BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier staff
As a child growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., Mary Elizabeth McMahon often heard the unbelievable story of her great-great-grandfather - a daring Civil War submariner who disappeared off the coast of South Carolina in the Confederacy's dying days.
He was a war hero, so the legend went. There's a monument to him, her daddy used to tell her, in a Charleston park.
His name was James A. Wicks, and he was a member of the H.L. Hunley's final crew - the crew that sank the Union sloop Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864, then disappeared.
There may not be another family in the world that can pass that tale from generation to generation.
Scientists and historians believe most of the men on the Hunley were too young to have children.
McMahon, of Atlanta, and a few of her relatives - siblings Richard Barker Jr. and Sally McKeithen of Jacksonville; cousin Albert Edward Barker II of Fayetteville, Ga.; and their children - may be the only descendants of any member of the Hunley's final crew. Officials connected with the project know of no other relatives.
Later this year, someone in McMahon's family will give a DNA sample to scientists trying to put a face on the crew, found in the submarine recovered last summer off Sullivan's Island. She hopes the tiny genetic landscape unique to her family will help identify Wicks among the remains found on the submarine.
"I'm really proud," McMahon says. "I'm extra proud to know that he volunteered for this in light of the two previous crews that died. He must have been very patriotic."
McMahon and her family know little about their now-famous forebear. Hope Barker, Albert's wife, uncovered most of the clues the family has. Genealogists working for Friends of the Hunley have supplied a few more bits and pieces.
The information tells a story that is at once unique and typical of a country - and a people - divided.
Wicks was born in either North Carolina or Virginia; accounts differ. No one knows what year - but most likely in the 1830s.
In the 1850s, Wicks was a Navy man living in New York City, stationed at the Brooklyn shipyards. It was probably while living there that he met and married a young woman from England named Catherine Kelly.
In 1853, Catherine delivered the first of Wicks' four daughters, Mary Eliza.
The Wicks family was living in North Carolina when war broke out. Wicks was still in the U.S. Navy, but his sympathies lay elsewhere. He was on board the USS Congress when it was attacked off Hampton Roads and sunk by the CSS Virginia (the Confederates' new name for the salvaged Merrimac). Wicks, the legend goes, swam to shore and joined the Southern forces in Virginia.
By 1863, Wicks was serving in the Confederate navy at the Charleston Station.
Later that year, Wicks was transferred to the Indian Chief, a Confederate receiving ship stationed in Charleston Harbor. He might have even been on board Oct. 15, 1863, when Horace Lawson Hunley, at the helm of his own submarine, attempted to dive under the Indian Chief.
On that test run, the submarine sank to the bottom of the harbor, killing everyone on board.
One thing is sure: Wicks was aboard the Indian Chief the day in the late fall of 1863 when two young men named George Dixon and William Alexander came looking for volunteers to man their "fish boat." Out of dozens of volunteers, the two men from Mobile, Ala., chose Wicks, who had an impressive resume.
History records that Wicks was on board the Hunley when it disappeared after the attack on the Housatonic. He disappeared without a trace, leaving a wife and four children, the youngest of whom was not yet 4. The family was living at Fernadina Beach, Fla., between Jacksonville and the Georgia state line.
The family believes that Catherine remarried a few years after her husband disappeared. Their oldest daughter, Mary Eliza - McMahon's namesake - married in the home of her mother and stepfather. She would live in Florida the rest of her life.
In the early 20th century, Mary Eliza Barker petitioned to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The application approving her membership praised her father's actions in connection with the sinking of the USS Housatonic aboard the "torpedo David," as the Hunley was often mistakenly called.
"I can conceive of no more heroic action during the history of the Confederate Navy than this one of Seaman Wicks and his brave comrades," the UDC officer wrote on the petition. "I recommend his daughter, Mrs. Mary E. Barker to every honor."
Eventually, Mary Eliza Barker would become the Florida chapter president of the UDC. She died in 1934.
The story was almost too fantastic to believe. But Mary Eliza's grandchildren had heard the stories many times, and passed them down to their children.
It wasn't until the 1970s, however, that an offhand remark to Hope Barker led the family to investigate Wicks' past. Albert and Hope had stopped to visit their uncle - McMahon's father - in Jacksonville on the way to a vacation in Charleston. When he heard where they were going, McMahon's father told them about his ancestor's role in the war.
Hope Barker was amazed and began digging into the family history.
"If he hadn't said anything to me, we might have all forgotten," Barker says. "When I first started, no one else in the family was really interested."
Perhaps, family members say, that's because the fate of the Hunley was so murky until the submarine was discovered in 1995. Soon, the story was everywhere - newspapers, magazines, even TV movies. It has made history buffs out of at least one family.
Barker passed along all the family's information on Wicks to the Hunley Commission and has been talking with a genealogist hired by the Friends of the Hunley to try to trace the crew.
The family is excited by the chance to match their DNA with Wicks, just to establish that blood link to the past. They are ready to visit the grave of their ancestor, who will be buried alongside all the other crewmen of the first attack submarine.
"I don't guess we have any proof, but it's on all the documents in all the stories from the family," Barker says. "In our minds, we're convinced. But it would be nice to be sure."