Lost At Sea: Do You Know These Civil War Sailors?

Originally published on March 6, 2012 7:19 pm

In 1862, the USS Monitor — a Civil War-era ironclad warship — fought one of the world's first iron-armored battles against the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia. Less than a year later, a violent storm sank the Union ship off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C. The wreck was discovered more than a century later, and subsequent searches have turned up more than just a crumbling ship — they also found the skeletons of two of the Monitor's sailors in the ship's gun turret.

To this day, their identities are unknown, but David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, is trying to change that. With help from the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and forensic scientists at Louisiana State University, Alberg's organization has released facial reconstruction images made from the sailors' skulls that he hopes will help identify them.

Alberg tells NPR's Melissa Block that scientists learned a lot from the sailors' remains. They know one of the men was likely in his early 20s, while the other was likely in his early to mid-30s. They have the sailors' height, weight and even samples of their DNA.

"From an anthropological perspective, the challenge now is more of a genealogical challenge: How do we go out and find somebody that can come forward, provide DNA to compare their data to what JPAC has done," Alberg says.

He says he hopes the facial reconstruction photos will prompt people to revisit family albums, talk about family history and, if they think they may be related to the lost sailors, come forward to claim their kin.

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Now, to an unsolved mystery. Two faces without names. This story goes back 150 years to a battleship, the USS Monitor, the ironclad warship made famous during the Civil War. The Union ship sank in 1862 off Cape Hatteras in a violent storm. The wreck was discovered more than a century later and subsequent searches turned up more than just the crumbling ship. They found the skeletons of two sailors in the turret. Still, their identities are unknown.

Well, today, as part of an effort to solve that mystery, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, unveiled facial reconstructions of the two men.

David Alberg runs NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. He told us what is known about the sailors.

DAVID ALBERG: We know that one man was older than the other one. One was probably in his early 20's. One of them was probably in his early to mid-30's. We know their height. We know their approximate weight based on indications within their bones. We have their DNA that was recovered both from dental samples, as well as from bone samples taken in their legs. And we know that the remains were remarkably well preserved.

In fact, in one of the shoes that was recovered, we even have the footprint - literally, the imprint of the foot through the sock and into the leather of the shoe. And there's actually a little soft tissue that had remained after 150 years. So the level of preservation is remarkable.

BLOCK: But the DNA that was extracted has led to no matches with known family?

ALBERG: Correct. Correct. And because there is no database to go to, it is entirely dependent on somebody coming forth and providing DNA.

BLOCK: Why has it been so hard to make a match, do you think? 'Cause the list of he sailors who are known to be missing from the Monitor is known. You have their names. You can rule some of them out because they're African-Americans and these skeletons are known to be Caucasian. Why has it been so hard to put this together?

ALBERG: I think - and it could be for a number of reasons - there is a good indication at least one of them was probably a recent immigrant, had come to the country from Europe, maybe from Wales or Scotland. So it can be as simple as changes in spelling.

If you look back at when people came into the country - and I know the case is true in mine - little variations of how somebody spelled their name back in the old world and how it was spelled once they got to United States, that can send a genealogist down a dead end, because they're looking for a particular name that may have been a creation of 20th century immigration invent.

The other piece is that they may not have given their truthful name. It was not uncommon for a sailor in the 19th century to give a false name during an enlistment. And that way, when the ship pulled into port someplace, if it wasn't a good ship, it was easy to get off and just disappear into the population.

BLOCK: David, I'm looking at an image on my computer. It looks like somebody I could have bumped into on the metro on the way to work. But this is a facial reconstruction done by forensic scientists. They've modeled from the skulls images of what they think these two sailors might have looked like. What are you hoping that these reconstructions might do?

ALBERG: Well, I hope what happens is that this story goes out there and people come away inspired to go a little bit deeper into their family tree. And, in fact, even on Saturday when a new story ran about the upcoming unveiling, we had two people contact our office saying, we think we may be related to these two men - we'd like to provide DNA.

If a few folks come up and the right folks come up, the ultimate goal is to get these men identified and get them back to their family. For me, there's another component to it. The Monitor is unique in that its entire lifespan, it started in January 30th of 1862 with its launch in Greenpoint, New York, and by December 31st it was lost off Cape Hatteras. Its whole history, this pivotal warship, is encapsulated in one year.

And this year, being the 150th anniversary of that, is the appropriate year, we believe, to not only promote that history, but honor the men - not just the two but all 16.

BLOCK: David Alberg, thanks so much for coming in.

ALBERG: Thank you.

BLOCK: David Alberg is the superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. And you can see those facial reconstructions for yourself at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.