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Scientists near answers on Civil War mystery men | (KRT) NEWPORT NEWS, Va. The last two unburied dead of the Civil War have not been forgotten.

For 140 years, they lay trapped in the turret of the legendary ironclad USS Monitor on the sea bottom 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C.

Discovered when the turret was raised by marine archeologists two years ago, the skeletal remains of these two 19th century U.S. sailors have since reposed at the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, where forensics experts have been painstakingly assessing DNA samples and other evidence in hopes of determining the men's identities.

The work is not finished, but historians at the federal government's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary - based here and established to protect the wreckage of the Monitor from treasure hunters and other underwater intruders - are hopeful that a report might be released next year.

It is known that four officers and 12 enlisted seamen died when the Union Monitor foundered during a gale while being towed to a new duty station in the Carolinas on New Year's Eve 1862.

But which two these might be has thus far baffled scholars and investigators.

That the remains were found in the turret has been of little help.

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"Nobody should have been in there," said Monitor Sanctuary Manager John Broadwater. "While it was under tow, that would have been a real rough place to be. It would have been wet, and up high, so you would have been tossed around. Once the guns were secured, there would have been no reason for anybody to be up there and probably nobody wanted to be."

"It's a mystery," he said.

The epic March 9, 1862, battle between the Monitor and the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia - the first clash between iron-sided warships - changed the course of naval history.

Built from the burned-out hulk of the captured Union frigate Merrimack, the Virginia had easily sunk two wooden-sided Federal vessels the previous day, establishing itself as a Confederate wonder weapon that threatened to break the U.S. Navy's blockade of Chesapeake Bay.

The arrival of the Monitor put an end to those ambitions.

The ensuing slugfest between the two forerunners of the modern warship ended in a draw, but the Virginia was prevented from taking any further action against the blockading fleet.

Later trapped in the shallow waters of the James River, the Virginia was burned again to keep the Yankees from repossessing her.

By year's end, it was decided that the steamer Rhode Island would tow the Monitor to Carolina ports for use against Confederate vessels there.

Passing Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks, the ships were struck by a ferocious gale.

Monitor helmsman Francis Butts later recalled: "The vessel was making very heavy weather, riding one huge wave, plunging through the next as if shooting straight for the bottom of the ocean and splashing down upon another with such force that her hull would tremble, and with a shock that would sometimes take us off our feet, while a fourth would leap upon us and break far above the turret."

Taking on water, the Monitor requested that the Rhode Island send boats to take off the 60-some crew members, but before all could be rescued, one of the two hawsers, or tow ropes, was lost, causing the ironclad to yaw and roll violently. The last anyone aboard the Rhode Island saw of the ship was the eerie glow of the red lantern that had been affixed to the Monitor's mast.

The wreck of the Monitor was not found until 1974, some 240 feet below the surface.

In 2002, the turret was brought to the surface and then taken ashore as an emergency measure to prevent further deterioration.

It has been placed in a conservation tank at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, where the ship's two 11-inch Dahlgren cannons were removed from it this year for restoration work.

According to Broadwater, the outer casing of the gun barrels was turning soft from the long immersion in seawater.

"They had been engraved after the battle of Hampton Roads," he said. "We had a real struggle trying to figure out how to make sure we didn't damage those engravings, for they make the guns unique. They were both labeled `Monitor - Merrimack,' and then one was engraved with `Worden' (after the captain, John Worden) and the other one `Ericsson,' for the builder (John Ericsson)."

Eventually, the guns will be displayed in the museum, where the Monitor's fully restored propeller and the famous red lantern are on exhibit.

The skeletal remains were discovered almost immediately after the turret was brought ashore.

The Hawaii lab, part of the military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, is primarily concerned with the identification of recovered remains of troops from Vietnam, the Korean War and World War II.

Its forensics experts could work on the Monitor case only part time.

Other challenges have also delayed the identification process.

"There was no soft tissue with the skeletal remains that could be used for detailed DNA analysis," Broadwater said. "We were a little disappointed by that. But, according to the forensics folks in Hawaii, we did get some fairly good DNA ... which gives us some information but not so much as we hoped for."

Also, like the cannons and the turret, the remains were covered with mineral concretions from the years in salt water.

"They had to chip away at the concretions and try to clean the bone so they could look for any physical injuries and anything that might provide clues to the identities," Broadwater said.

Another problem was all materials recovered from the Monitor are considered historic artifacts and must be treated with care.

"One of the guys still had his boots on," Broadwater said. "They had to try to figure out how to remove the bones of the feet from the boots without damaging the boots."

A number of brass buttons were recovered from the turret and may help narrow the identification process because they were all from enlisted seamen's uniforms.

No hints

Retired Army Lt. Col. Johnie Webb, senior adviser of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, said progress has been made in determining the approximate height and age of the Monitor victims but no information will be given out until the report is complete, and that may take some time.

The report will be made to the Navy Casualty Office because the two crewmen are officially considered missing naval personnel.

Once the Navy gets the report, Webb said, the really hard part begins.

"They have to find a maternal relative of one of the sailors and make a DNA match with a blood sample," he said.

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© 2004, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services