Are Remains in Famed Warship Irish? US Navy Seeks Sailors' Descendants

Are Remains in Famed Warship Irish?
US Navy Seeks Sailors' Descendants

By Doug Chandler / TheWildGeese.com

Naval Historical Center
Crewmembers cooking on deck of the USS Monitor, on the James River, Virginia, July 9, 1862. Click on image for a larger view.

The U.S. military's search to identify the remains of two national heroes — young men who died during the Civil War as their famed warship, the USS Monitor, sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C. — could eventually center on at least one Irish immigrant and perhaps even two.

Although a military representative says he can't speculate on the identity of the two, information pieced together by TheWildGeese.com, suggests the strong possibility that one of those men was Thomas Joyce (or perhaps Joice), who died with 15 other crewmen as the ship sank on Dec. 31, 1862.

Much less likely — but also possible — is that the remains of the other hero belonged to William H. Eagan, the only other Irish immigrant among the men who died on that cold, violent evening.

The first ironclad warship commissioned by the U.S. Navy, the Monitor went down during a gale-force storm while under tow, en route to enforce a blockade in South Carolina. But the ship and its crew had already earned nationwide renown nearly 10 months earlier, when they engaged in an epic battle with the Confederate ironclad Virginia near Hampton Roads, Va.

' . . . we should never forget the sacrifices that were made, no matter how far back.'

Although neither the Monitor nor the Virginia could inflict serious damage on the other, the Union vessel prevented the Virginia from breaking the Navy's blockade of Norfolk, inflicting a major blow to the Confederate cause. The ship's renown also stemmed from technology that revolutionized naval warfare, including a revolving gun turret.

In 1973, a team of scientists discovered the wreck of the Monitor 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, where it was lying upside down in 230 feet of water. Archeologists discovered the remains of two crew members in 2002 after raising the Monitor's gun turret, sending them to military forensic experts at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu.

Discussing those remains, a spokesman for the command emphasized the story's importance for all Americans, especially as they prepared to observe Memorial Day.

"It's part of our history," said Army Major Ramon Osorio, "and we should never forget the sacrifices that were made, no matter how far back."

U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.
Line engraving published in "Harper's Weekly", 1863, depicting the USS Monitor sinking in a storm off Cape Hatteras. Click on image for a larger view.

Osorio said the military couldn't release any details of their investigation until it's certain of the results and until descendants are located and notified. But from public comments made by an earlier command representative — and from the list of 16 crewmen who died nearly 150 years ago — several facts relating to the case are known and educated guesses are possible.

Osorio's predecessor, Army Major Rumi Neilson-Green, told the National Geographic News six years ago that the skeletons of the two men had been found in excellent condition, preserved by the temperature and condition of the waters off Cape Hatteras. A forensic analysis determined that one was in his late 30s or early 40s, had often smoked a pipe, and had done a lot of heavy lifting, while the other was in his late teens or early 20s.

Below are excerpts from an account of the sinking of the USS Monitor that appeared in the Baltimore American on January 5, 1863.

"In conversation with several officers and crew of the Monitor I gather the following narrative of the facts attending the loss of the noble little vessel and so many of her crew:

At 9:30 Cape Hatteras bore NNW, distant 20 miles. The gale still increased. The vessel labored very heavily, the upper hull coming down upon every sea with fearful violence. Up to this time the Worthington pumps and bilge injectors were entirely competent to keep the vessel free. For a while the water appeared to be kept under. In a short time, however, word was passed from the engine room that the water was again gaining on the pumps, and was at that time up to the ash pits, in a great measure stopping the draft. The water at this time was standing two feet deep on the ward room floor.

All hands were then set to work with every bucket on hand to bail. Water, however, kept gaining upon the pumps until within a foot of the fires in the furnaces. After much delay, consequent upon the heavy sea running, a boat was lowered from the Rhode Island and sent to our assistance. After several trials she succeeded in getting alongside of us.

The Rhode Island at the same time in going astern, caught her launch between her own side and our vessel, crushing the boat badly and bringing her own counter very heavily down upon our side. Getting on a centre she finally started ahead, and the launch, smashed as it was, succeeded in conveying to the steamer thirty of the crew of the Monitor.

At this time three boats were discovered coming towards the vessel. Word was passed that boats were at hand sufficient to take all of them from the vessel. The Monitor was sinking. Every pump was stopped, and her deck was under water. Several, in coming off the turret were swept by the waves to the leeward and must have perished as no assistance could be rendered them.

The boats shoved off from the sinking vessel, and though entreated to come down and get in them, several remained standing up on the turret, afraid of being swept from the deck, stupefied by fear. The boats succeeded in reaching the Rhode Island in safety and all on them got on board. A picked crew with the gallant officer of the Rhode Island, Mr. Brown, then shoved off in the launch to return to the Monitor. The moon, which up to this time had been throwing some light upon the waves, was shut out by dense masses of black clouds.

