Scientists Unlock Secrets of Civil War-Era Shipwreck

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

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The Monitor finally sank around 1 a.m. on December 31. Twelve sailors and four officers would lose their lives. Periodicals like Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper would later publish artists' renderings and poems about the tragedy, but for families of the victims there was little solace. The exact location of the Monitor's final resting place and the crewmen who perished would remain a mystery for more than a century.

In 1973, a team of scientists from the Duke University Marine Laboratory launched a two-week mission to find the Monitor. In his 2012 book USS Monitor: A Historic Ship Completes Its Final Voyage, John Broadwater describes how, on the night of Aug. 27, 1973, the team's electronics engineer noticed a black squiggle on the ship's fathometer, a sonar instrument used to measure the depth of water beneath a ship. Using side-scan sonar equipment, the team collected acoustic images and video of what lay 230 feet beneath them. The following year, an analysis of the wreck by a U.S. Navy research vessel, equipped with the most advanced high-resolution deep-water imaging technology, confirmed that the Duke team had indeed discovered the Monitor wreck approximately 16 nautical miles south-southeast of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Over the next three decades, researchers would mount a number of diving expeditions to further study the wreck. In 2002, the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) successfully raised the turret to the surface, leaving the rest of the ship to be studied where it lay. Many of the turret's contents were intact, including the Dahlgren guns, a high-quality wool coat, a jar of relish, and pieces of silverware engraved with the sailors' names. There were also two skeletons.

Broadwater, former chief archaeologist at NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, was the first scientist to enter the turret after it was lifted onto the expedition barge. It was wet and eerie inside like a cave, he recalls, with water dripping down on sediment, sand, lumps of coal, and more than a century's worth of iron concretion. Broadwater saw the first set of remains immediately. "It looked like the poor guy had almost made it to the exit hatch," he says. "It was very moving." The second set of remains would be discovered by Broadwater and his team several weeks later.

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To identify the two sailors, the archaeologists sent the remains to the U.S. Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for analysis. "It's very important to give identities to these war heroes," says Broadwater.

John Byrd, director of the laboratory, says that "sunken ships can be a very, very good environment for preserving remains" because of the protective coating of silt that forms over them. This was the case inside the Monitor, where tons of coal mixed with the silt, creating an anaerobic environment that prevented chemical reactions and animal activity from destroying the skeletons.

Using the latest forensic technology, Byrd's team was able to create biographical profiles of the two sailors. HR-1 (Human Remains 1), the man Broadwater believed had nearly made it through the hatch, was estimated to have been between 17 and 24 years old and about 5 feet, 7 inches tall. Analysis of the skull showed that the young sailor had good hygiene and a broken nose that was healing.

The forensic team estimated that HR-2 could have been as tall as 5 foot, 8 inches, was between 30 and 40 years old, and, judging by the dent in his teeth, likely smoked a pipe. The sailor suffered from arthritis and had an asymmetrical leg. Both men were white (three of the 16 crewmen who perished were African-American).

Lisa Stansbury, a genealogist contracted by NOAA, has been working to identify the two sailors. She has matched the information from the forensic analyses with biographical records, including medical logs from other ships where the men had served, to narrow the 16 missing sailors down to just a few candidates. Stansbury believes a 21-year-old seaman named Jacob Nicklis from Buffalo, N.Y., could be HR-1. He is on the shortlist of men who fit the age, height, and racial profile, as determined by Byrd's team. The second sailor could be Robert Williams, a first class fireman in his early 30s, who was born in Wales and joined the U.S. Navy in 1855. His medical records are consistent with some of HR-2's conditions.

Updated on 3/8/13