Pain and anonymity awaited at crank post 5

 

 

BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier Staff
During the Civil War, military reports identified only seven of the eight men who died onboard the H.L. Hunley on Feb. 17, 1864 -- an omission that has puzzled historians for years.

Who this man is, where he came from, and why he volunteered as a crewman on the dangerous Confederate submarine is, like his name, a mystery.

Scientists know only the barest facts about the man sitting at the Hunley's fifth crank position: He was in his early to mid-40s. He was born in northern Europe but had been away from home, most likely sailing, for a long time. His bones recorded chapters in a rough life: a broken rib, broken leg, and a fractured skull. At five feet eight inches tall, he was one of the shorter men on the submarine, but that still did not make it easy to stuff his arthritic body into the tight confines of the submarine.

"He was in pain for some time in his life," says Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist on the Hunley project. "He was most likely a laborer."

It seemed the man's favored vice, other than possibly fighting, was tobacco. Among a crew filled with smokers, he was one of the most avid.

"He did not let go of that pipe," Jacobsen says.

The name Miller has been associated with this man since at least the 1890s, when the Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument to the Hunley and the men who died aboard it in three separate accidents. Miller was a name given by William Alexander, who helped build the sub and briefly served as its first mate. Alexander was called away on Confederate Army business just weeks before the Hunley disappeared Feb. 17, 1864, an hour after it sunk the USS Housatonic.

For years, historians have believed the elusive Miller was a member of Wagener's German Artillery, a Lowcountry-based unit. That is based on Alexander's own writings, in which he says Hunley commander George E. Dixon planned to replace him with two men from that company. One man from there, J. F. Carlsen, was definitely onboard the submarine. And there was a Miller in the German Artillery.

In other letters, however, Alexander makes statements that seem to contradict the notion of Miller being a member of the artillery. In an 1898 note to Charleston resident J.G. Holmes, Alexander names the members of the crew in this order: "Dixon, Ridgeway (sic), Miller, Becker, Wicks, Collins and, I think Lumpkin"

Although Alexander remembers Miller, he says he didn't know Carlsen. The fact that Alexander remembers Miller makes it seem unlikely Dixon recruited the man with Carlsen. In fact, the man the Hunley project identifies as Miller wore a jacket that carried buttons consistent with an infantry unit, not an artillery unit.

Forensic genealogist Linda Abrams has found 28 Millers in the Confederate Navy, and is attempting to track them all, hopeful that one of their trails leads to the Hunley. So far, she has had no luck. Among the more interesting candidates: a Samuel Miller on the Jeff Davis, a famous privateer ship that took nine vessels in the name of the South during the summer of 1861. It is the same privateer that Carlsen crewed.

Of course, there is a chance that this man is not the Miller that Alexander remembers. Evidence suggests Dixon had alternate crewmen he could use as needed. He told Alexander that he would hire two replacements to fill the former first officer's spot.

Also, Dixon continued to operate the sub nearly every night in late January and early February during a 10-day period when crewman James A. Wicks was off on another assignment in North Carolina. It would only make sense for Dixon to have a few backups handy.

If Dixon did have extra crewmen, this sailor could be any anonymous soul, a man who gave his life, but not his name, to maritime history.


Contact Brian Hicks at (843) 937-5561 or bhicks@postandcourier.com.