for National Geographic News
On a cold and violent winter night in 1862, two U.S. Navy sailors tried desperately to leave the U.S.S. Monitor as it was sinking off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. But the menone middle-aged, the other not much more than a teenagercouldn't escape before the ship sank in 240 feet (73 meters) of water.
The remains of these luckless sailors were found when archaeologists raised the Monitor's gun turret in 2002. A revolutionary design for its time, the turret was taken to the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia, for preservation and display.
The skeletons of the sailors were sent to U.S. military forensic investigators in Hawaii, who hope to identify the men. By tradition, the U.S. armed forces seek to identify the remains of dead soldiers and to notify their families, however old the remains may be.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Mariner's Museum hope to answer other questions about the Monitor's sinking, including whether a sailor shoved a terrified cat into the barrel of a cannon as the ship tossed on stormy seas.
John Broadwater directs the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He said the effort to identify the Monitor sailors mirrors the problem faced by investigators who raised another famous Civil War vessel, the Confederate submarine Hunley.
The Hunley sank in 1864 and was raised in 2000. The remains of its eight crewmen were identified and buried last year in an elaborate ceremony in Charleston, South Carolina.
"We've been in close communications with the Hunley investigators," Broadwater said. "We're using a lot of the same tests and identification processes that they did. We have very similar problems in that we've both got many tons of rusty iron, and we're trying to determine the best way to get it un-rusty."
The forensic investigators in Hawaii also had to deal with the rust problem, said U.S. Army Major Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokesperson for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu. All unidentified remains of U.S. military personnel are sent to the lab for identification.
The bones of the two Civil War-era sailors became encrusted with rust that formed on the turret of the Monitor, Nielson-Green said. Removing the rust from the bones was a painstaking but worthwhile process, she said.
"What we found is that the temperature and conditions of the water [off Cape Hatteras] were excellent for the preservation of skeletal remains," Nielson-Green said. "The skeletons are in excellent condition. In fact, they're in better shape than a lot of remains recovered from the Vietnam and Korean wars and World War II."
Forensic analysis also uncovered a few details about the two men who died in the gun turret of the Civil War vessel. The older sailor was in his late 30s or early 40s and had done a lot of heavy lifting. And a notch worn between his teeth indicated that he'd often smoked a pipe.
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