For 150 years, American schoolchildren have learned about the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack, two ironclad battleships that met at the mouth of the James River in Virginia on March 9, 1862. This week, they have an opportunity to consider history more personally.
The Merrimack, once a conventional steam frigate, had been salvaged from the Union-abandoned Navy yard in Norfolk, refitted with iron armor, and rechristened the Virginia. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Commanded by Commodore Franklin Buchanan, and supported by several other Confederate vessels, the Virginia decimated a Union fleet of wooden warships off Newport News, Virginia, on March 8 ... while the frigate Minnesota ran aground.”
The next morning, the Virginia opened fire on the Minnesota, and the new Union ironclad Monitor, which had been delayed by a storm, joined the battle. The Monitor’s pilothouse was hit and its captain disabled, and that ship veered into shallow water. The Virginia again swung toward the Minnesota, but with little ammunition, leaks in the unarmored hull and problems keeping up steam, the Virginia headed toward the naval yard, ending the battle.
Although the battle ended with no real conclusion, the superior maneuverability of the Monitor improved morale for the North. The ships met a month later but did not engage one another; in May, Confederates used 16,000 pounds of black powder to blow up the Merrimack so it would not fall into Union hands.
Nonetheless, the era of warfare using conventional wooden gunships had come to a close and the modern Navy was born.
On Dec. 31 of that same year, the Monitor – top heavy and unsuited for the open seas – sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., when a gale struck as it was being towed. Sixteen crew members were lost.
In 1973 – more than a century later – the wreck of the Monitor was discovered, and, in 2002, salvagers raised the ship’s gun turret. According to the Associated Press, the turret was upside down on the sea floor, filled with coal and hardened sand. It also contained the remains of two Monitor crewmen.
On Friday – March 8, 2013, 151 years after the beginning of the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack – those men will be interred in Arlington National Cemetery. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in February that the two probably would be the last Civil War sailors to be buried there. About 100 relatives of Monitor crew members will attend, some of them convinced that those specific men are their kin.
The historical aspects of the story are fascinating, but also relevant is the fact that 150 years later, a detail of the Civil War still affects people.
People who go to war believe they are ensuring a better future for their fellow citizens and their descendants. Rarely do they try to picture life in their country 150 years in the future. Even less often do they believe that a century and a half later, they, personally, would make history again – the last Civil War dead to be buried at Arlington.
War has a long reach. That is worth remembering. As we honor men who died 150 year ago, as we debate the message of the Confederate battle flag, as we make decisions about what we as individuals and as a nation value and are willing to fund – as we contemplate the idea of descendants standing at our grave sites far into the future – it is necessary to remember that the path of history is long and unpredictable, and it sometimes circles back.