Civil War sailors laid to rest, 151 years later

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.

When the Monitor sank, it flipped upside down, with the turret underneath and pushed to the back part of the ship, Scholley said. Just 20 percent of the turret was exposed, she said, and the divers had to cut away part of the ship's hull for access to it — no small task, since the ship was designed with an armored belt that did its job of protecting the vessel.

The divers were also battling churning currents in the fairly small window of time between June and August, or after the winter storm threat was over and before hurricane season began.

The divers wore cameras on their heads, feeding images to the archaeologists and others on a barge above.

"It was an archaeological dig, but underwater," Scholley said. "The archaeologists wanted everything sifted through so we didn't lose any artifacts. So you would hear in your ear, 'No, no, stop there.' Sometimes the divers didn't appreciate that."

The divers had some revenge on the voices in their ears — because they were breathing a combination of oxygen and helium as part of the deep dive, their voices came through to those on the barge in high-pitched, cartoony fashion.

One of the divers was brushing away silt when he hit something hard. Eventually, he realized it was a bone.

It took more than a day to clear away the surrounding matter to reveal an intact skeleton, Scholley said. The crew took measurements and photographs and then secured the remains in a container.

They resumed emptying the turret to make it lighter for a crane to lift it to the barge, and it was only then that the second sailor's remains were discovered, she said.

The remains were sent to the Navy's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, at Pearl Harbor, where forensic experts began trying to identify which of the 16 crewmen had been recovered. First, though, they had to desalinate the bones, and remove the rust, coal and other sediment that had covered them.

Technicians were able to develop a profile of the two sailors: Both were white; one was 17 to 24 years old, the other was in his 30s. The older one had a gold ring on one finger and a groove in one of his front teeth, perhaps from clenching a pipe, and one leg was shorter than the other. DNA was collected from both to try to match against descendants.


"We do think there's a very good possibility that we'll be able to identify these men, and the efforts by the Navy to continue seeking family reference samples continues," said Capt. Jamie Dobson, a JPAC spokeswoman.


DNA analyst Amy Hazelwood of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab said that she received genetic samples from the two sets of remains, but "the passage of time and the environmental conditions" degraded their condition. Plus, the particular kind of DNA matching she is doing involves the Y chromosome, so she is limited to using DNA from male descendants.

In the meantime, the Navy and family members look to more circumstantial evidence, such as writings of survivors and artifacts found near the skeletal remains.

Divers found a silver spoon with the initials J.N., in the turret, for example, leading descendants of Jacob Niklis, 21, of Buffalo, to think that perhaps he was one of sailors buried on Friday.

"It makes history more real," said Peter M. Gullo, 47, of Birmingham, Mich., whose grandmother was Niklis' great-niece. "We were very close to my grandmother, who lived to be 102 years old, so it's also a nice connection back to her."

His grandmother had letters that Nicklis had written to his family, and a framed copy of the crew register on her wall, Gullo remembered. Some family members gave DNA samples to be matched against the recovered remains, Gullo said, but the results were inconclusive.

"Knowing it may be a family member you're laying to rest, it's a warm feeling you can be there for them," said Gullo, who drove with relatives to Arlington for the ceremony.

Friday's ceremony honored all 16 of the Monitor dead, part of a crew that was celebrated in life, warranting a visit from President Lincoln, and treated as heroes for their role in the Civil War and naval history.

Historian John V. Quarstein calls the Hampton Roads clash the most significant sea battle of the Civil War, in that it stopped the advance of the Confederacy, which had already destroyed two of the Union's wooden ships, and maintained the Union's blockade of the South.

"This is the ship that saved the nation," said Quarstein, author of "The Monitor Boys: The Crew of the Union's First Ironclad."

"She stopped the Virginia from doing further damage," said Quarstein, who lives part of the year at a family farm near Chestertown. "This was the beginning of a change in warfare.

"That's what makes the crew so important — they were there at the change of history."

Among the 16 who went down with the ship were two Baltimoreans. One was Robinson Woollen Hands, a mechanical engineering student before becoming an assistant engineer on the ship, and the brother of a Confederate soldier.

"My great-grandfather didn't speak of his brother at all after the war," said Edward Bryan Hands, 70 of Vicksburg, Miss., whose ancestor was the Confederate soldier.

Hands said he regrets becoming interested in his family history only as an older man. As for the family split over the war, he says it confirms what he thinks he always knew: "I feel to an even greater extent, war is a terrible way to solve your problems."

The other Baltimorean, Samuel Augee Lewis, also an assistant engineer, was described by a fellow crew member as "a mere boy, merely a cypher in our little society." A survivor of the sinking said he was seasick that last day and stayed in his bunk.

"He had only been on the ship a month," said John Phillips, 52, of Stillwater, Minn, a descendant. Lewis was his great-great- grandfather's brother-in-law, Phillips said. "It was well-known in my family that he had gone down with the Monitor. His sister was said to be very distraught over his death."

With his family connection, Phillips had been following the news of the Monitor's recovery, and was thrilled to learn of the discovery of some silverware with Lewis' three initials. He said Lewis was originally from West Chester, Pa.; his family does not know how long he lived in Baltimore.

That Friday's honors were for not just the two recovered sailors but all 16 who perished on the Monitor seemed fitting to many, including Scholley, who found herself thinking of the crews she led during her career.

"I love that we're making it about the whole crew, that they're going to represent the entire crew of missing sailors," Scholley said. "Divers are such a tight community — that's what a crew is, everyone together."