Feeling Dixon's Bones and Some History Behind it all

August 31,2001


Did you know that Maria Jacobsen was working late that evening, wearing rubber gloves and feeling around what was assumed to be Lt. George (middle name unknown) Dixon's remains when she felt something unusual. Feeling mud and pelvic bones is not unusual enough, but this appeared to be a flat, round small object.

She could tell through her rubber gloves that it was round and had ridges along the edge, and wasn't to her a familiar part of the male pelvis, with it's flat shape. It only took seconds to realize that this was a grappling of the past.

It wasn't the familiar Mae West comment. "Is that a gun or are you just glad to see me", It was the realization that  meant that she had found the  Captain's gold piece. Right there in  his pocket. The bent coin was in the same place as it had been when it had deflected a bullet at the Battle of Shiloh, saving Lt. Dixon from a life on crutches.

The CSS H. L. Hunley Submarine was first discovered by Dr. E. Lee Spence in the 1970's and  it is considered by many to be the first successful combat submarine, (if sinking three times prior can be considered a success), to sink an enemy warship.

"On the night of Feb. 17, 1864, the crude Confederate vessel, which was made from a boiler, had no extra air supply and was powered by a hand crank -- rammed a torpedo into a Union warship anchored off Charleston" is the description used by some. But facts show that it was not made from boilers, and was sleek in it's design.

After the finding of the "Gold Coin" researchers went to other areas of the world and  will be back late this year to complete their mission of recovery.

The partial remains of all the crewmen, their bones now stored in trays in a special morgue, were found at their stations near the hand crank and despite the fact that researchers were working in the pelvis area of what was believed to be Lt. Dixon, it was never confirmed publicly that any of the skulls that were found were indeed his.

 "We've got eight skulls so far, and I think we've got 16 shoes," one scientist said as part of the latest report.

The Yankee ship. Housatonic, went down, but did the Hunley, mysteriously, with its crew and captain, continue on with it's mission. 

 The Hunley was found in 1970 by Dr. E. Lee Spence laying on its side in Charleston harbor until it was brought up last summer, by a secondary crew headed by employees of Clive Cussler, a famous and well known author.

A search has been started for crew descendants and continues involving possible DNA identification and facial reconstruction.

And with the 42-foot-long iron hull filled over the years with tightly packed preservative mud, it was decided that other things may take priority.

Some of the earlier discoveries include a tag around the neck of one of the crew.  Mysterious because it bore the name of a Yankee soldier, Chamberlin, who had been killed in a battle at James Island near Charleston six months before.

"It's a bit like finding the Wright Brothers first airplane with the Wright brothers sitting there," said Jacobsen, the Danish scientist who is the project's senior archaeologist and excavation manager. "It's incredible." 

The effort to examine the HUNLEY raised from waters off Charleston, the  heart of the Confederacy, and where the Civil War began,  has drawn expertise from carpet baggers from all over the world.

The project director, Robert S. Neyland, the head of the Naval Historical Center's underwater archaeology branch in Washington,  as well as the Lead anthropologist  Douglas W. Owsley, of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History confirmed that Dr. E. Lee Spence was the first discoverer of THE HUNLEY.

Chief conservator Paul Mardikian, a native of Paris, Project historian Mark K. Ragan,  and Warren Lasch, from outside Cleveland oversee the business end of things.

What were their intentions in overlooking the discovery of the Hunley by Dr. E. Lee Spence and how did they decide that suing THE HUNLEY.COM may be a good thing.

Is the Hunley Commission now involved in lawsuits against various companies that use the word "Hunley" as part of their domain names? 

The Friends of the Hunley, Inc. is now being sued for not releasing information to the public claiming they are private non-profit charitable organization. (see article)

A Grisly History
Will be told of the Men who cheated Spence out of History. 

The Truth will always prevail.

You have read about Charleston, The Hunley and how she had already sunk three times, killing part of one crew and all of the others. 

Named after a rich old fool, Louisiana planter Horace L. Hunley, slave owner, who had helped fund its construction, caused the submarine to perish at his helm in a grisly sinking, where their bodies had to be sawed out of the hull to remove them.

Every time, the sub was found and raised, the bodies were removed through the vessel's two narrow hatches, and the befouled, stinking interior was scoured clean by slaves.

Despite the submarine's track record, the Confederacy, with its Navy, remained desperate for some way to break the Union coastal blockade that was strangling the port.

And The Hunley, built in Mobile, Ala., seemed perfect.

It was  a submarine, with a sleek, cigar-shape hull, diving fins to help it submerge and surface, and two conning towers.

But under water, it was scary, the crew had only the air in the sealed hull to breathe while underwater. Light was also provided by candles. And the sub's barbed torpedo, at the end of a pole attached to the bow, had to be injected like a harpoon into the hull of an enemy ship, well below the waterline and the metal skins of the ship.

