Rick Spilman

Rick Spilman
Jersey City, New Jersey, USA
March 25
I am the author of a nautical thriller set in the last days of sail, Hell Around the Horn. I also the host of the Old Salt Blog. I have a background in ship operations, banking and corporate communications. I am an avid sailor and kayaker.

MARCH 6, 2012 10:53AM

Faces of the USS Monitor – Using Forensic Reconstruction to Identify Unknown Civil War Sailors

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Lost Sailors from the USS Monitor - Samuel A. Lewis & Robert Williams?

When the revolutionary ironclad warship USS Monitor sank off Hampton Roads, VA during the Civil War, in December of 1862, 16 of her crew of 62 were lost.  One hundred and forty years later, in August of 2002, when the turret of the ship was raised from the bottom, divers found the skeletons of two sailors. Despite DNA and other testing, all attempts to identify the two sailors were unsuccessful.  Now using forensic reconstruction techniques, Eileen Barrow, an imaging specialist  from Louisiana State University has literally given faces to dead. The reconstructed faces were revealed today.  Lisa Stansbury, a genealogist working with NOAA, may have also put names to the reconstructed faces.

Names and Faces Suggested for Monitor Sailors

The facial reconstruction was done by Eileen Barrow, an imaging specialist at the LSU lab. Barrow created the facial features by placing dozens of markers on the skull models to mark the depth of skin tissue, said lab director Mary Mannheim. The markers were covered with special clay to create facial features, Mannheim said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu, Hawaii have been trying to identify the two men since the remains were recovered. NOAA hired genealogist Lisa Stansbury to dig into records for clues to the sailors’ names. 

Stansbury thinks she has found “strong evidence” that one set of remains is that of a burly, mustachioed Welshman named Robert Williams. Stansbury discovered that Williams, a boilermaker, was living in New York City when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1855. He was serving on the Monitor and would have been in his early 30s when it squared off against the Virginia in history’s first battle between ironclad warships.

Stansbury is less certain about the identity of the remains of the younger sailor. She thinks the other man in the turret might have been Samuel A. Lewis, a young officer who was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania and living in Baltimore when he joined the Navy. Eyewitnesses who survived the sinking of the Monitor later said that Lewis was very ill with seasickness and was in his bunk while the ship was being tossed in the violent storm.

Thanks to Alaric Bond for passing the news along.

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