At a quarter to one in the morning, the Monitor's lights disappeared beneath the waves. The Rhode Island then started for the spot where the Monitor was seen to go down.

At daylight nothing was seen on the waves and with heavy hearts we ran around the spot as nearly as could be judged where the Monitor had disappeared until late in the afternoon. Several steamers and other vessels were spoken, to learn, if possible, the fate of the missing boat, but nothing could be heard.

The survivors reached Fortress Monroe last evening in the Rhode Island. Nothing whatever was saved."

Both Thomas Joyce and William Eagan were in their early 20s when they died, as were at least five other crewmembers. But the biggest piece of evidence suggesting that Joyce may, in fact, have been one of the men whose remains were found involves his duties aboard the Monitor. 

Navy records show that Joyce held the rating of fireman, a job that could have put him in charge of the ship's boiler, said Liam Murphy, a retired U.S. Naval Reserve commander and an adjunct faculty member at the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler. Only one other crewman who died the same night shared that rating, a 30-year-old immigrant from Wales.

Murphy, a consultant to TheWildGeese.com, said that those who worked in the engine room “would have been the last to leave” the ship, which had a complement of 62 men. He took note of one account — based on conversations with surviving crewmen only days after the disaster — that describes a fearful contest between the Monitor’s steam-powered pumps and water pouring into the ship. 

The boiler and pumps eventually failed, forcing all hands to grab buckets and begin bailing out the water, says the account, published in the now-defunct Baltimore American on Jan. 5, 1863.

“As long as the beleaguered pumps continued to operate,” Murphy said, “it’s almost certain a fireman remained at his post, trying to maintain steam power to the pumps.” 

Speculation about Eagan is a lot less certain, but one piece of evidence suggesting that he may have been with Joyce at the time was his status as a landsman — a trainee, without any naval experience, who may have been mentored by the fireman, a fellow Irishman. 

Also of note to the Irish community is that a third Irish immigrant, Hugh Logan, received a Medal of Honor for his “courageous” efforts to rescue members of the Monitor’s crew. Logan, 28 on that winter night, served as an officer on the USS Rhode Island, the Navy vessel that was towing the Monitor and sent rescue boats as it sank.

While the speculation continues, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is trying to locate descendants of all 16 who were lost at sea for DNA samples to compare against those from the two skeletons,  Osorio said. However, he couldn't say whether the military has found any of the descendants.

Meanwhile, baptism records from Ireland show that the fireman aboard the Monitor may have been any one of six Thomas Joyces born in Ireland in 1838. The landsman aboard the ship may have been one of five William Egans born in Ireland in 1841, the same records show.

Passenger lists from the 1850s show that two Thomas Joyces, both of whom would have been 24 at the time the Monitor sank, immigrated to New York as teenagers during that decade. Only one William Egan, fitting the profile of the 21-year-old William Eagan aboard the Monitor, arrived in New York in the 1850s, according to the passenger lists. All three men left Ireland in the midst of The Great Hunger, which killed more than a million people and forced millions more to emigrate, reducing the country's population by half.

Many of those immigrants wound up in the U.S. military during the Civil War, making them the second largest group of foreign-born, after German immigrants, to serve in the armed forces. Roughly 150,000 Irish-born served in the Union Army, either as volunteers or draftees, as much as 1 in 10, while many fewer joined the Navy, a much smaller force. Nevertheless, according to Michael J. Bennett, in his 2004 book “Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War,” the Irish comprised one-in-five wartime sailors, the largest single ethnic group in the Navy. 

Murphy believes that a percentage of Irish immigrants would have been drawn to the Navy for several reasons, including the “adventure of it” and the quality of life, which was higher than what it was for the Army. Another factor, of course, is that the Navy needed those skilled in certain trades, such as working with boilers and steam engines.

Whether or not the remains discovered in the turret belonged to Joyce and Eagan, Murphy has nothing but praise for the two men whose identity is still being determined.

"These two guys stayed at their posts to make sure their shipmates could get out safely," he said. "By the time they got to the turret, something had gone terribly wrong, it was too late (for either man), and they got left behind." But both, he added, had carried out a "self-sacrificing, heroic act deserving of recognition." WGT

This report is based on additional research by Robert Doyle in Ireland and Gerry Regan in New York. It was edited by Gerry Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.

Doug Chandler, a New York-based journalist, has contributed to daily and weekly newspapers in New York City and reports regularly on Jewish issues and the Mideast. He has written several articles for TheWildGeese.com.
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