copyright Charleston Post and Courier 2004
Who were men of the Hunley?
BY PRENTISS FINDLAY
Of The Post and Courier Staff
The faces and identities of the Confederate submarine Hunley crew are revealed for the first time on TV at 8 p.m. (EASTERN) today on "Forensic Case: The Hunley" on National Geographic Ultimate Explorer on MSNBC.
Producer Simon Boyce provided a peek into what investigators found in their examination of crew skeletons. The bones tell a story of lives cut short in a daring mission when the Hunley sank off Sullivan's Island on Feb. 17, 1864. The men ranged in age from 19 to their 40s. Only one was married. He was the father of four daughters. One of the men was 6 feet tall, which was big for those days.
"We definitely wanted to tap into the idea of a detective story. It is a mystery. We're documenting the application of very sophisticated forensic and investigative techniques to try to answer this particular detective story," Boyce said in a phone interview.
Forensic and genealogical detectives use evidence from the wreck to search for clues. Heads are reconstructed, and personal biographies are filled in during the forensic adventure, which includes disinterment of graves to confirm DNA identities of relatives. Through rigorous research, the investigators learn why the commander, Lt. George Dixon, and his seven crew members volunteered for such hazardous duty. Also, clues abound as to the reason for the Hunley's sinking and the crew deaths.
Remains of the crew members will be laid to rest in Magnolia Cemetery on Saturday, Boyce said.
Investigators think they have conclusively identified the remains of six of the eight men. The identities of the other two men remain less certain, he said. "I think certainly the genealogist feels pretty confident that she's identified six of them and has a good idea who the last two were," Boyce said.
From the remains, investigators could ascertain age and geographical origin. They also could tell about a man's lifestyle. Half of the men on the Hunley were not from the South. Instead, they were recent immigrants. "We don't know how recent. One of them, we think the youngest guy, had been in the country a very short time," Boyce said.
Boyce said he thinks the discovery that half of the Hunley crew were recent immigrants raises some interesting questions about what their motivation was for undertaking such a hazardous mission. "How much allegiance could recent immigrants have to the South really? And yet they chose to risk their lives, not just to fight as an artillery man would fight, but to actually undertake an extremely dangerous mission on behalf of the Confederacy," he said.
The eight crew members were white. From their bones, investigators learned about their personalities. One was an "eager beaver." Another, nicknamed "the scrapper," was a feisty man who lived a rowdy lifestyle. "His lifestyle is kind of recorded in his bones," Boyce said.
"For each of them, there's some evidence that you could easily interpret as indicating that they were unusually brave or committed or not risk averse," he said.
The bones also tell a story of men who lived fairly tough lives. There was some evidence of arthritis. Some had done manual labor. "Physically, I think the thing that's most surprising about them is how big they were. One guy was about 6 feet. For that era, he was exceptionally tall. What that means is it must have been exceptionally difficult for him to spend long hours in the sub."
It seems most likely the men were either unconscious or dead when the sub filled with water. How did they die? "You'll have to watch the film to find out," Boyce said.
(Beginning today on Page 1-A, The Post and Courier is running a series of stories on the crew, featuring biographical details and facial reconstructions. Their stories will appear over six days as the crew lies in state before burial Saturday in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery.)
Mount Pleasant Jan. the 31st, 64
Mr. Henry Willey
Dear Friend Henry,
I wrote you about one month ago, and as yet have not received an answer and thinking that probably you had not received my letter I will try you with another. And as I would like to know you are getting along in the world. And whether this new conscription law is going to affect you or not and if it is can I do any thing for you if so why, let me know. I suppose that you think strange that I have not done any thing here yet, but if I could tell you all of the circumstances that have occurred since I came here you would not think strange of my not having done any execution as yet.
But it would take considerable paper and time to relate them to you at present so I will postpone relating them until I see you.
But there is one thing very evident and that is to catch the Atlantic Ocean smooth during the winter months is considerable of an undertaking and one that I never wish to undertake again. Especially when all parties interested at sitting at home and wondering and criticising all of my actions and saying why don't he do something. if I have not done any thing "God Knows" it is not because I have not worked hard enough to do some thing.
And I shall keep trying until I do some thing. I have been out-side several times but for various reasons I have not yet met with success. I am out-side every night in a small boat so that there is not a possible for any good night to pass with out my being able to take advantage of it. I have my boat lying between Sullivan's and Long Islands and think that when the night does come that I will surprise the Yankees completely. The Fleet offshore have drawings of the sub-marine and of course they have taken all precautions that it is possible for Yankee ingenuity to invent, but I hope to Flank them yet.
I am living on a soldier's rations here and have been for the last six weeks and find that is the hardest fare that I have ever had. I have been frequently five days without meat and had to live on corn meal and rice for breakfast mush. Dinner rice and corn bread, for supper mush. if I don't get fat it will not be because I have not been "Corn fed." I have got very good quarters in sight of all of the Yankee and Confederate Batteries and can sit on the porch and see all of the guns that are fired. At present they are hammering away at Sumpter but not doing so much damage so far. The report of their guns shake every window in the house so bad that you would imagine that they would break.
