HOLDEN — Although a 150-year mystery has stymied the American military’s top forensics experts, Andy Bryan thinks the answer is his great-great-great uncle, William Bryan.
Sixteen sailors died when the USS Monitor, the “cheesebox on a raft” that battled the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., on New Year’s Eve 1862. Rescuers never recovered the bodies; only the names of the lost sailors survived until summer 2002.
Presumed drowned that dark and horribly stormy night was William Bryan, an emigrant Scottish sailor who volunteered for duty aboard the Monitor. Bryan and his older brother, James, arrived in the United States before the Civil War.
That conflict cost them dearly: William Bryan joined the Navy and vanished at sea, and James Bryan wore a Confederate uniform until killed in battle. He was Andy Bryan’s great-great grandfather.
An educator, Bryan has worked the past 25 years at the Airline Community School in Aurora. Describing the Bryans as “an extensive family,” he has researched the family tree; as a youngster he heard tales about William and James and their Civil War experiences.
About four years ago, Andy Bryan “posted information on a genealogical forum” while seeking information about William’s parents.
That posting led to Andy receiving a request for his DNA. The Hawaii-based Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command needed help in identifying two skeletons discovered when a joint Navy-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expedition raised the Monitor’s massive rotating turret in summer 2002. Divers discovered one skeleton inside the turret; the second skeleton was found after the turret was brought to the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.
Forensics experts sought to identify the unknown sailors, hence the DNA request to Andy Bryan and a cousin, James Bryan. They both supplied DNA samples that helped narrow the identity search to six of the Monitor’s 16 missing sailors.
Experts could not conclusively identify the unknown sailors, so the 150-year-old mystery remains just that — a mystery. But Andy Bryan believes that one sailor is William Bryan, and a recent DNA sample holds the key.
James “was a few years older than William” when the brothers Bryan emigrated to the United States, Andy said. William was born in 1833.
Pursuing a mercantile career “in the grain business,” James Bryan moved his family to different Southern cities before settling in Savannah, Andy said. There James joined the Savannah Volunteer Guards, a militia company; he later fought for the Confederacy and died during battle.
A wife and four children survived him. She later took her youngsters, including 3-year-old Benjamin, to Scotland; at age 18 he moved to Montreal “and became involved in the trade business there,” Andy Bryan said.
A successful businessman, Benjamin later joined the Wickyup Corp., an investment group that purchased six townships in eastern Hancock County. That acquisition brought the Bryans to Maine, where Andy Bryan was born in Waterville in the early 1960s. His family moved to Holden in 1967.
Lying about his age to enlist in the Royal Navy, William Bryan served aboard Her Majesty’s ships for nine years. An experienced sailor, he joined the United States Navy and initially served aboard the USS Ohio, a receiving ship stationed at Boston.
Then he transferred to the USS Sabine, a frigate involved in early blockading operations along the Southern coast. In early 1862, Bryan transferred to the USS Monitor, then under construction at Greenpoint, N.Y. He served aboard the ironclad during the epic March 9 battle with the CSS Virginia and remained aboard until the Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C. after sunset on Dec. 31.
Ironically, William Bryan possibly never left the Monitor.
The skeletons recovered from the Monitor’s turret went to JPAC, where forensics experts attempted to identify the two sailors. Both men were white; one was approximately 17 to 24 years old, the other 30 to 40 years old. The younger sailor was slightly taller than his older comrade.
In time, forensics experts eliminated a few names from the list of missing Monitor crewmembers. Based on DNA testing, skeletal conditions, and genealogical research, researchers narrowed the possible identities to six sailors, of whom three seemed the strongest candidates: William Bryan and Robert Williams as the older sailor and Jacob Nicklis as the younger.
Scientific testing of the older man’s teeth indicated that he probably hailed from Wales; Williams did. The belief was based on evidence that the sailor grew up on a weed-based diet common to Scotland and Wales in the early to mid-19th century.
This fact supposedly eliminated William Bryan, who joined the Navy in New York City and assumedly came from there. When Andy Bryan heard about the dietary evidence, he immediately provided conclusive proof that William had grown up in Scotland.
Researchers were back to square one as to the older sailor’s identity.
In early January 2013, Andy learned about plans to bury the Monitor sailors during a ceremony to be held at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday, March 8. He and his 19-year-old daughter, Maggie, flew to Washington, D.C., on March 8. A Navy representative escorted them to their hotel, then to a noon luncheon.
Guests then attended a religious service at the Fort Myer Memorial Chapel. The Monitor sailors received full military honors; “it was very impressive,” Andy Bryan said. “They brought the caskets into the chapel,” where various officials including Navy Secretary Ray Mabus spoke.
The service encompassed all 16 missing Monitor sailors, not just the two actually present, Bryan stressed. “I was struck by how much it meant for them (modern sailors) to honor their former comrades,” he said. “It was just like they were honoring someone who had just died.”
Afterwards Navy personnel carried the flag-draped caskets outdoors to the waiting caissons, one drawn by six black horses and the other by six white horses. In Arlington National Cemetery, sailors bore the caskets to Grave 1145 in Section 46; a bugler played Taps, and a Navy honor guard delivered a 21-gun salute.
The Navy intends to erect on the gravesite a marker engraved with the names of all 16 Monitor sailors.
“What struck me was, my father was in the Coast Guard, and my uncle was in the Navy,” Andy Bryan said. “I felt a sense of honor to be there for my family.
Maggie Bryan “appreciated that we were able to be such an integral part of it,” he said.
During his genealogical research involving the Monitor, Bryan contacted many relatives whom he did not know; some attended the Monitor ceremony, and they shared family stories with him.
Although JPAC has not yet positively identified either Monitor sailor, William Bryan remains a viable contender. Researchers preferred using mitochondrial DNA to identify the sailors, but encountered difficulties in tracing female descendants of the 16 missing sailors.
Andy Bryan then learned that Mary Bryan, a sister of William Bryan, moved to Australia during the 19th century. He traced her female descendants and found 91-year-old Dorothy Humphrey Barker, Mary’s great-granddaughter. She recently provided a DNA sample to JPAC.
“We still may find out if William is one of the two sailors or not,” Bryan said. “It would give me a sense of satisfaction to know one way or another if he is buried at sea or at Arlington.”