Bone fragments found near `Monitor' wreck

2 pieces to be studied to see if they are remains of Civil War ship's crew

July 27, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Navy divers excavating the sunken turret of the USS Monitor off Cape Hatteras found bone fragments yesterday that could be remains of crewmen who went down with the famed warship 140 years ago.

Officials working at the site, 20 miles off the North Carolina coast, said military scientists will analyze the fragments to determine whether they are the remains of Civil War sailors deserving of a naval burial more than a century after their death.

`An effect on all of us'

The discovery was a sobering reminder that the ironclad shipwreck, with its prized 150-ton turret made of Baltimore iron, served for decades as a gravesite for four U.S. Navy officers and 12 crewmen who failed to escape when the Monitor sank during a storm off the cape on Dec. 31, 1862.

"Even with all the planning, and all the thought about the eventuality, actually digging up what was probably human remains has had an effect on all of us out here," said John Broadwater, director of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, which was designated in 1975 to protect the wreck.

"It just must have been a terrible death for anyone trapped in there," said Broadwater, who spoke to reporters by telephone yesterday from the site of the $7 million expedition. "You really can't help but stop and think."

A historic battle

The Monitor gained fame almost 10 months before its deadly sinking because of its historic clash with the Confederate Merrimac (later rechristened CSS Virginia) in March 1862. It was the first-ever matchup of ironclad warships and effectively brought to a close thousands of years of battles between wooden war vessels.

The Monitor was considered a technological marvel, with its 9-inch-thick armor, modern steam engines and 22-foot-wide rotating gun turret, made from eight layers of 1-inch iron plate produced in Fells Point. But for all its advances, the Monitor was never considered very seaworthy.

When it sank during a storm, 49 crewmen were able to scramble to safety by crawling through the turret's mouth and over the sides of the ship to a waiting rescue vessel, Broadwater said. But 16 others - and perhaps, according to legend, one cat - were left behind.

Scraps of material

Officials planning this summer's excavation of the turret anticipated that they could find remains near what was the one exit point as the ship went down. Broadwater said divers have also discovered scraps of material, possibly the tattered remains of the crew's heavy overcoats, which survivors said were quickly thrown off by men trying to escape.

The two bone fragments, each less than 12 inches long, will be analyzed by officials at the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.

Eric Emery, an archaeologist with the Army lab, was at the expedition site yesterday helping oversee the recovery of the possible remains.

Reaching into the past

Emery said an initial review suggested that there are human elements to the bones. He said further tests could determine the age and sex of the person. That information, combined with historical documents about the crew members who died in the wreck, could enable scientists make identifications.

"Recovering American personnel who never return from harm's way is one of the most rewarding aspects," of the work, Emery said. "The idea of reaching this far back in the past to try to make identifications is not only rewarding, but also very intriguing."

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