into the ocean to help bring back the past: two sailors killed when their Civil War battleship sank in 1862.

On Friday, the Annapolis woman joined the crew members' descendants and dignitaries to usher them into eternity.

The two sailors, whose remains were recovered from the wreckage of the USS Monitor in 2002, were buried at Arlington on Friday, 151 years after the ship battled the Confederate ironclad Virginia in the critical Battle of Hampton Roads, which revolutionized naval warfare.

The interment with full military honors completed a remarkable journey for the unidentified sailors, whose remains were recovered by a Navy dive team led by Scholley, now retired and a full-time mother.

Scholley recalled the moment when her team, sifting through the wreckage of the ironclad ship off Cape Hatteras, N.C., came upon the remains.

"My sailors, my divers, all the civilians just paused," she said. "We realized: This is why we were doing this.

"These sailors, they gave their lives for us," she said. "They fought for us, and we've got to bring them home."

On Friday, in a chapel filled with descendants of the 16 crewmen who went down with the Monitor in a storm months after the engagement at Hampton Roads, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus noted the historic nature of the interment.

"We brought them here, to the national military cemetery founded during the same great conflict for which they gave, in President Lincoln's words, their 'last full measure of devotion,' to provide these two sailors with a final resting place," Mabus said at a funeral service held at the Fort Myer Memorial Chapel.

"This may well be the last time we bury Navy personnel who fought in the Civil War at Arlington," he said. "But we do not hesitate to keep faith and to honor this tradition, even more than 150 years after the promise was made."

As the late-afternoon sun streamed into the chapel, Navy pallbearers, wearing peacoats and Dixie cups, carried two flag-draped caskets into the chapel for a service led by chaplains. After the service, participants formed a procession to the burial site at Arlington.

Commissioned in February 1862, the Monitor engaged the Confederate ship Virginia less than two weeks later. The Battle of Hampton Roads, the first between two ironclads, spelled the end of the era of wooden ships.

The Monitor sank in a storm off Hatteras on New Year's Eve of 1862. Dozens of crew survived to tell harrowing tales, excerpts of which were read during the service.

"Our little vessel was lost," wrote Grenville Weeks, a surgeon who survived. "[We] felt a strange pang go through us as we remembered that never more might we tread her deck, or gather in her little cabin at evening. We had left her behind us."

Historian James M. McPherson lauded the bravery of the sailors who took the risk of serving on what was then a revolutionary new ship.

"To a man, they were all volunteers for service on this experimental vessel of radical new design," he said. "Many skeptics — including some naval officers — mocked this creation of the inventor John Ericsson as 'Ericsson's folly,' 'a cheesebox on a raft,' a 'tin can on a shingle.' Some predicted that it would sink like a stone.

"One crew member wrote that 'we heard every kind of derisive epithet applied to our vessel … an "iron coffin for her crew" ' & we were styled foolhardy for daring to make a trip in her, and this by naval men.' "

But ultimately, McPherson said, the Monitor served "as the prototype for a whole new class of warships for the Union navy, which played a crucial role in eventual Northern victory in the Civil War."

Most of the Monitor remains on the ocean floor, where it is now a marine sanctuary overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It was not until 2002, after a couple of summers of dives, that Navy divers on a salvage mission to recover the ship's turret discovered the crewmen's remains. The team was led by Scholley, who in 1997 had become the first woman named the Navy's supervisor of diving.

Scholley commanded the Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, which lost two of its members last month during a training exercise at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Super Pond — shocking news, she said, for a unit that had completed such missions as the recovery of the USS Cole sailors killed in Yemen in 2000 without any casualties.

Given their grim recovery work related to the global war on terrorism, Scholley said, working on the Monitor project, with the distance of history it provided, was particularly rewarding.

"When you go from doing a really heart-wrenching operation like the Cole, having to recover the bodies of young people in that terrible situation, and the next summer you're doing the USS Monitor — you're working on naval history. It was a feel-good recovery," said Scholley, who retired in 2005 after nearly 25 years in the Navy.

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