WASHINGTON – Andy Bryan was a child when he first heard the family tale of two ancestors who immigrated to the United States from Scotland, only to die as brothers fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War.
One of those siblings, Bryan’s great-great-great-uncle William Bryan, was among the 16 sailors who perished when the Union’s ironclad warship, the USS Monitor, sank on New Year’s Eve 1862. However, the family connection only crystallized for Bryan several years ago, when the Navy asked for a DNA sample to compare against skeletal remains of two crew members recovered from the Monitor.
“I’m over 50 now and 150 years ago doesn’t seem that long anymore,” said Bryan, who lives in Holden, just east of Bangor. “You begin to feel, ‘Wow, this was my family.’ “
On Friday, Bryan will be one of 100 or so descendants of Monitor crewmen who will gather at Arlington National Cemetery as the remains of those two sailors are laid to rest with full military honors – 151 years to the day after the ship’s most famous battle.
DNA tests have yet to conclusively identify either set of remains, although those efforts continue. But Andy Bryan’s family is among 10 that, according to the Navy, may be related to the two crewmen.
While Bryan has a hunch that his great-great-great-uncle is one of the two, he and his daughter want to be there to honor whoever is being buried in Arlington.
“It would be good to know who these people were. But does it have to be my relative? No,” Bryan said. Burial at sea, he added, would be a fitting end for a relative who spent more than half of his life on a boat.
Built in Brooklyn during the early years of the Civil War, the USS Monitor will forever be remembered as one of the combatants in history’s first recorded naval battle between two ironclad warships.
The March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads between the Monitor and the CSS Virginia – also known as the Merrimack – was officially a draw. But the incident marked the beginning of the end of navies in wooden ships and gave rise to the massive vessels built at Maine’s Bath Iron Works and other shipyards.
The Monitor, which sat low in the water except for its gun turret, sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., on Dec. 31, 1862, while being towed during a storm. Sixteen of the 62 crew members perished, most in open water but a few still aboard the ship.
The world got its first good glimpse of the ship in 2002 when the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and researchers raised the 150-ton gun turret and other artifacts. Roughly 20 percent of the ship is housed at The Mariner’s Museum’s USS Monitor Center in Newport News, Va., not far from the site of the Battle of Hampton Roads.
Researchers and preservationists are engaged in a decades-long effort to preserve and protect the hundreds of artifacts for display at the museum. Work on the cylindrical turret and massive guns alone has been going on since 2002 and will likely take another 10 to 15 years before being stable enough to exhibit in the open air, said museum director David Krop.
Visitors today can see the turret in the preservation pool.
“The excitement is going around the lab,” Krop said of Friday’s ceremonies, which center staff plan to attend. “We are lucky to be able to participate and to be able to help tell these sailors’ stories. Although their lives ended … they are going to live on through the work that is going on at the museum.”
The skeletal remains of two crewmen were discovered in the turret and taken to the military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command center in Hawaii. There, researchers used genealogical research and DNA tests in a failed attempt to make positive identifications.
However, the staff was able to narrow down the likely descendants to about 30 family members in 10 different families, using a combination of DNA results and the characteristics of the skeletons.
Navy officials are planning to do DNA testing on Bryan family members who live overseas with the hope of obtaining a more precise match.
The Navy contacted Andy Bryan after he posted a query on a genealogical website about his great-great-great-uncle.
Bryan’s family knows a surprising amount about their ancestors.
Both William Bryan and his brother James, who is Andy Bryan’s great-great-grandfather, came to the U.S. via Scotland. James Bryan apparently died in South Carolina during a battle. By the time William Bryan joined the U.S. Navy, he had apparently spent nearly a decade on British ships.
In an April 15, 1862, letter to his parents — written a month after the battle with the CSS Virginia — William Bryan appeared to look forward to a coming engagement with the Confederate Navy.
“Dear parents, I have just got a few minutes to write,” he wrote, according to a type-written account that Andy Bryan received from a relative. “We are going to have big time with the Southerens (sic) in a very few days and all our army is made another grand move on them again, and we expect orders every moment to start and make the Forts smell the Monitor again.”
William Bryan also enclosed a copy of a photograph of the Monitor marked with a letter “B” above his head. The photo shows a somewhat blurry Bryan kneeling and reaching down to apparently play checkers on the ship’s deck, amid about two dozen other crew members.
Andy Bryan, whose father was named William after the Monitor sailor, plans to bring those keepsakes with him to Friday’s ceremonies. The proceedings begin with a private chapel ceremony for Monitor crew descendants and top Navy officials followed by an official, public military burial ceremony that is open to the public.
“These may very well be the last Navy personnel from the Civil War to be buried at Arlington,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said last month when announcing the ceremony. “It’s important we honor these brave men and all they represent as we reflect upon the significant role Monitor and her crew had in setting the course for our modern Navy.”
For Andy Bryan and his daughter, it will be a chance to connect with other distant family members from around the country and other descendants of Monitor crew members.
“I think it’s definitely appropriate,” Bryan said of the Arlington burials. “They were fighting for the Union and served the country. I don’t think there could be a better place for them to be.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC