Watch offers clues to sub commander
Scientists peer carefully back into time
BY SCHUYLER KROPF
Of The Post and Courier Staff
The gold pocket watch belonging to Confederate submarine Hunley commander Lt. George Dixon stopped between 6 and 9 o'clock, but scientists warn that doesn't mean much in pinpointing the time the sub went down.
H. L. Hunley Senior Archaeologist, Maria Jacobsen, points to an X-Ray, where the metal ring on Lt. George Dixon's pocket watch held the crystal in place.
For starters, the watch might have continued to tick for hours after Dixon and the rest of the crew succumbed to their fate, either by suffocating or drowning inside.
Another factor: Even though the sub sailed at night, scientists don't know if the watch stopped during the a.m. or p.m.
Also, the sequence of events surrounding the Hunley's battle with the Union blockade ship Housatonic is complicated further because neither side in the Civil War was known for keeping accurate time, on land or at sea.
"Right now I would urge you not to jump to any conclusions," said Hunley team conservator Maria Jacobsen.
Most sources believe the sub attack occurred around 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 17, 1864 by ramming a black powder charge into the Housatonic. The Hunley survived for at least 45 minutes after sinking the Housatonic, long enough to send a signal to Confederates on shore via kerosene lamp.
Hunley archaeologists spent this week opening Dixon's watch in the hope it would reveal additional clues into the sub's final mission. An air bubble helped preserve some of its mechanics, although there is a lot of water damage inside and the hour hand is broken at the stem.
The only certainty is that the minute hand points to 22 minutes after the hour, and the second hand points to 20.
"It's a miracle the hands are even still here," said conservator Paul Mardikian. "They are quite damaged, but they are still here and fused to the face."
The team has not opened the back section of the watch where they'd expect to find an inscription either mentioning Dixon or as a message from anyone who might have given it to him as a gift. That will come later.
Several markings stamped into the gold on the outside could help determine who built the watch and where it came from. A purchase point might help the Hunley team find out more about Dixon, who was 26 years old when he commanded the sub. Not much more is known about him.
"We want to hone in on the elusive Dixon," Jacobsen said. "We still don't have a place of origin."
The stamps include a lion, a horse's head that resembles a knight piece from a game of chess, a crown with the number 18 nearby -- meaning it is 18 karat gold -- and serial numbers. The numbers on the watch face are Roman numerals.
The watch is of the highest quality for the time, officials said, and efforts to find another one like it have proved fruitless. That could be a clue in itself, said Hunley Commission Chairman and state Sen. Glenn McConnell, who said Dixon was probably someone "who could find very nice stuff and liked very nice stuff."
Dixon's watch is much different from a watch belonging to Dixon's sweetheart, Queen Bennett of Mobile, Ala., which Jacobsen said has been identified as Swiss in origin. It was uncovered by her family descendents from Richmond, Va.
Work on the watch will continue at the Warren Lasch Conservation Lab in North Charleston, where the Hunley has been kept ever since its recovery in August 2000.
Scientists have a collection of items from inside the sub including pocket knives, canteens, jewelry, buttons and other personal pieces belonging to the crew.
Charleston Post and Courier Hunley Story 3/08/03
Edited By TMSmalley on 1047485050