In one of those odd intersections of time and history, the two most famous warships of the American Civil War are in the news. One hundred years ago, the Confederate ironclad warship CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merimack, sailed up the Elizabeth River to attack a flotilla of Union warships at Hampton Roads. Those wooden ships were no match for the Virginia, but steaming to the rescue was the Union’s own ironclad, the USS Monitor. The ensuing duel ended the age wood and sail and started the modern naval era.

The following year, on 31 December, 1863, Monitor foundered and sank off Cape Hatteras, NC, while being towed, with the loss of 16 of her 62 crew. The wreck was located in 1973, and in 2002, when the Monitor’s revolving gun turret was raised
to the surface, the remains of two crewmen were discovered inside.

Today the Louisiana State University FACES laboratory, in partnership with NOAA (US Natl Oceanic and Atmosperhic Administration)has released computer reconstructions of the faces of these men, based on their skeletal remains, using criminal forensic methods. An article in the Virginian Pilot Online describes how efforts to identify these men by DNA have failed, but based on the evidence of the remains and on naval records of the time, it is thought that the older of the two men was Robert Williams, the fireman who tended the Monitor’s furnace and boilers.

I find it both eerie and moving to look at these faces, recovered from the oceans of time and sea, and see them as they might have once been.

Robert Williams?

Plans for a permanent memorial and resting place at Arlington National Cemetery are under way.

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