Outside the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, a wreath honored all of the sailors who served on the USS Monitor. Inside, the faces of two men were the center of attention.
Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unveiled sculptures of the sailors, facial reconstructions historians hope will help to identify the men
James Delgado is the Director of Maritime Heritage for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "For me it was a powerful moment to see the sculptures for the first time," Delgado said, "because it literally put a face, not just on history, but two guys who paid the price."
The "two guys who paid the price" were crewmen on the USS Monitor, the Civil War Ironclad that battled the Confederate ship Virginia on March 9th, 1862 in Hampton Roads. The Monitor survived that encounter, but 16 sailors died on New Year's Eve of that year, when the ship capsized and sank during a storm off the coast of North Carolina.
When the Navy and NOAA raised the Monitor's turret ten years ago, they also recovered two sets of human remains, and now they're trying to identify them.
Mary Manhein is Director of the FACES forensic anthropology laboratory at Louisiana State University. "The oldest case we've ever gotten an ID on was 32 years old," Manhein told WDBJ7. "The case had been in our lab for 32 years. We promoted the image we created and someone recognized something and it sparked an idea in this person's head, and we got the person identified."
Forensic anthropologists at LSU used models of the sailors' skulls and layers of clay to reconstruct their faces. They're hoping the sculptures and enhanced photographs will help genealogists find the sailors' descendants, and confirm the connection through DNA testing.
"So if we can identify people from 150 years ago," Manhein said, "that would just make us feel so good inside. It's gosh, we got it, you know."
Robert Worden is a descendant of the Monitor's commander. He says it was moving to see the sculptures and know the two men served with his ancestor.
"It's almost like bringing them back to life in a sense," Worden said. "And they look like any one of us in a way. They've done an amazing job."
The Defense Department has analyzed the sailors' DNA, and genealogists are searching for likely descendants. NOAA hopes to identify the sailors so they can be buried with honors by New Year's Eve, the 150th anniversary of the day the Monitor went down and the men were lost at sea.