Forensic Case Files: The Lost Sailors of the Civil War’s U.S.S. Monitor

The American Civil War was a time of transformation. Early 19th-century battle strategies were abandoned in favour of modern warfare, and one of the great naval changes was the move from wooden frigates to armour-plated ironclads.

For a brief time, the Confederate Navy’s ironclad Virginia was the scourge of the sea. To counter that threat, the Union Navy commissioned the Monitor, building it in a mere 101 days and launching it on January 30, 1862. It was a new ironclad design—a steamship built with such a low profile that the large majority of its bulk remained below the water line at all times, with only the gun turret, pilot house and several smokestacks above water. It also featured the very first 360o rotating gun turret.

On March 9, 1862, the day following a decisive Confederate victory during which the Virginia sank the Union frigates Cumberland and Congress, crippled the Minnesota, and killed 250 Union sailors, the Virginia met its match in the Monitor at the Battle of Hampton Roads. After four and a half hours of intense fighting with this unknown vessel, the Virginia fell back. She would never fight again.

Following the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Monitor joined in General George McClellan’s campaign on Richmond, Virginia.

The Monitor met its own end not on the battlefield, but in a storm. Because of its mostly-submerged design, it was easily swamped by rough seas and sank in 230 feet of water, 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Of the 62-man crew, 16 men lost their lives that night—4 officers and 12 enlisted men.

The remains of the Monitor were located in 1973. The NOAA and the U.S. Navy determined that the rapidly disintegrating wreck couldn’t be raised, so an effort was made to recover as much of it as possible, including a steam engine, one of the massive Dalhgren guns, and the 150-ton gun turret. When the turret was raised, the nearly complete remains of two men were discovered inside.

The remains were sent to the Louisiana State University (LSU) for study. Usable DNA was recovered from the skeletons, but no match was made to any living relatives of the 16 lost men.

So what can forensic anthropologists determine from the skeletal remains of these two men?

One man was fairly young, presumably between 17 and 24 years of age, about 5’7”, white, with good teeth. His nose had been broken, and had healed and remodeled over the years. The second man was older, between 30 and 40 years of age, white, and stood about 5’6”. Damage to his teeth revealed that he was a pipe smoker, and wear on his bones indicated that heavy lifting was a constant part of his occupation. Artifacts recovered with the remains suggest that they were likely both enlisted men. Based on this information, in reviewing physical characteristics of the men on the casualty list, two possibilities are likely for the older man, four for the younger man.

To try to finally lay these lost soldiers to rest, LSU recently did facial reconstructions of the recovered skulls, using first three-dimensional clay techniques on skull replicas followed by digital enhancement. The final results are pictured below, with the older man on the left, the younger man on the right:

Scientists hope that family members of the lost sailors might recognize their relatives, even 150 years later. If the sailors cannot be identified, then they will be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honours.

Photocredit: NOAA and Louisiana State University.