A Quest for Identity


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The Mariners’ Museum and NOAA have a strong, ongoing desire to positively identify two sets of human remains recovered from Monitor‘s gun turret in 2002. Experts have documented and studied the remains, extracted viable DNA for comparison with modern samples, and attempted to verify the sailors’ identities. Unfortunately no matches have been found to date. With all information gathered and stored for future use, the remains were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on March 8, 2013.

Lack of positive identification hasn’t stopped Mariners’ and NOAA staff and the general public from trying to learn more about Monitor‘s sailors. Prior to burial of the remains, experts at LSU’s FACES Lab reconstructed both sailors’ faces using scientific and artistic methods. LSU staff believe their reconstructions have a strong resemblance to the original sailors, and they have had an over 90% success rate in identifying modern remains based upon their facial reconstructions. So we can state with some confidence that LSU’s facial reconstructions of USS Monitor sailors have a likeness to the original men who gave their lives on December 31, 1862.

Facial reconstructions generated by LSU’s FACES Lab from the remains of two sailors recovered from USS Monitor’s gun turret.

Although we do not have pictures of every sailor that served aboard USS Monitor, we are fortunate to have a few images that were produced aboard the ironclad on July 9, 1862 by a photographer named Gibson. One of the images depicts officers sitting casually but proudly in front of the revolving gun turret.


Now I want you to do something a bit strange. Please ignore the men sitting in front of the turret. Yes, ignore them. Focus your attention on the top-right portion of the image. Note the man sitting atop the turret smoking a pipe, third from the right. You can only see his head, neck, and left shoulder. I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I believe he resembles the younger of the two sailors whose remains were discovered aboard USS Monitor. Maybe not a perfect match, but somewhat similar in appearance. Here is a closer look at that sailor with the facial reconstruction included for a side-by-side comparison:


What do you think? Is this a possible match? Are you a descendant of a Monitor sailor? Your comments and opinions are important. Please get in touch and let us know what you think.




5 thoughts on “A Quest for Identity”

    1. Hi Elsa. Unfortunately we do not yet know the identity of the pipe smoker. But it has been interesting to compare the facial reconstructions with the many faces in the original Gibson images.

  1. I agree with Lisa the likeness is almost too good for coincidence. Could the man to the right of the pipe smoker be the other reconstructed head? – together alive in the photo and together dead in the turret.

    Thanks for a fantastic ‘live’ website. I discovered your civil war history through Matthew Brady’s photographs and am especially fascinated by the ironclads standoff in Hampton Roads-that and the adventures of Ralph Semmes in the CSS Alabama

  2. In looking at the picture of the pipe smoker on the turret, I am struck by his clothing. Obviously the image does not allow a complete view, but it appears that this individual is wearing a standing collar with possibly a tie or cravat, possibly a vest, and perhaps a sack coat. The cap as well is somewhat unusual, and somewhat suggests the possibility of an oil cloth cover over a regular uniform cap. The cap itself seems unusual for an enlisted sailor – the most common headgear was certainly the flat top cloth cap; this one appears to have a vertical structure and a leather bill. I do not have an extensive reference library on Civil War naval uniforms, but two standards (Tilley and Rankin) do not show enlisted dress of this pattern. This suggests to me that the individual is almost certainly a warrant officer (gunner, boatswain, sailmaker, etc.) or rated mate as opposed to a seaman. That may take you a step closer to identification.

    Walter G. Green III, Ph.D.