Friday, December 6, 2013
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.
Crewmen on the deck of the USS Monitor are seen in a photograph from July 1862. William Bryan, the great-great-great-uncle of Maine’s Andrew Bryan, is circled. William and his brother James came to the U.S. from Scotland and fought on opposite sides in the war.
Photo courtesy US Naval History and Heritage Command
Andrew Bryan of Holden holds a National Geographic book that has a depiction of the famous naval battle at Hampton Roads, Va., between the Merrimack and the Monitor in 1862 during the Civil War. His great-great-great-uncle served aboard the USS Monitor.
Photo by Michael C. York
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."
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click image to enlarge
An 1886 lithograph by J.O. Davidson, “First Fight between the Ironclads,” shows one of the most historic battles of the Civil War. The clash was the first between the two steel ships and lasted nearly four hours – with neither inflicting serious injury on the other. On Friday, descendants of the USS Monitor crew will gather in Washington’s Arlington Cemetery as remains of two of those sailors are interred.
Courtesy USS Monitor Center/McClatchy Newspapers