RICHMOND, Va. — When the turret of the USS Monitor was raised from the ocean bottom, two skeletons and the tattered remnants of their uniforms were found in the rusted hulk of the Union Civil War ironclad, mute and nameless witnesses to the cost of war. A rubber comb was found by one of the remains, a ring was on a finger of the other.
Now, thanks to forensic reconstruction, the two have faces.
In a longshot bid that combines science and educated guesswork, researchers hope those reconstructed faces will help someone identify the unknown Union sailors who went down with the Monitor 150 years ago.
The facial reconstructions were done by experts at Louisiana State University, using the skulls of the two full skeletal remains found in the turret, after other scientific detective work failed to identify them. DNA testing, based on samples from their teeth and leg bones, did not find a match with any living descendants of the ship’s crew or their families.
“After 10 years, the faces are really the last opportunity we have, unless somebody pops up out of nowhere and says, ‘Hey, I am a descendant,’ ” said James Delgado, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Maritime Heritage Program.
The facial reconstructions are to be publicly released on Tuesday in Washington at the United States Navy Memorial where a plaque will be dedicated to the Monitor’s crew.
If the faces fail to yield results, Delgado and others want to have the remains buried at Arlington National Cemetery and a monument dedicated in memory of the men who died on the first ironclad warship commissioned by the Navy.
The Brooklyn-made Monitor made nautical history, fighting in the first battle between two ironclads in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862. The Monitor’s confrontation with the CSS Virginia ended in a draw. The Virginia, built on the carcass of the U.S. Navy frigate USS Merrimack, was the Confederate answer to the Union’s ironclad ships.
The Monitor sank about nine months later in rough seas southeast of Cape Hatteras while it was under tow by the USS Rhode Island. Sixteen of the Monitor’s 62 crew members died. Dubbed a “cheese box on a raft,” the Monitor was not designed for sailing on rough water.
The wreck was found in 1973 and designated the first national marine sanctuary in 1975. An expedition about a decade ago retrieved the revolving turret. It is now on display at the USS Monitor Center of the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News.
Of the Union sailors aboard the Monitor, some fell into the sea and died and some remain within the crumbling hull still on the ocean floor. The remains found in the turret probably reflect the desperate attempts of two crewmembers to abandon the ship before it sank.
Besides the comb, uniform scraps and ring, archaeologists also found other clues within the turret: a pair of shoes, buttons and a silver spoon.
None, however, conclusively identified the two dead men.
Delgado said this much is known about them. One was between 17 and 24 years old, the other likely in his 30s. They were Caucasian, so neither was among the three African-Americans who served on the Monitor’s crew, he said.
An examination of medical and Navy records narrowed possibilities to six people. The older man is one of two possible crew members, while there are as many as four possible matches for the younger one.
“At this stage we don’t know who these guys are,” Delgado said. “We can tell you a fair amount about them, but that’s about as far as forensic science takes us without a DNA match.”
Genealogist Lisa Stansbury, who was under contract for a year on the Monitor project, waded through pension records, the National Archives and other documents in hopes of conclusively identifying the two Monitor sailors in the turret. While she couldn’t make a positive match, she believes the older sailor to be the ship’s fireman who tended the coal-fired steam engine. “I think there is strong evidence the older man in the turret is Robert Williams,” she said.
Stansbury was able to connect many dots in his military service and medical records, and one in particular. Records variously listed Williams’ height as 5-foot-8 and one-quarter and 5-foot-8 and one-half.
An examination of the skeleton revealed one leg was shorter than the other, meaning his height would vary depending on which leg he was favoring.
Stansbury said she had not sought out any possible family connection in Williams’ native Wales because of his common name.
The detective work was hampered, she said, by the use of aliases during the period — used to exit military service without a trace if it wasn’t to your liking — and the error-filled records of the day.
“It can be very frustrating when you can’t find information,” Stansbury said. Still, she said, “It was just an honor to have worked on this project.”
The facial reconstruction was done at the Louisiana Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons Information Database at LSU. Its director, Mary Manhein, declined to discuss the final product until the Tuesday announcement but called the facial renderings “very cool.”
David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor sanctuary, said the reconstructed faces of the two unknown sailors cast the ship’s sinking in “very personal” terms.”
“The notion of putting a face on history suddenly rings true,” he said.
If no one steps forward after Tuesday’s announcement, Delgado said he hopes the remains can be buried at Arlington.
“After 10 years in the lab, maybe it’s time for these guys to get out of archival boxes and into a final resting place,” he said. Fund-raising has also begun to erect a monument in Arlington to the 16 men on the Monitor, which he called an “iconic warship that changed naval history.”
“Like all who served and all who do pay the price, that in and by itself makes them important and worthy of remembrance and recognition,” Delgado said.