U.S. Civil War Sub "Photo" Disproved as Image of Captain

National Geographic News
October 11, 2001

The sole known image that was thought to show the face of George Dixon, the captain of the ill-fated Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, has turned out to be of someone who lived after the vessel sank, the Hunley Commission announced Thursday.

"This makes facial reconstruction more important than ever to put a face to the…crew," said Senator Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission. "It is now up to our archaeology and conservation teams to reconstruct [submarine Captain] Lt. Dixon's face, and with our technology we should be able to do so with 98 percent accuracy."

The Confederate submarine sank on February 17, 1864, shortly after an attack on the Union blockader U.S.S. Housatonic.

The Hunley Commission is overseeing the recovery and analysis of the remains of the long-submerged vessel, which was raised last year from the ocean floor near Charleston Harbor. The Hunley recovery project has been supported in part by the National Geographic Society.

The Hunley earned its place in naval history for being the first submarine known to sink another ship in war. But in doing so it perished itself, sinking mysteriously almost immediately after it rammed the Housatonic.

There has only been one photograph, believed to be that of Lt. Dixon, that gave a face to the crew of the submarine on that fateful day: a tintype given to the Hunley Commission by Sally Necessary, Queenie Bennett's great-granddaughter. Bennett was Dixon's sweetheart.

But through professional analysis by the Museum of the Confederacy, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, and a photographic expert, it has been determined that the tintype is not an image of Dixon, the Hunley Commission said Thursday.

According to Senator McConnell, the tests indicated that the subject's tie, the lapels on his coat, his boots, and the furniture in the photograph are from the post-war period. "When all are taken together, it makes it difficult for this tintype photograph to have been taken in 1863 or 1864," McConnell said.

Jonathan Leader, state archaeologist with the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, and one of the members of the examination team, said that the young man in the image is in a civilian outfit rather than a military uniform. Officers of the day were invariably photographed in uniform, and it's unlikely that a young officer as enthusiastic as Dixon was would have been in civilian clothes for a photograph taken during wartime, Leader said.

Dixon's skull has been recovered from the submarine remains, along with some personal effects, including a gold coin given to him by his girlfriend. The skulls of the crew may be used to reconstruct their facial features, a spokesperson for the Hunley Commission said Thursday.

"We will alter our exhibits, but that will not be difficult since, beginning with the recovery of the Hunley six years ago, we've had to alter our logo, exhibits, theories, and images to fit the historical revelations coming from the Hunley," McConnell said.

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