After all of the shells that they threw into the city there has been comparatively little damage done although in the Shell District the houses are full of holes made by the shells and for glass there is scarcely a whole pane to be found in the lower part of the city.
I have got a splendid crew of men the best I think I ever seen. The government has been very kind to me, they have given me every thing that I have ask for.
King has gone home and can tell you considerable when you see him.
Give my regards to all engineering friends. Hoping to hear from you soon.
I remain yours as ever (Direct to Charleston)
Geo. E. Dixon.
Hunley's captain fiercely determined to succeed
George Dixon believed in his boat and crew and did not like to fail
BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier Staff
George Dixon sat on the porch of his Mount Pleasant boarding house and casually watched the Yankee artillery relentlessly shelling Fort Sumter.
Two years of war had made him numb to the explosions, the violence, the report of guns that shook the house around him. He seemed indifferent to it all, but that wasn't the case.
He was waiting for his chance to strike back.
By the winter of 1864, Lt. George E. Dixon of the Confederate Army was so accustomed to the front lines of the Civil War that he could ignore the chaos around him and calmly compose a letter to a friend.
Perhaps the note he wrote that afternoon was therapeutic, a chance to get some things off his chest. The pressure to succeed with this new secret weapon weighed on him like iron ballast. That much was obvious in the letter he wrote to his landlord, 700 miles away in Mobile, Ala.
"I suppose that you think strange that I have not done anything here yet, but if I could tell you all of the circumstances that have occurred since I came here you would not think strange of my not having done any execution as yet," Dixon wrote to Henry Willey.
For two months, Dixon had been trying to do what seemed like the impossible: sink an enemy warship with a tiny iron boat that sailed beneath the waves. But so far, the tide had brought him nothing but setbacks. His frustration nearly consumed him.
"There is one thing very evident and that is to catch the Atlantic Ocean smooth during the winter months is considerable of an undertaking, and one that I never want to undertake again," Dixon wrote. "Especially when all parties interested are sitting at home and wondering and criticizing all of my actions and saying why don't he do something."
The Confederates wanted action, not excuses. It did not matter that such a feat had never been done before, that the Atlantic was particularly tempestuous that winter, or that Dixon was desperately trying to keep the strange fish-boat from claiming a third crew.
None of that mattered because the South was losing the war.
The Confederacy needed a victory, and a lot of people hoped to get it from this little privateer torpedo boat -- this submarine -- the H. L. Hunley.
Dixon did not intend to let those people down. He had promised success to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, the sub's owners and, more importantly, himself.
Dixon was not a man who liked to fail.
SOUTHERN BY CHOICE
Dixon was a professional steamboat engineer and, in 1860, was plying his trade on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He drifted with the currents: He got his engineer's license in St. Louis, kept a rented room in Cincinnati. But the water was his real home.
The war changed all that.
The Mississippi became a battleground in the early days of the war, with the North and South fighting for control of the major artery. The conflict shut down the river to civilian traffic. Dixon found himself in Mobile around that time and made the best of the situation. He joined a local Masonic Lodge and signed on with the Mobile Grays, an auxiliary police force. Six months after the first shots of the Civil War, the Mobile Grays joined the cause; the outfit practically became the 21st Alabama regiment. Dixon enlisted in the Confederate Army in October 1861.
It appears he sided with the South by choice, not birthright. Although Dixon was a North American native, he was not born a Southerner. In fact his birthplace, like his early years, remains a mystery. All that is known is that he was born far north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Wherever he was from, it appears Dixon was educated and affluent. It was apparent in his clothing, which even during the war was as fine as any general's. He was used to a good diet, a lot of meat. At least before the war began, he took fine care of himself. He even paid for gold fillings in his teeth.
Dixon was a leader, something that military officials realized almost immediately. At 5 feet, 9 inches, he was taller than average, but he was not the towering 6-foot that people later remembered. Perhaps it was his stature, or even the high-heeled boots he sometimes wore that led to that false impression. Whatever it was, there was something special about Dixon. He rose through the ranks at an impressive clip for a man in his early twenties.
In the spring of 1862, Dixon traveled with the 21st Alabama to a remote spot in western Tennessee called Shiloh. And there, he would come to believe in miracles.
Before the first suggestion of dawn on April 6, 1862, Dixon's regiment stormed the rolling Tennessee countryside, eager to surprise Union forces. The 21st Alabama showed ample bravery, charging into the front lines, but paid dearly for it. Five flag-bearers fell that morning, one after another, and the 21st Alabama took heavier casualties than most outfits.
Dixon was one of the first to fall. The bullet hit him high in the thigh, knocking his legs out from under him. He blacked out on the battlefield; and, if he managed a thought before losing consciousness, Dixon probably thought he was going to die.
And he would have died -- if not for a coin in his pocket. Dixon had been carrying a $20 gold piece in his left pants pocket, a heavy 1860 mint Lady Liberty coin. For years people would claim the coin was a gift from a Mobile girl, Queen Bennett, a hefty amount of money for a young lady to throw around in those days. Dixon wrote or said little of the coin, or any meaning it might have had.
Without question, however, the coin had special meaning after that day. If the musket ball had struck him unencumbered, Dixon likely would have bled to death on that battlefield.
