Civil War sailors buried: Their faces are known, but who are they?

The Navy buried two sailors found in the turret of the USS Monitor, the famed Civil War ironclad. Forensic anthropologists reconstructed their likenesses, but their identities are a mystery.

By , Staff Writer

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    The phases of facial reconstruction of two sailors of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor are seen in the auditorium of the US Navy Memorial in Washington Tuesday.
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Two faces that witnessed America's greatest and bloodiest struggle peered at the world once more on Friday, as the Navy buried the remains of the last known casualties of the Civil War at Arlington National Cemetery.

As part of the ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary of the USS Monitor's role in the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, the Navy exhibited two busts showing the facial reconstructions of the two men, based on skulls found when the Monitor's turret was raised in 2002. The work was done by some of the country's top forensic anthropologists at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Center in Honolulu.

While the men's approximate likenesses are now known, their identities remain a mystery.

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Sixteen men lost their lives when the Monitor, the legendary Union ironclad, foundered in a bad storm off North Carolina's Outer Banks on Dec. 31, 1862. DNA testing has narrowed the identities of the two men to six individuals, including a 50 percent chance one of the remains belong to a young sailor named Jacob Nicklis.

"There are a lot of challenges when you are trying to identify someone, especially when you're just dealing with skeletal remains," said forensic anthropologist Robert Mann, director of the Forensic Science Academy in Honolulu, according to a Navy press release. "If you think about how you recognize somebody, and how we identify people, they identify them by visual examinations. Look at the face or fingerprints, well we don't have fingerprints after 150 years. We don't have faces, we have bones and teeth."

After cleaning the bones of salt, rust, coal, and other sediment, forensic anthropologists visually examined bones and teeth to determine gender, race, approximate age, as well as identify general health, injuries, and distinguishing features.

The center says it will continue to try to positively identify the men by potentially matching DNA with descendants. Genealogists have been able to determine possible descendants for 10 families of the 16 missing sailors. Many of those family members were expected to attend Friday's burial.

"What we're going to hope for is we may still find ancestors of the other missing sailors," said Mr. Mann. "If that happens we can get DNA samples from them, then we may be able to exclude the other 15 sailors, we may end up with a match. We may end up with one or both of these sailors [identities]."

But workups of the remains in Honolulu did provide some more details about what the men looked like. Both were white males. One was between 17 and 24 years old when the Monitor foundered, the other was into his 30s. Both men stood at about 5 feet 7 inches tall. The busts depict two handsome, strong-jawed men, seeming to eye the horizon.

Diana Rambo told the Associated Press that Jacob Nicklis, her grandfather's uncle, is pictured in a photograph wearing a ring like one found on the remains.

“I’ve started doing the research, and even read letters he wrote to his father saying he really didn’t want to go,” Ms. Rambo, of Fresno, Calif., told the AP. “And you think about how many of these kids today are in that situation.”

US Army Sgt. Maj. Danang McKay, JPAC's senior enlisted leader, said the unveiling of the sailors’ likenesses and the ongoing search for their identities highlights how seriously the military takes its "leave no one behind" credo.

"The importance of recovering a fallen warrior is to let the nation know that the United States has made a commitment that once we've put someone in harm's way, and they are either missing or killed in action, that we have a resolve to go back and return them back to their families," said Mr. McKay, according to the Navy.

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