X-ray of remains may show book
Saturday, September 29, 2001
BY SCHUYLER KROPF
of The Post and Courier staff
There's a chance Hunley commander Lt. George Dixon kept
a log and carried it with him on the sub's final voyage.
And if it's there, as an X-ray appears to show,
researchers may have found the Holy Grail of Hunley excavation: direct insights
into the lives of the crew and the thoughts of the men as they operated the sub.
Historians would "know hour by hour, minute by
minute" what happened with the operation of the secretive submersible,
project manager Bob Neyland said Friday.
After a summer break, archaeologists will resume
excavation of the sub Monday. About 80 percent of the crew compartment has been
cleared of silt, but key areas remain covered, including the front and rear
bulkheads, where some of the sub's diving controls are still covered up, and the
space under a wooden bench where the crew sat.
"This probably is the final archaeological venture
into the sub to remove all the evidence to see what happened to the
Hunley," said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the state Hunley
First up are more X-rays. But team members hope to
eventually find an array of personal artifacts beneath the bench. It is the most
likely place the crew would have stuffed their belongings as they prepared for
Excavators have already found numerous small items such
as buttons, pencils and a sewing thimble. They also hope to find paper, such as
letters, that could help identify individual crewmen.
"If there are personnel effects on board, we can
start putting names to remains," McConnell said.
Still, Dixon's mud-filled remains that were removed
from the sub earlier this year remain the most promising. An X-ray of his
clothing shows he was carrying a pocket watch and what appears to be a metallic
clasp to what may be a personal log, diary or ledger.
"There is a likelihood that somebody was writing
on something," McConnell said.
The pocket watch could also include a photograph of a
family member or loved one, as was the tradition at the time. It could be years,
however, before Dixon's remains are fully investigated.
Also important is finding out more about how the sub
worked. Its sea cocks, depth gauges and other mechanics are heavily corroded,
and it will be delicate work investigating how they functioned.
The archaeologists admit they might be years away from
determining what caused the sub to sink on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, after
successfully ramming a 90-pound black powder charge into the Union blockade ship
Housatonic. That ruling will take a wide array of assessments, ranging from the
degree of hull plate damage to analyzing the burial sequence around the wreck.
Even the hour that Dixon's pocket watch stopped may be a factor.
"We haven't found the smoking gun," Neyland
said. The determination will be "a true piece of detective work over a few
years of analysis. I think it will come together, but it will come together
slowly," he said.
The final phase of the excavation should be completed
NASA has shown an interest in analyzing any oxygen that might be trapped in the
sub. The oldest surviving "ancient" air dates only from the 1950s,
McConnell said he hopes to have a recommendation by February on where the sub
will be housed. Charleston, Mount Pleasant and North Charleston have all shown
an interest in getting the Hunley.
Officials still need to determine if there were eight or nine men on board.
Historical accounts say there were nine men in the Hunley, but the remains of
only eight have been found so far.