The sub would then release the torpedo, back up and detonate the explosive with a rope, and whose job would that be.  Backing up had to be a trick especially when you had a hard enough time going forward in Charleston Harbor.

The odds of success, to say nothing of survival, were long.

But the boat had volunteers, among them a young Confederate infantry officer named George E. Dixon, the former steamboat engineer who was its last skipper, after all he knew all about currents and being 20 years old, thought he knew all about life.

 Dixon had been in an Alabama regiment, was injured in battle and later requested command of the submarine, deciding he knew enough about sub marines from floating on top of the Mississippi.

 Mr. Ragan  claims that he also unearthed a romantic legend about him that seemed too fanciful to be true, hard to believe he can take credit for that.

The story that Dixon had been given a $20 gold piece by his Alabama sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, when he left Mobile for the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 is known by all.

During the battle, as the story went, a bullet struck the coin, bounced off and spared the young lieutenant, who kept the bent gold piece for good luck.

It was just a corny old yarn, Ragan thought, too gooey to be true. "It was just too crazy," he said, all though he takes credit for it.

As far as some records show, however, Dixon may have recruited another crew of volunteers at gun point. The Hunley did set out on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, and "torpedoed" the 12-gun Union sloop Housatonic, which quickly sank, killing a handful of the Yankee crew, and the Hunley failed to return.


'Every Day . . . a Revelation'

After periodic searches that began right after the attack, the Hunley remained lost until 1971, when  Dr. Lee Spence and several friends from Charleston found her.

To recover the submarine, a Hunley Commission, chaired by South Carolina state Sen. Glenn F. McConnell, was formed, as was a nonprofit fundraising branch, Friends of the Hunley, Inc. chaired by Lasch. Lasch had reportedly been convicted of a felony but had worked a deal that would help clear his name, them proceeded to sue a small company call The Hunley.com

Money came from the federal government, which by law owns the boat, after someone threatened to back "anyone who ran against McConnell from South Carolina", which by agreement has permanent custody; and from private and corporate donors galore including the free services of a major law firm in S.C.

About $17 million was raised, Lasch said. An unused warehouse at the old Navy base here was transformed into a gleaming $2 million laboratory ,named for Lasch, with a huge water-filled storage tank for the boat and a special refrigerator for remains. The hull was opened in February and interior excavation began.

After that, said archaeologist Jacobsen, "every day was a revelation."

Among the  discoveries were the tag and, especially, the coin, which experts likened to a message across time directly linking Dixon to the boat, verifying much of the story.

The tag was found in late April by Shea McLean, a project archaeologist. McLean said he had been spray-cleaning a skull, he is not sure whose, in an excavation area when he noticed a circle. At first, he thought it was the hole in the base of the skull through which the spinal cord passes,  but being fully qualified forensics and not just a volunteer, he figured it out.

As he sprayed further, he realized it was a round object. "The more I sprayed it, the rounder it got, until I could see writing on it," he said. He made out the word "volunteers" and realized it was a dog tag of some kind. A terrific find that has never been released to the public.

But when it mysteriously turned out the name on the other side was not of a Hunley crewman but of a Union soldier, "things got real serious real fast," McLean said.

The Name was " Ezra Chamberlin", of the 7th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, who had been killed the previous July in a failed assault on a Confederate fort outside Charleston, right where we live.

But why was his tag on the Hunley? Had he deserted to the rebels?  Had he been captured and forced to help crew the boat? Was he a spy? "All these questions" arose, McLean said.

Some quick research showed what had probably happened: A member of the Hunley crew, C.F. Carlson, had served in a Confederate artillery unit that had been at the battle where Chamberlin was killed.

Though the skeleton with the dog tag has not yet been identified as Carlson's, it is possible, historians say, that Carlson, as many did, went over the battlefield when the fighting ended and took the dog tag as a trophy or souvenir. You should see that battlefield today.  It is terrible.

"We'll probably never know for sure," McLean said.

But Note:

Some of the ship had been cleaned out. The project's initial phase was winding down. And excavation crews were working in two shifts to remove the remains. Then all of a sudden they quit.

Jacobsen, working the May 23 night shift in a blue jumpsuit, was preparing a "block lift" of the segment of muck that encased Dixon's pelvis.  A metal lifting tray would be slid under the mud block, and Jacobsen , checking with her hands to make sure the metal wouldn't damage any bones said  "I was running my hand down the side of his left [pelvic bone] . . . to make sure that the plate didn't scrape against it," she said. "And as I ran my fingertips along the bone, I touched" something.

"You know how sensitive the tips of your fingers are," she said. "And I can tell you, I know it sounds incredible, I could feel with the tips of my fingers what it was. I knew right away."

It felt round. It felt bent. It was right at his left hip, where a pants pocket would be.

She turned to a colleague and said: "I've got the coin."



 A True Friend of the Hunley



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