As the 150th anniversary of a pivotal Civil War naval battle approaches, forensic experts at Louisiana State University have put faces on the remains of two men who served aboard the USS Monitor, the revolutionary ironclad warship that fought the Confederate dreadnought CSS Virginia to a draw during the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862.
And a genealogist in Alexandria, Virginia thinks she may have unearthed the name of one of the luckless sailors trapped in the Monitor‘s turret when it sank during a winter storm off North Carolina on December 31, 1862.
The facial reconstructions, which will be unveiled today in Washington, D.C., are based on two sets of human remains recovered when the turret was raised from the Atlantic Ocean in 2002. The men trapped in the turret were among 16 sailors who were lost when the Monitor was swamped by gigantic waves off Cape Hatteras.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu, Hawaii have been trying to identify the two men since the remains were recovered. NOAA hired genealogist Lisa Stansbury to dig into records for clues to the sailors’ names.
Stansbury thinks she has found “strong evidence” that one set of remains is that of a burly, mustachioed Welshman named Robert Williams. Stansbury discovered that Williams, a boilermaker, was living in New York City when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1855. He was serving on the Monitor and would have been in his early 30s when it squared off against the Virginia in history’s first battle between ironclad warships.
Williams was among 24 Monitor crewmen who were photographed on the warship’s deck soon after the epic battle with the Virginia. He is standing at the right edge of the photo, arms crossed and peering at the camera from beneath the bill of a cap pulled down low ever his eyes. His forearms ripple with sinews and muscle, and he sports a striking horseshoe mustache.
The Monitor‘s turret also is shown in the photo, and dents made by shells fired from the Virginia are clearly visible.
The skeletons from the turret were sent to JPAC, which is responsible for identifying the remains of all unknown U.S. servicemen who are killed in action. JPAC made precise models of the sailors’ skulls and hip bones and sent the models to LSU’s Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services laboratory in Baton Rouge.
The facial reconstruction was done by Eileen Barrow, an imaging specialist at the LSU lab. Barrow created the facial features by placing dozens of markers on the skull models to mark the depth of skin tissue, said lab director Mary Manhein. The markers were covered with special clay to create facial features, Manhein said.
The resulting models then were photographed, and the photos were digitally enhanced to make the faces look more lifelike.
Although human skulls look identical to most people, every skull actually is different, Manhein said. “There are very subtle differences,” she said. “The size of cheekbones, the size of teeth, the size of the mouth, are different.”
Hip bones also reveal a lot of information, Manhein said. The bones change during the course of a lifetime and can reveal someone’s age, gender, and state of health, she said.
One set of remains from the Monitor turret belonged to a man who probably was in his early to mid-30s, while the other remains were those of a young man of perhaps 20.
Manhein and her staff did not see the photo of the Monitor crew while they were working on the reconstructions. But Stansbury, who has seen both the crew photo and the photos of the reconstructions, thinks the LSU photo based on the remains of the older man bears a marked resemblance to the photo of Robert Williams.
Stansbury also examined Williams’s medical records and cites this as more evidence that he was one of the sailors in the turret. Stansbury noted that the remains of the older sailor had one leg that was about a quarter-inch longer than the other. The asymetrical leg bones could account for a quarter-inch difference in Williams’s height that is noted in two different entries in his medical records, she said.
Stansbury is less certain about the identity of the remains of the younger sailor. She thinks the other man in the turret might have been Samuel A. Lewis, a young officer who was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania and living in Baltimore when he joined the Navy. Eyewitnesses who survived the sinking of the Monitor later said that Lewis was very ill with seasickness and was in his bunk while the ship was being tossed in the violent storm.
Pathologists at JPAC took DNA samples from the remains and had hoped to identify the unknown sailors by matching the DNA with that of descendants of the sailors. But they haven’t found a match yet. NOAA, JPAC and others involved in the identification effort hope the publicity from the facial reconstructions and the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads will help them find descendants of the men who died in the turret.
The Monitor earned its place in history when it prevented the Virginia from breaking the Union Navy’s blockade of Norfolk, Virginia. The blockade of Confederate seaports was slowly strangling the Confederacy’s economy and was a serious hindrance to its ability to fight the war.
On March 8, 1862, the Virginia steamed down the Elizabeth River from Norfolk and ran amok against the wooden Union warships enforcing the blockade. The Virginia sank two wooden Union warships, and only nightfall and the falling tide prevented the ironclad from destroying the rest of the fleet.
But the Monitor, an innovative warship designed by Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson and built in Brooklyn, New York, arrived at Hampton Roads during the night. When the Virginia returned to Hampton Roads on the morning of March 9, the Monitor steamed out to meet the Confederate ironclad. The two ships slugged away at each other for hours but neither was able to inflict major damage on its opponent. Still, the Monitor prevented the Confederacy from breaking the blockade of Norfolk, and that was a major victory for the Union.
In December 1862, Union officials decided to send the Monitor to strengthen the blockade of Beaufort, North Carolina. The Monitor was never intended to sail on the open ocean, however. It was being towed by the USS Rhode Island when it was caught in a fierce storm. The Monitor was helpless on the high seas and sank around 12:30 a.m. on December 31.