Story last updated at 7:09 a.m. Sunday, April 11, 2004
Hunley crew long shrouded by history's shadows
BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier Staff
In the weeks following the first successful submarine attack, Confederate military officials took great glee in reporting the H.L. Hunley's sinking of the Union blockader Housatonic.
The story made newspapers across the South in the late winter and early spring of 1864, each account eager to praise Lt. George E. Dixon and the fabulous fish-boat's valiant crew.
"The glorious success of our little torpedo-boat, under the command of Lieutenant Dixon, of Mobile, has raised the hopes of our peopleÖ" extolled the Charleston Daily Courier.
The problem was, no one was really sure exactly whose success they were celebrating.
No one kept records of the submarine, there were no official duty or pay rosters. It was in all ways a secret weapon; few people had any idea what the Hunley was preparing to do, much less who was crewing her. Even the Confederate Navy was unclear who went to their deaths aboard the submarine-boat on Feb. 17, 1864. Officials did not even know the number of men aboard the vessel.
It is a mystery that has lingered for 140 years.
Next Saturday, following a week of ceremonies and services around the city, the crew of the Hunley will be laid to rest in Magnolia Cemetery. Beginning today, The Post and Courier will publish biographies that reveal facts to prove that, sometimes, history is wrong.
Each profile will be accompanied by a facial reconstruction of that crewman, made by forensic artists who rebuilt the faces of history from casts of their skulls.
Perhaps more fascinating than their faces are their stories.
It is not so much that the Hunley's final crew has been forgotten over the years; they were never well-known. In April 1864, the captain in charge of "Submarine Defenses" had to ask someone for a list of crew before sending this note to an Alabama General:
"I was not informed as to the service in which Lieutenant Dixon was engaged or under what orders he was acting," wrote Capt. M. M. Gray. "I am informed that he requested Commodore Tucker to furnish him some men, which he did. Their names are as follows: Arnold Becker, C. Simkins, James A. Wicks, F. Collins and -- Ridgeway, all of the Navy, and Corporal C.F. Carlsen of Captain Wagener's company of artillery."
For more than a century, those names are all historians have had to go on. Everything history knew of the Hunley crew sprang from that list.
But that roster is incomplete, and some of the names are wrong.
Long believed to be common laborers, the final crew of the Hunley was an elite collection of veteran mariners -- merchant seamen, career Navy men, blockade runners.
They fought on the front lines of the Civil War, participated in daring secret missions, witnessed history firsthand.
"Dixon didn't go assemble a ragtag lot," says Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist on the Hunley project. "They were go-getters, people with naval experience. I think there is a definite pattern of this crew emerging."
The men don't fit any of the historical generalities long bestowed upon them. They range in age from 20 into the mid-40s. Most of them were taller than average for the age. Some of them were wealthy and educated; others were poor. Four were American-born, four were Europeans.
In one of the last letters he wrote, Dixon himself called them "a splendid crew, the best I think I ever seen."
They were the 19th-century equivalent of astronauts, men risking their lives to test a budding new technology, to explore new horizons.
For their day and time, they had "the Right Stuff."