'Kid' on Hunley proved his mettle

Ex-riverboat worker assigned to assist captain

Of The Post and Courier Staff

In the months before he died, Arnold Becker spent long nights working aboard the H.L. Hunley, as if trying to prove he deserved his place on the crew.

The exertion left him clammy with sweat as he deftly slipped from one task to the next, the only man on board who actually needed sea legs.

Becker, probably not yet 21, was the youngest and smallest member of the fish-boat's crew, but he had more responsibility than anyone except the captain. He controlled the forward ballast tank pump and the sub's ventilation system, juggling those jobs with his duties at the first position on the crank that powered the Hunley's propeller.


Facial reconstruction of Arnold Becker, whose likeness previously was unknown.

In addition, Becker most likely played another crucial role. He may have been the understudy of the sub's commander, Lt. George E. Dixon. Becker was the only person who could reach the captain's position.

"If something happened to Dixon, he's the only one who could get to him," says Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist on the Hunley project. "Dixon is not going to put someone he doesn't trust here. He is important."

Young Becker earned the respect of his mates just as he had earned the right to his station. Keeping up with a ship's captain was just another job he had mastered on his whirlwind trip from Europe to America -- and into war.

Becker hailed from Europe and had arrived only recently in the United States. As Smithsonian Institution forensic scientist Doug Owsley says, "He was right off the boat."

Becker may have arrived in the United States through New Orleans, says Linda Abrams, the Massachusetts genealogist who has been on the trail of the Hunley crew for the past few years. That, at least, is where Becker set a course that steered him to the Confederate submarine.

He was working on a riverboat out of New Orleans when the Civil War began, a side-wheel steamer that may have carried gamblers and vacationers up and down the Mississippi. When the fighting started, the Confederate government -- in desperate need of a fleet -- bought the paddlewheel for $8,000. It was christened the General Polk.

Most of the ship's crew, out of work, joined the Confederate States Navy and continued to sail their ship. Becker appears to have been among them. Like the rest of the Navy's new recruits, Becker probably watched with awe as Southern engineers and shipwrights stripped their paddleboat to the waterline and rebuilt it as a warship.

The General Polk, outfitted with a healthy complement of guns, spent months creeping north along the Mississippi. Becker found himself under fire several times as the General Polk followed the rest of the Louisiana defense fleet up the river to a spot near New Madrid, Mo.

The Polk, as it was commonly called, escaped the fall of Island No. 10, a Confederate outpost, and retreated with two other Southern ships into the Yazoo River. There, the ship met its end. Near Liverpool, the General Polk's own crew burned her on June 26, 1862, rather than allow Union forces to capture it.

After losing his ship -- and job -- Becker moved on to Charleston. The Confederate States Navy assigned him to the CSS Chicora, a Charleston-based ironclad. His first position was paymaster/tailor, but he was soon promoted to captain's cook, roughly the equivalent of a quartermaster. That rank did not necessarily mean he cooked for the captain, but probably served as his assistant.

By the time Dixon came to the Indian Chief looking for volunteers, Becker had been reassigned to that ship. His enthusiasm, and perhaps his experience on riverboats, won him a spot on the Hunley. Dixon, a former steamboat engineer, may have seen a kindred spirit in Becker.

For more than a century, Hunley mythology held that the sub's crew was made up of short men, one of many fallacies. Becker, in fact, was the only one who fit that description; he was barely 5 feet 6 inches tall.

Becker's relative diminutiveness worked in his favor -- it allowed him to move easily amongst the complex network of machinery inside the sub. From his position on the propeller crank, Becker coordinated forward ballast tank operations with Dixon. The captain worked the seacock that allowed water into the tank, and Becker had to expel the water for the sub to surface. If the pump failed, Becker had to fix it.

It appears Becker also was charged with ensuring that the crew could breathe. While most historical accounts suggest the crew simply opened the hatches to refresh their air supply, archaeologists found a bellows attached to the sub's snorkel tubes. Scientists believe the bellows drew air in through two narrow snorkel tubes, and that it was Becker's job to operate it.

Becker had one of the most taxing jobs on the Hunley, and it shows in his remains. Owsley says Becker's body shows classic signs of "strenuous activity in the months before death."

On top of it all, Becker must have been under great stress. Logic dictates that he would have had to know the captain's job as well as his own. In case of an accident, Becker would have been the only person able to reach an injured Dixon and the sub's controls. That gave the youngest member of the Hunley crew great power, and greater responsibility.

"We started out calling this guy the kid, but it is wrong to say that," Jacobsen says. "This is no kid. There are too many things he's responsible for."

When scientists excavated the Hunley in the spring of 2001, Becker was the first man found, and the only one not sitting in his seat. He was discovered atop the bellows, as if he were working right up to the end, still earning his place on the crew.

Earning a place in history.

Contact Brian Hicks at (843) 937-5561 or bhicks@postandcourier.com.  Used with the permission of the Charleston Post and Courier and Charleston.net