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Faces from the Past: Sailors from the USS Monitor

Meet two faces from the past -- Union sailors who perished on the USS Monitor 150 years ago as the ironclad ship foundered in rough seas off Cape Hatteras.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Meet two faces from the past -- Union sailors who perished on the USS Monitor 150 years ago as the ironclad ship foundered in rough seas off Cape Hatteras.

At a ceremony in Washington, D.C. this morning, forensic researchers released new images of the pair's reconstructed faces as a way of trying to finally lay the men to rest.

"This is a last-ditch effort to identify them," said David Alberg, superintendent of the USS Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. "We're trying to shake some family trees."

PHOTOS: Reconstructing Faces From the USS Monitor

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Navy and a forensics lab at Louisiana State University have been working on the project for the past 10 years, ever since the Monitor's turret was raised from the seafloor during archaeological excavation in 2002.

They employed the same genetic fingerprinting and facial reconstruction techniques that have been used to identify soldiers missing in action or crime victims.

DNA testing from samples in the teeth and leg bones did not find a match with any living descendants of the ship's crew of families. But they did have two skulls, and were able to recreate the two men's faces. By poring over old records -- from Navy pension requests to old ship logs -- researchers believe they have narrowed the field on this Civil War mystery.

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One was a Welshman named Robert Williams, who was likely in his early 30s and about 5 foot 6 inches tall. He smoked a pipe, served on two other Navy ships before joining the Monitor, and may have been a fireman. He also had arthritis and likely suffered from syphilis, according to Lisa Stansbury, a genealogist working with NOAA.

The second set of remains is of a younger man between 17 and 24 years old. He could be one of three people: William Eagan of Ireland; Jacob Nicklis of Buffalo, N.Y.; or Samuel Auge Lewis of West Chester, Pa. He was about 5 foot, 7 inches tall.

Both men were white, although the Monitor's crew included at least one African-American.

While Stansbury was able to narrow down a list of names for the two, she isn't 100 percent positive. That's because sailors sometimes gave false names while enlisting, perhaps to avoid a shady past or in case they didn't like the ship, they could desert, and later re-enlist under a different identity.

"We really don't have more than a theory," Stansbury said about their identities.

Stansbury said she hopes that families with descendants from that time period may now come forward, provide DNA samples, and make a positive match.

The huge effort to identify the two men stems from great interest in the Monitor, a ship that President Abraham Lincoln praised as the savior of the Union.

At the time, the Confederate CSS Virginia (built on the hull of the navy frigate Merrimack) was ravaging the federal fleet at Hampton Roads. The Monitor -- a smaller, more nimble ship with a swiveling "cheesebox" gun turret on its deck, was built in 1862 in Brooklyn.

It was towed to the Chesapeake Bay battle where it fought the Virginia to a draw on March 9, 1862. Historians say the clash of ironclads signaled the end of wooden ships.

The Virginia was scuttled by its captain in April 1862. On Dec. 31, 1862, while being towed to a new battle, the Monitor capsized and sank during a storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Of the 62 crew members, 16 died. The survivors were rescued by the USS Rhode Island.

Alberg said that the Monitor was not built for heavy seas, and its crew likely met a chaotic end in the middle of the night.

"Eighty-five percent of the ship is still on the seabed," Alberg said. "It's treated as a grave site."