New light on the Civil War submarine crew


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(CNN) – One board of inquiry can lead to another – and another.

Linda Abrams, a genealogy specialist, traveled to Texas to match handwriting samples. She spent a few weeks in Kentucky following a tip, only to find it was hearsay. Over the years, Germany has also beckoned.

These are the destinations of the forensic genealogist who used her street skills and curiosity to dig a little deeper into the lives of the eight-man crew of the legendary HL Hunley, the first submarine to bring down an enemy ship.

The crew did not live to tell the story. The Hunley made it to his aquatic grave less than an hour after his triumph, if not much sooner.

For Abrams, it’s a world of winning, losing, and tangling in apparent dead ends.

“I don’t think my part will ever be played. It was a tough business,” said Abrams, who lives in western Massachusetts and has worked with The Hunley Project for over a dozen years.

How difficult? Consider this:

  • Only one crew member of the Confederate submarine is said to have had children, and a descendant living in Georgia has few sources for him.
  • Four were born in Europe. (How the researchers discovered this is fascinating information detailed below.)
  • Only one, Joseph ridgaway, was positively identified by DNA.
  • There are no known photos of any of the eight.

Abrams and other such researchers cannot afford to be satisfied with what is “known” about an individual. In the case of the Hunleys, it was little when they started out. Hunting is all about following one trail, following another – and not being afraid to venture into a rabbit hole.

The genealogist was scheduled to discuss her latest findings on Saturday night during a program at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina. Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the Hunley attack during the Civil War.

The lab is home to the Hunley, which has undergone conservation treatment since being raised a few miles off Charleston in 2000. It also contains facial reconstructions of the crew and summaries of what is known of each.

On Monday night, a memorial service at the tip of Sullivan’s Island will remember the 13 men who died that night: the eight on the Hunley and the five on its prey, the USS Housatonic.

Facial reconstructions of the crew of the Confederate Submarine HL Hunley.  Courtesy of the Friends of the Hunley.
Facial reconstructions of the crew of the Confederate Submarine HL Hunley. Courtesy of the Friends of the Hunley.

True romance, or just a funny legend?Lieutenant George Dixon, captain of the Hunley, illustrates the ongoing challenges for scientists and historians.

A gold coin as well as a diamond ring and brooch were found with his remains.

“Dixon is still a mystery. Here’s a guy who’s making a place for himself in the world, with some personal wealth,” said Robert Neyland, chief of underwater archeology for the Naval History and Heritage Command and former director of the Hunley project. “Where he’s from, and his family, it’s a bit of a mystery.”

Abrams said the lieutenant was a resident of perhaps Pennsylvania or Ohio.

She spent time researching Kentucky, but was never able to relate to any advice regarding Dixon. Today he has no verified descendants.

What he has is a story that has become something of a legend.

The gold coin he took to his doom was reportedly offered as a charm by his beloved, Queenie Bennett. The $ 20 coin deflected a Union bullet during the Battle of Shiloh and saved Dixon’s life. He had the back of the talisman engraved with the words “My rescuer”.

Bennett’s story has never been proven; a supposed photo of the blond, blue-eyed Dixon didn’t match his scalp. And the photo, as well as the letters about the supposed relationship, are gone.

“Officially, I can’t prove or disprove” the romantic story, said Kellen Correia, executive director of Friends of the Hunley. “That makes a really good story. The Hunley is one of those (in which) you can’t pin him down.”

“This leads to more leads”

Tests on the well-preserved skeletal remains showed that the men ranged in age from their late teens to their mid-forties. Some had teeth that bore the mark of prolific smoking.

“You find these things that start to create an image, a story of these guys, and then that leads to more leads.” –Linda Abrams, forensic genealogist

“The Commission (Hunley) was sure it was… boys from South Carolina and Georgia,” Abrams said.

Instead, the carbon isotope analysis revealed that four crew members were from Europe. Tests showed a diet high in corn for Americans and a diet made with wheat for Europeans.

Abrams, who also does contract genealogy research for the U.S. Army, said the work on the Hunley provides inspiration and motivation to fill in the gaps regarding the crew. For example, two members – Lumpkin and Miller – are known only by last name.

Experts were able to verify the identity and correct spelling of Joseph Ridgaway’s unusual surname, through a careful search of enlistment documents and DNA analysis.

Abrams learned that the sailor from eastern Maryland had two sisters buried in Pennsylvania. After authorization, a grave was exhumed and a DNA sample was taken from the jaw of a sister. The match was over.

She also searched for two men from a German artillery unit based in Charleston. They were late replacements in the Hunley crew.

The genealogist said she was impressed with Dixon’s charisma and ability to recruit crew members for the Hunley, which has lost 13 men in previous operations.

“He was really excited and believed he would make a difference, that he would finally be successful. It’s like listening to a new boss in your business and how you feel.”

His research, meanwhile, continues.

“You find these things that start to create an image, a story of these guys,” Abrams said. “And then that leads to more leads.”

One of the personal effects found inside the Hunley, a watch belonging to Lieutenant George Dixon.  CNN, courtesy of Friends of the Hunley.
One of the personal effects found inside the Hunley, a watch belonging to Lieutenant George Dixon. CNN, courtesy of Friends of the Hunley.

North Carolina-born sailor James Wicks is the only known Hunley crew member to marry and have children. Wicks served on a Union ship before leaving the ship to fight for the South.

Mary Elizabeth McMahon, a great-great-granddaughter who lives in suburban Atlanta, said her family unfortunately had few records and no “personal history” passed on.

Still, she’s proud of Wicks’ dangerous mission on the Hunley. “It was very risky and he knew it.”

McMahon and around 25 members of his family attended the April 2004 funeral in Charleston for the eight, who are buried near the remains of the two Hunley crews who died in previous accidents.

Recognizing the sacrifice of those who wore blue, gray

The Sunrise Presbyterian Church on Sullivan Island is the location of Monday night’s memorial service for those who died on the Hunley and Housatonic.

Breathtaking views from the windows of the sanctuary include Breach Inlet, where the Hunley began its mission on February 17, 1864.

“What is really unique is that this is a recognition of a sacrifice that has taken place on both sides of the conflict,” said Rev. Vance Polley.

As a bell rings for each victim, a carnation will be presented to a woman dressed in black, 13 in all, representing family members of the missing.

Sitting next to them are reenactors dressed in blue or gray. A group of submariners from the last decades participate in the service, connecting the past to the present.

“This was an American conflict and everyone gathered here is Americans. One of the big themes… is that we are making sense of a very controversial conflict,” said Rev. Polley.

Members of the Confederate Heritage Trust will lead a procession – led by bagpipers – from the church to the cove, where flowers and commemorative wreaths are placed in the water.

“It’s done with a lot of dignity and honor, for both crews,” said Gene Patrick, president of the organization.

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