Perhaps they were friends — the older sailor who walked with a limp and always had a pipe clenched in his teeth, and the younger salt with the busted nose and the beat-up, mismatched shoes.
Over a century later, their skeletons would be found, one atop the other — the younger man still with his shoes on — amid the guns, equipment and debris inside the famous ship’s turret.
And Tuesday, a few months shy of 150 years since their faces were last seen in the midst of the Civil War, likenesses of the noble Yankee seamen were unveiled at the Navy Memorial in downtown Washington.
Experts have used plaster models of the sailors’ skulls to create facial reconstructions that could provide clues to their identities.
The unveiling is the culmination of almost 40 years of research into the Monitor shipwreck by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Navy, the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., and many other groups.
“I think it’s pretty amazing that we’ve finally gotten here,” said John D. Broadwater, a retired NOAA archaeologist who has been studying the Monitor for decades. “We can look into the eyes of those two men. It’s a little bit eerie, and kind of moving.”
“It’s really pretty impressive that we’ve got the technology to do that,” he said last week. “Beyond all that, it’s just very emotional for me.”
Broadwater, who dove on the Monitor wreck and this month published a book about it, was one of the first to begin excavating the human remains from inside the turret when it was raised from the bottom in 2002.
The Monitor is famous for battling the Confederate ship CSS Virginia, formerly the Merrimack, on March 9, 1862, in history’s first fight between ironclad warships — 150 years ago this Friday.
The battle, at Hampton Roads, was a draw, with each ship’s cannonballs bouncing off the other’s iron sides.
Later that year, the Virginia — which had been built out of the former USS Merrimack — was blown up to keep it out of the hands of Union soldiers. Little of it has ever been found.
The Monitor sank in a gale on Dec. 31, 1862. Most of the 63 crewmen escaped.
Sixteen men perished, but these two sets of remains are the only ones that have ever been recovered. The identities of all are known, and many crew members are depicted in old photographs — including a famous series taken on the ship by photographer James F. Gibson in July 1862.
Experts hope that the facial reconstructions might resemble one or two of the men in the pictures so historians might identify, or at least see the faces of, those who drowned in the turret.
Already, experts have noted a resemblance between the reconstructed face of the older sailor and that of the Monitor’s Welsh-born first-class fireman, Robert Williams, 30.
In two of Gibson’s pictures, officials said, Williams appears in a cap and mustache, as he stands with his arms folded. He is surrounded by other members of the crew, who lounge on the deck, playing checkers and smoking pipes.