Sailors fold flags during a graveside interment ceremony of the remains of two unknown sailors recovered from the Monitor shipwreck at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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It was likely the last Civil War burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus delivered remarks at the funeral. Media from outlets across the country scribbled notes in the back row.
Despite all the attention, the funeral of two Monitor sailors on Friday was just like every other in one way: Sailors were honoring lost shipmates.
"The country and the Navy have a long memory, particularly and rightfully so when it comes to fallen heroes," said Cmdr. John Fancher, commanding officer of Virginia-class attack sub Minnesota, under construction in Newport News, Va.
The two sailors were buried with full military honors in a plot between the amphitheater and Maine Memorial in front of a large crowd of sailors and civilians.
"From the Marblehead men who rowed Washington across the Delaware, to these brave souls, to those who serve today in nuclear-powered carriers and submarines, sailors have always been the same; they are at heart risk-takers — willing, even eager, to brave the unknown to peer past distant horizons," Mabus said during the ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
Mabus selected the date for the interment to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8 and 9, 1862, in which the Monitor clashed with the Confederate ship CSS Virginia. The battle was the first of two ironclad warships.
And while none of the sailors on the Minnesota — nor any of the sailors' parents — were alive when this battle occurred, they feel a special connection to the Monitor.
The Monitor came to the rescue of the first Minnesota, a wooden steam frigate launched in 1855. During the Battle of Hampton Roads, Minnesota became grounded. A Confederate ship was planning to destroy the vulnerable frigate when Monitor engaged the southern ship and gave the frigate a chance to escape.
"It's the least we could do to come up here and pay our respects," Fancher said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration worked with the Navy to raise the turret of the Monitor in 2002 and found the remains of the two sailors inside.
Despite DNA research, the two sailors interred were never identified. But that doesn't change the Navy's commitment to take care of the sailors and bury them in the cemetery established during the war in which they died, Mabus said.
"Our nation honors our fallen sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen because we do not want their sacrifice, however distant, to be unremembered," Mabus said.