On Friday, March 8, a NOAA Corps admiral will have the honor of doing something extraordinary. Coast Survey’s director, Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, will be the NOAA Escort Flag Officer for the full honors funeral of two unknown sailors who went down with the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor in 1862. Rear Adm. Glang will join Rear Adm. Anthony Kurta, U.S. Navy, as the two officers escort the caissons during the somber event at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Monitor sank southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, during a New Year’s Eve storm, carrying 16 crew members to their deaths.
The wreck was discovered in 1973, and confirmed in 1974 by John Newton and a team from Duke University. The ironclad was lying upside down with the turret separated from the hull, resting in 230 feet of water approximately 16 miles off Cape Hatteras. In the late 1990s through 2002, experts recovered iconic Monitor artifacts, which are now conserved at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Two skeletons were discovered in 2002 when the turret was raised from the seafloor, and efforts to identify the remains have been unsuccessful so far.
To protect this national treasure, Congress created the nation’s first national marine sanctuary. The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1975.
The U.S. Coast Survey was intricately involved in the Civil War, creating the Slave Density Map, making thousands of copies of maps and charts for the war effort, embedding with the Armies and supporting naval operations, writing and distributing Notes on the Coast (which were essential for the blockades), and documenting the war’s successes and failures. Coast Survey had no involvement with the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack (or Virginia), but NOAA historian Albert Theberge tells us that the unpublished autobiography of Joseph Smith Harris, a Coast Surveyor and future railroad magnate of the late 19th century, has an interesting story…
Harris was assigned as the officer-in-charge of the Coast Survey steamer Uncas, which was supposed to be Admiral Farragut’s primary Coast Survey vessel during the bombardment of Fort Jackson and subsequent attack on New Orleans. The Uncas left New York in late February 1862 but had to put into Hampton Roads because of storms and low coal. It was determined at that time that the Uncas was not seaworthy, so Coast Survey secured a second vessel. That vessel, the Sachem, left New York, apparently in company with the Monitor, on March 4, 1862, for Hampton Roads.
The trip was exceedingly stormy. Harris writes:
“Her [Sachem’s] captain, a former merchantman, told me of their voyage down… On their way down, probably on the night of March 4th, the Monitor telegraphed to the Sachem to come and take off the crew as the vessel was sinking. Just then the band which encircled the head of the Sachem’s rudder slipped, and the vessel became unmanageable. It took perhaps an hour to secure it, and when the Sachem was laid along side the Monitor, it appeared that the panic was past. A heavy sea had gone down the smokestack, the gas forced out from the furnace had overpowered the engineer and the assistant engineer, and left the engine in the hands of a young man just making his first voyage who became badly scared. By the time an hour had passed the fear had passed too, and they were willing to try their fate further, but the Captain told me that if the rudder band had held the Monitor probably would have been abandoned that night. On how small occurrences great events turn! In that case the Merrimack would have had no competent antagonist, and the Government might have lost control of Hampton Roads. The Captain, whose name I immediately forgot, seemed like a reliable person and I have no doubt he told me the truth.”
Theberge explains that “Harris was not one to embellish his stories, as is shown by his description of what he saw in Hampton Roads” during the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. “Although Harris reported that he entered Roads on the night of March 9, he apparently erred in his date” as he reports:
“We headed about for Hampton Roads which we reached early on the evening of March 9th. [Theberge points out that this had to have been March 8.] We noticed during the latter part of the night a bright light evidently from a fire ahead and supposed a barn was burning, but it turned out to be the U.S. frigate Congress, set on fire by the C.S. steamer Merrimack, and in the morning about 8:00 A.M. we saw firing from vessels a few miles to the S.E., which I thought was artillery practice of our own vessels, but which was the battle between the Monitor and Merrimack…”
Tomorrow’s interment of the two unknown sailors from the Monitor represents the nation’s enduring commitment to our men and women who serve in uniform. We are proud that Rear Adm. Glang will represent NOAA, the NOAA Corps, the National Ocean Service and Coast Survey in honoring the memory of fallen comrades at sea.