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Sub's excavation proves history wrong

Eight men, not nine, were on board when the Confederate vessel sank

Saturday, November 3, 2001

BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier Staff

 


     For more than a century, history has told of the nine brave men who disappeared aboard the H.L. Hunley the night of Feb. 17, 1864.
     But, as the excavation of the world's first attack submarine has proven time and again, history is sometimes wrong.
     Archaeologists on Friday said the Hunley carried only a crew of eight men the night it sank the USS Housatonic more than three miles off Sullivan's Island - and that's probably all it ever carried. Scientists who recovered the remains of eight crewmen during the first dig inside the sub have now excavated enough of the crew compartment that they are sure they are not going to find the remains of anyone else.
     "It is surprising," said Bob Neyland, the project director. "Everybody always talked about nine individuals. But we've got eight craniums, eight sets of (leg) bones and eight pairs of shoes."
     Scientists began to question the sub's crew complement earlier this year. The first clue came when they learned there were only seven stations for men to crank the propeller shaft - most accounts had said there were eight. The captain did not crank.
     Because the crew bench extended forward beyond the cranks, archaeologists first assumed that the ninth crewman operated a bellows used to pump air into the sub. But then the first dig ended with scientists left holding only eight skulls.
     Almost every contemporary story of the Hunley lists its crew complement as nine - including crucial eyewitness accounts from Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and William Alexander, the engineer who led construction of the sub and later served as its first officer.
     But while that number was accepted without question, there were several clues that suggested it was wrong. When the Hunley sank for the first time on Aug. 29, 1863, a survivor named Charles Hasker wrote of getting out of the forward hatch behind the captain, while one man escaped through the after hatch. Five men drowned in that accident - a total of eight crewmen.
     When the sub went down for a second time on Oct. 15, 1863, the Charleston Daily Courier listed the casualties as eight men, including Horace Lawson Hunley. Historians have assumed the sub went out short-handed and that Lt. George E. Dixon - the eventual commander of the sub - missed that mission. But Alexander wrote that Dixon was never in Charleston until after the second sinking.
     Finally, more than 30 years after the Hunley disappeared, a monument to the men was erected in White Point Garden on The Battery in the 1890s. It names just eight men.
     Still, most historical accounts claimed that there were nine men in the Hunley and, over time, it was just accepted as the truth - despite all evidence to the contrary.
     "It's been there right before our eyes all this time," Neyland said Friday.
     Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley, said the discovery is a major amendment to the legend of the Hunley.
     "Previously we thought the second crew was not a full crew, but now it appears eight men was the full complement of manpower required for operation of the vehicle," Lasch said.
     Scientists let the mystery linger until they had excavated enough of the sub to be reasonably sure there were no more nooks or crannies that could hide the remains of another crewman. This week, archaeologists reached the forward bulkhead of the submarine and are beginning to see traces of the sub's controls in the muck.
     That progress, coupled with forensics work on the crew remains, has convinced scientists there was no ninth man on board.
     In addition to that revelation, scientists now believe that the crew was much more diverse than originally thought. Dr. Doug Owsley, forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, and his team have been sorting the remains, trying to put the skeletons back together again. Owsley's initial study of the remains shows the Hunley crew ranged in age from 19 to their early 40s.
     "With what we have recovered, we can put a face and age to each set of remains," said Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, "but with the exception of Lt. Dixon, the true identity of each of the others still eludes us."
     Neyland says that he is confident the rest of the crew eventually will be identified. Dixon has been identified because he was at the captain's post in the sub and by the gold coin in his pocket bearing his initials - and dented by a bullet at the Battle of Shiloh.
     The other men may be identified through health records and physical descriptions, and by matching artifacts with the skeletons. For instance, James Wicks, an older man and father of four, is believed to have been on board. Scientists believe his remains are one of the two older sets.
     Along with help from Wicks' descendants, who have offered to provide DNA samples, scientists could also use artifacts to identify him. Wicks had been in the U.S. Navy when the war began and soon jumped sides. Several buttons from a Navy coat were found on board the sub.
     If one of the older sets of remains was found near where all those buttons were concentrated, it could be enough to match a name with a skeleton.
     And finally, one man on board wore the dog tags of Union soldier Ezra Chamberlin. Historians, genealogists and archaeologists are working now to figure out whether a Connecticut Yankee allegedly killed on Morris Island could have found his way into the Hunley.
     As the submarine proves time and again, almost anything is possible.
     Contact Brian Hicks at (843) 937-5561 or bhicks@postandcourier.com.
    
    


    


Used with permission of The Post and Courier and Charleston.Net


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