Captain's Remains Found in U.S. Civil War Submarine

National Geographic News
May 21, 2001
The remains of Lt. George Dixon, captain of the Civil War submarine
H.L. Hunley, have been found inside the long-submerged vessel
that was raised last year off the coast of Charleston Harbor.

With the discovery, the recovery project has now identified the partial remains of all nine crew members who were aboard the Confederate submarine when it sank on February 17, 1864, shortly after an attack on the Union blockader U.S.S. Housatonic.

Archaeologists excavating the submarine last week discovered several bones, including three skulls. Doug Owsley, a forensic expert with the Smithsonian Institution, confirmed that one of the skulls, found underneath the forward conning tower, was that of Lt. Dixon.

Robert Neyland, the project director, said, "Presumably, based on the location and age of the skull, we can now say that Lt. Dixon as well as the other eight crew members are all accounted for."

Also found were some scraps of fabric, possibly the remains of a jacket. They are thought to have belonged to Lt. Dixon because they are of higher quality material than other similar textile remains that have been found, indicating a higher military rank.

Steady Progress

The remains of the submarine, buried at a 45-degree angle under a layer of silt, with its the 40-foot-long (12-meter-long) hull intact, were found in May 1995 off Charleston Harbor. They were raised in August 2000.

Since then, scientists have been painstakingly recovering the bones of the crew and other artifacts from the sludge-filled submarine hull.

The newly discovered remains are still inside the hull, and the skulls do not appear to have been damaged.

"Finding Lt. George Dixon now assures that the commission's goal to reunite all three crews of the Hunley at Magnolia Cemetery will be a reality," said Senator Glenn McConnell, chair of the Hunley Commission.

Two previous crews had already perished in the Hunley before it was commissioned again and met its final fate when it sank in the encounter with the U.S.S. Housatonic.

"We are now closer than ever to separating fact from fable in regards to the contents of the Hunley and her final moments," McConnell added.

Mystery Lantern

Also among the artifacts recently discovered was a lantern, possibly the one that crew members used to signal that the Hunley had sunk the U.S.S. Housatonic. Archaeologists removed the encrusted lantern and x-rayed it.

Neyland said it is not yet known what fueled the lantern or if it has a blue lens, but the x-rays show its design is unique and sophisticated for its time. According to customary practice, a blue light was used to send a signal to those on land.

"Finding the lantern, which [may have] signaled Hunley's success 137 years ago, alerts us today that Hunley's journey home is almost complete," said Warren Lasch, chair of Friends of the Hunley.

Last weekend a bellows and a four-foot rubber hose were also removed from the submarine. Archaeologists said the removal, which was complicated, now gives them better access to the front of the submarine.

Scientists believe that the pump for the forward ballast tank was operated by the crewman who sat directly behind Lt. Dixon.

The Hunley recovery project has been supported in part by the National Geographic Society.

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