Watch May Help Solve Mystery of Civil War Sub Hunley

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2003

In February 1864 the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley became the first underwater vessel to sink an enemy ship in battle. But the pioneering submersible followed its victim to the bottom of Charleston harbor—creating a mystery that remains unresolved.

Did the Hunley sink immediately, done in by the same explosive concussion that doomed the U.S.S. Housatonic? Or did the vessel survive longer and sink for some other reason?

Recovered from Charleston harbor in 2000, the Hunley has steadily yielded its secrets, including remains of the crew and their possessions. The submarine is a time capsule of the U.S. Civil War and the technology of the time. (Please see the related stories at the bottom of this page to read about other finds in the Hunley.)

The excavation of a well-preserved pocket watch from the submarine may yield new clues to the puzzle of how and why the Hunley went to the bottom.

Last week, scientists opened the pocket watch of Lt. George Dixon, the Hunley's captain, and found a tiny time capsule sealed since the Civil War. The watch hands provided some preliminary clues to when the ship may have sunk. "We are now able to narrow the time frame down to between 6:00 and 9:00," said Project Director Robert Neyland, "but the question remains, is it a.m. or p.m? After further excavation, we may be able to establish a more precise time."

"It's a miracle that the hands are even still here," said Senior Conservator Paul Mardikian. "They are quite damaged, but they are still here and fused to the face. There was a pocket of air trapped inside the watch. I believe that's the only reason the hands still exist after all these years. The other parts of the watch, where there was no air, were not as well preserved."

The precise time that the watch stopped remains difficult to determine because the hour hand is broken near the point where the hands connect. Further cleaning and preservation may allow scientists to fix the time the watch stopped more exactly.

Watch Supports One Theory of Hunley's Loss

Senator Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, said the watch supports a long-standing theory. "I believe the apparent time suggests the watch outlived the crewmen and continued to tick for many hours past their deaths," McConnell said. "It also raises the supposition that the submarine may have remained less than flooded long after the demise of the crew. If the submarine had flooded shortly after the attack, it seems probable the watch would have stopped at a time closer to, but after 8:45 p.m. when the attack on the Housatonic occurred."

McConnell's theory suggests the crew may have died later from lack of oxygen and not from drowning immediately after the attack. "One thing is certain," McConnell added, "we should not draw any firm conclusions. Instead, now is the time to accent the importance of carefully collecting the scientific data to put together the accurate picture of this fascinating historical puzzle."

In addition to chronological clues, scientists believe the gold pocket watch may tell them more about its owner—the charismatic Lt. Dixon. Inside, scientists found three stamps and a serial number that will lead to detailed information about the manufacturer.

Continued on Next Page >>


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