Museum's collections crucial to ID

Two mysterious bone fragments remained partially buried inside the sunken gun turret of the USS Monitor Monday, waiting as Navy divers labored to secure the ship's two 15,750-pound guns and resume their excavation.

Yet even as archaeologists prepared for the recovery of the remains, which must still undergo tests to determine if they are human, archivists at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News are readying their massive collection of Monitor documents - hoping to provide clues that could identify a victim by name.

Three of the 16 officers and crewmen who died in the Dec. 31, 1862, wreck were captured by a photographer earlier that year, producing portraits that could prove to be doubly dramatic if a plausible link to the remains were established. Other sources of information include the ship's registry - a seemingly mundane example of naval paperwork that could provide vital data about the victims' heights, races and ages as well as other physical characteristics.

Official reports and eyewitness accounts of the sinking may offer invaluable leads, too, including the probable elimination of three of the victims - all of whom were reportedly lost before the Monitor foundered in the stormy waters off Cape Hatteras, N.C.

That leaves 13 candidates to be linked to the fragments of bone - including three whose faces can still be seen in the July 9, 1862, set of photographs taken on the James River. And the science of forensics has taken on worse odds.

"We're all excited here," said Jeff Johnston, a historian for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, talking by telephone from the expedition barge early Monday morning.

"You can do a lot with forensics - and with all the other information we have, it really wouldn't surprise me if we came up with a pretty good idea of who this is."

The Mariners' became the official repository for NOAA's Monitor Collection in 1987, shortly after the offshore site of the wreck became the nation's first national marine sanctuary.

The holdings feature more than 3,000 bibliographic items - including books, articles and reports - as well as thousands of drawings, plans and photographs. They also boast nearly 40 volumes of newspaper clippings on the Monitor - most of them from the Civil War period - as well as 27 eyewitness accounts of the ship's history-making clash with the CSS Virginia in the March 9, 1862, Battle of Hampton Roads.

Among the collection's most important acquisitions was a volume of revealing letters by Monitor crewman George Geer, who served on the ship from its first voyage until the tragic sinking. Last week, the museum announced the purchase of two related items - a pair of original 1861 drawings outlining the plans of the Virginia.

"We have thousands and thousands of items related to the Monitor," said Susan Berg, museum vice president and director of the library.

"We're just about to add another 1,500 items to the bibliographic list on our Web site. And we still haven't finished."

Whether such information will help archaeologists come up with a reliable ID still remains to be determined.

It could be weeks before tests at the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii can definitively establish whether the remains are human.

On board the barge, however, Johnston, his NOAA colleagues and the Navy divers have already adopted the unknown victim as if he were one of their own.

"I think it's great," Johnston said, "and it will still be great even if we can't come up with an idea of who it is.

"We're going to be bringing somebody home after 140 years."

Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or by e-mail at