The impact was so terrible that the coin, forever warped, dug a trench into his femur, creating a bone spur. But that was a minor discomfort; the coin had done something important.
It saved his life.
A NEW KIND OF BOAT
Dixon convalesced in Mobile. He took some light duty work in a machine shop where he had friends. And there he set his course for history.
William Alexander was something of a whiz kid, an engineer who would ultimately design some of the Confederacy's most deadly guns. But in late 1862, Dixon's friend was working on a less conventional project. His machine shop, Park and Lyons, was helping a group of entrepreneurs build a torpedo boat, a boat that would operate underwater.
While some folks laughed at the notion, Dixon was taken with the idea. It appealed to the engineer in him. The way the boat worked was deceptively simple: It carried a crew of five, four men to power the propeller with hand cranks, and a fifth to steer. Ballast tanks took on and expelled water to control the level at which this sub-marine boat sailed.
The boat, called the American Diver, went through months of delays before it was launched in the winter of 1863. It had only one real mission before it was lost under tow near the mouth of Mobile Bay. The only casualty was Horace Lawson Hunley's wallet. He had financed the project alone.
Still, Hunley and his partner, designer/engineer James McClintock, wanted to continue their work. They had lost an earlier prototype in New Orleans and now the Diver, but felt they were close to a breakthrough. They found new investors, men interested in torpedoes, and literally went back to the drawing board.
The new submarine benefited from two years of trial and error. It was 40 feet long, carried a crew of eight, and dove under the water and resurfaced gracefully. Dixon may even have sailed the Hunley on its trial runs in Mobile Bay.
The need for this secret weapon was much greater in Charleston, on the front lines, than Mobile, so the little privateer boat was secreted by rail across the South.
Initially Dixon intended to go with the sub, much to the consternation of his friends, who were not as confident in the contraption as he was. They feared the Hunley was not safe.
"I hope to hear a report of its success," James M. Williams, Dixon's friend, wrote to his wife. "Still there are so many things which may ruin the enterprise that I am not so sanguine of its triumph as Dixon."
But Dixon was left behind. That turned out to be a mistake.
It took a great understanding of the sub's engineering and a deft touch at the controls to keep the submarine afloat. The first Charleston crews did not understand this. Within two weeks of its arrival in the city, a crew of Confederate Navy men sank the sub at the docks. Five of the eight drowned.
Next, Horace Hunley accidentally sank the sub in the middle of the harbor, killing himself and seven others.
Dixon heard this news in Mobile, and knew he must step in. He immediately asked for leave and left for Charleston. The Hunley was in danger of being scrapped, and he had to do something.
Dixon was certain the submarine would work with the right man at the helm.
ANOTHER CHANCE FOR THE 'FISH-BOAT'
After three months on the South Carolina coast, Dixon was scarcely farther along than when he'd arrived in late October.
He and Alexander had persuaded Beauregard to give the "fish-boat" another chance. They had divers salvage it from the Cooper River channel. Together, the two men refurbished the sub in Mount Pleasant. Dixon raised a crew, taking most of the men from the CSS Indian Chief.
"I have got a splendid crew of men," Dixon wrote in his letter to Henry Willey, "the best I think I ever seen."
Everything was going right, except that he still had not sunk a Union blockader. That failure, along with the pressure he was getting from the sub's investors and the military, was deflating.
Dixon didn't let his disappointment show; he still cut a formidable figure. He was 24 or 25, a lean, angular man. He was strong, not unaccustomed to physical activity. The blond-haired man had better muscle development than anyone on his crew.
But the war had taken its toll. He was living on soldier's rations, eating more mush than meat, and he told Willey it was the "hardest fare" he had ever had.
"I have been frequently five days without meat and had to live on cornmeal and rice," he wrote. "If I don't get fat, it will not be because I have not been 'Corn fed.' "
Dixon was getting by on pure determination in the winter of 1864. He felt he had the right crew and the right boat. He just needed weather conditions to cooperate. He spent a fair amount of time studying weather patterns and a lot of time waiting for his luck to return.
He kept a reminder of that luck in his left pants pocket, the gold coin that saved his life at Shiloh. A man who appreciated symbolism, Dixon had the coin engraved with the date of the battle, his name and the sentimental phrase, "My life Preserver." He carried the coin with him everywhere and had very nearly rubbed it flat in one spot.
Dixon knew he needed luck, but he also knew he had to put himself in the right position to make use of it when it did return. He wrote to Willey that his schedule was busy for that very reason.
"I am out-side every night in a small boat so that there is not a possibility for any good night to pass with out my being able to take advantage of it," Dixon wrote. "I have my boat lying between Sullivan's and Long Islands, and think that when the night comes that I will surprise the Yankees completely. The Fleet offshore have drawings of the sub-marine and of course they have taken all precautions that it is possible for Yankee ingenuity to invent.
"But I hope to Flank them yet."
Dixon finished his letter to Willey and continued to bide his time by watching the war play out on Charleston Harbor. It was Jan. 31, 1864.
In 17 days, he would get his chance, and he would make history.
And, in 17 days, he would be dead.