Scientists Unlock Secrets of Civil War-Era Shipwreck

Modern forensics may help identify heroes of the Monitor who perished at sea 150 years ago.


Scientists believe that further testing, including isotopic analysis, could provide information about where the victims were born. Because chemical signatures of food and water consumed during the first years of a person's life are preserved in tooth enamel, traces that are distinctive to a geographic region (like a diet of corn or grain) can provide important clues. Since half of the Monitor's crewmen were immigrants from Europe, mostly Ireland, this information could further narrow the list of candidates. Byrd says researchers at the Smithsonian Institution have expressed interest in performing this testing on the sailors' remains.

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In March 2012, Louisiana State University's Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Laboratory unveiled sculptures of the two sailors' faces, reconstructed from casts of their skulls using 3-D clay, computer-generated modeling, and computer-enhanced imaging techniques. Experts immediately noticed that the second sailor's reconstructed face strongly resembled a man in a group photo of the Monitor crew who had been identified by a survivor as Robert Williams. The first man, however, didn't appear to bear much resemblance to a photo given to U.S. News by William Ferry, Nicklis's great-great-nephew.

A definitive identification will be possible only if the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware can match the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the recovered remains to a maternal relative of each sailor. Stansbury has sifted through military logs, census records, and pension files, but was not able to locate any Williams family members.

The Monitor Boys aboard the Union ironclad on the James River in 1862.

Nicklis's great-great-nephew, Ferry, says he is willing to be tested for a DNA comparison. However, it is unclear when this might happen, as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has a backlog of about 750 active cases, mostly from the Korean War.

The Navy has now released the remains of the two sailors for interment at Arlington National Cemetery. On March 8, 2013, Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, presided over the ceremony honoring the two sailors and the rest of the lost Monitor Boys, 150 years after the warship capsized. Descendants of the Monitor crew attended the event.

"Arlington is the place where the nation has always buried its heroes," says David Alberg, superintendent of NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, which encompasses the ship's final resting place. "These men are heroes."

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  • Corrected on : Updated on 3/8/13