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How a forensic artist attempted to re-create the face of a Black Civil War soldier

An 1890 illustration depicts members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863. (Kurz & Allison/AP/Shutterstock)

It was an unusual request for the FBI. The military’s National Museum of Health and Medicine was, in 2018, hoping the FBI would divine a face from an anonymous skull that likely belonged to an African American soldier — a skull that had been punched through by a 1-inch iron ball from a Confederate howitzer.

The soldier is thought to have been a member of one of the Civil War’s first Black regiments, an iconic infantry whose hard-fought loss near Charleston, S.C., was depicted in the Oscar-winning 1989 film “Glory.” “I desperately wanted to do it,” says then-FBI forensic artist Lisa Bailey, who retired in 2019. “I said: ‘I’ll do it at home, I don’t care.’ ”

A mostly self-taught artist and former Russian linguist for the Navy, Bailey had approximated dozens of faces from unidentified skulls during her 18 years at the FBI. In sculptures and sketches, she rebuilt likenesses from only anthropological inference — ancestry, sex, age — and a chassis of bone.

“My whole career I’ve been sculpting faces that I’m not looking at,” says Bailey, 59, from her home just outside Las Vegas. It can feel like “pinning Jell-O to the wall.” But the faces she conjured for the FBI were utilitarian; they needed only to suggest familiarity to the right person. This soldier’s face, she felt, carried the weight of posterity.

The museum — which began in 1862 as the Army’s hub for collecting and understanding battlefield trauma — unveiled the new visage online in February 2020 and hopes to display it someday. (The museum closed in March due to the pandemic.) When I spoke to her over the summer, the emotional riptide of creating it was still fresh in Bailey’s mind. “I wanted to do well by him,” she says.

For a year, in the space between FBI casework, she worked and reworked clay daubed over a 3-D print of the soldier’s skull, until the face “basically had to be pried from my hands,” she says. “Even now, I wish I could have a copy of the skull again and do him again.”

But she knew it was time. “I’ve heard more than one artist say, ‘I stop when there is a person staring back at me,’ ” she says. “And that’s what I finally had to get to: This is a person. It’s not rough, it’s completely valid. I just had to let it go.”

The few and tragically noble details known about the soldier compounded her angst: He was young and Black and a volunteer for a war effort that largely didn’t want him. He left a head so profoundly broken that since 2008 it has been displayed at the museum as evidence of that war’s particular violence. And he served in a regiment that flattened doubts about the grit of Black soldiers.

The soldier was a member of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, an all-Black unit that began to form almost as soon as the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on the first day of 1863, expressly made it possible. Free Black men and those who escaped slavery coalesced into its ranks from the North, the South and abroad. They were led by White officers under the command of 25-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw. They volunteered to fight despite a Confederate promise of brutality if captured and despite the Union’s broken promise of equal pay. As they did, they helped inspire a Black contingent that would number about 180,000 in the Army and about 20,000 in the Navy.

The regiment earned renown for leading thousands of men in the July 18, 1863, storming of Fort Wagner, an eyetooth in the jaw of defenses around Charleston Harbor. Almost half its 600 men were killed, wounded or missing, with Shaw among the dead. (The group’s daring that day would lead, decades later, to a member receiving the Medal of Honor.)

Despite further assaults, the fort held firm until it was abandoned in September. Thirteen years after the battle, a skull was found near the site, reddened by rusting remnants of the cast-iron artillery shot that crashed through it.

To build the face, Bailey raised what could be read from the bone: broad cheeks, large eye orbits slightly widespread, a strong jaw and a square chin. It’s a robust face, though free of features that make it easy to spot him in Civil War photos. (She’s tried.)

She began by fussing with the eyes to place them just so, a key suspended in a gaping keyhole. “Then you start adding eyelids, and then you start forming some muscles and clay around” — layering heft where the bone is built to support it — “and it’s like it comes to life,” Bailey says. “It goes from being a chunk of plastic and clay and becomes a person.”

Beyond the bone, the facts tend to soften like everything else. There are averages for things like tissue depth, and ways to estimate a nose if the telltale but fragile bony bits nearby are gone. And anecdotal data is everywhere. Bailey tends to find herself X-ray-visioning interesting faces she sees out and about, fancying the scaffold underneath.

Eyes, hair and skin are made colorless since all clues disappear with them. Ears are anybody’s guess. The effect overall, she says, is a level of detail that you might notice on a face from eight feet away.

“I was fighting with myself how much to try to go for more detail,” Bailey says. She was torn between fidelity to the unknown and reaching to create a portrait worthy of the soldier’s life, worthy of a museum pedestal.

The narrow possibility that the soldier’s true face could emerge someday — officially, the museum calls that “extremely unlikely” — means there’s a chance Bailey will find out how close she came to truth. Short of that, she will carry doubts about the face she gave him. “I always think I can do it better,” she says, “and I don’t know what better looks like.”

“I hope it’s okay,” Bailey says simply, when asked how she reflects on this project. “I’m not talking ego, like somebody’s going to criticize the way I sculpted his ears or something. It’s hard to describe. I just hope I did him justice.”

Danny Freedman is a Memphis-based freelance writer.

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