Scientists Study The Last Men Who Served On
The H.L. Hunley
By Nancy Jennis Olds
Several teeth, packed in a small narrow box surrounded in foam material, were laid in a neat row. Gold fillings
gleamed like tiny percussion caps on the molars and an incisor.
One filling was cast in a silver amalgam material.
This was not a dental office. It was Dr. Doug Owsley's office
at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. We were peering
at the teeth of Lt. George E. Dixon. He was commander of the H.L. Hunley,
the Confederate submarine that disappeared off the waters of
Charleston, S.C., on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, after sinking
the USS Housatonic.
Owsley, the head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian
Institution, worked with a team of scientists, including Department
of the Army forensic genealogist Linda Abrams and medical examiner
Dr. J.C. Upshaw Downs, the chief medical examiner for the state
of Alabama and a former resident of Charleston.
Eight men were aboard the Hunley when it sank for the third
and final time. Five of the crew drowned on Aug. 29, 1863, and all eight
crew, including the sub's namesake and benefactor, Horace Lawson Hunley,
were lost when the Hunley went down again on Oct. 15, 1863.
Both times the Hunley was salvaged. After the third sinking it took
136 years before the sub was raised.
The information that Owsley and Abrams share about the third
crew provides a fascinating look at the lives of these courageous
men who crewed the first submarine to successfully attack and sink an
Every available space in Dr. Owsley's cramped offices is filled
with cases of skulls and bones gathered over the years for research.
In the midst of this vast collection Owsley moves around quickly.
He is an amicable host who is constantly asked to lend his expertise
when a skeleton is found. At the moment he is analyzing two young female
skeletons discovered after wild animals had scattered the bones.
He was asked to examine the remains found in the sediment that
filled the Hunley. The skeletons were well preserved, allowing Owsley
a rare opportunity to thoroughly analyze the remains and provide some
details about the crew.
Each set of remains, and any artifacts discovered near them,
was meticulously cataloged. Owsley shared his notes on two of the
crew, BB and AA.
The youngest member of the crew, identified by Dr. Owsley as
BB because of his position inside the submarine, was a Caucasian
male whose bone age was from 19 to 22 years and whose femur histology
(tissue structure of the thighbone) was recorded to be 21.8
years. He was also the shortest crewmember. According to Owsley's findings,
"He would have been the least cramped and had the greatest ease
of movement within the submarine".
The young man's vertebrae showed some wear, a "strain induced
deterioration of joint surfaces." Tobacco staining on the
teeth indicated that he might have smoked cigars and chewed tobacco.
No pipe facets that were related to pipe smoking were evident on
the teeth. Further study of the skeletal remains showed the kind
of bone growth and fusing of bone that confirmed his age.
The remains discovered in the AA section of the Hunley belonged
to a Caucasian male whose bone age was between 24 to 25 years. The
femur histology was 28 years. Dr. Owsley's notes reference the "medial
epiphyses [ossification] of the clavicles [collarbone] are in
the final stage of union and the hyoid [complex of bones at the
base of the tongue] is intact with the wings fused to the body".
Owsley found evidence that AA had health problems. According
to his records, the "nasal septum is markedly deviated to the
right side. This degree of deformity would have impaired airflow through
the right half of the nasal chamber."
This man's teeth were stained slightly from tobacco and there
are no indications of pipe smoking. He had cavities and abscesses.
Teeth near the abscesses were probably extracted. Six lower jaw teeth
had a total of eight cavities.AA had five gold fillings and one filling made from a silver
amalgam. The teeth had file marks in the enamel where the fillings were
embedded. Different techniques in the manufacture and placement
of the fillings could signify that more than one dentist repaired
Upon further examination of the remains, Dr. Owsley discovered
an injury that revealed the identity of the victim. Owsley's notes
say: "This injury was caused by a gunshot wound to the upper
thigh, which was primarily a soft tissue injury that caused only superficial
damage to the bone. The bone did not fracture and there is no
evidence of a serious infection."
A radiograph of the proximal half of the left femur revealed
"lead spatter, small metallic particles." They were lead from
a bullet and gold from a coin.
AA was Lt. George E. Dixon, of Co. E, 21st Alabama Volunteers,
who had volunteered to command the H.L. Hunley. He had been wounded at the Battle of Shiloh. The location, date,
his initials and the words, "My life preserver," were
engraved on the $20 gold piece that deflected the bullet. He carried the coin with
him and it was found in the Hunley sediment.
Linda Abrams identifies POW-MIA remains from the overseas recovery
of casualties of World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and subsequent
battles for all branches of the military. About three years
ago, Dr. Robert Neyland, project manager for the recovery and excavation
of the Hunley, invited Abrams to identify the remains of the Hunley's
crew through researching military records and by analyzing the
Neyland was familiar with the POW-MIA office of the Pentagon.
He needed someone with Abrams' solid track record. She has worked
with more than 800 cases over 14 years and has identified all the
Abrams says she decided to accept the challenge although she
was unfamiliar with Confederate Civil War history. She wanted to
approach this research in a way no one had done before.
She compared the investigation of the crews' remains and records
to the investigation of a crime scene. Crime scenes are contained
and evaluated before evidence can be tampered with. Witnesses are
interviewed immediately after the incident before they can be
influenced by media reports.
When Abrams began to research the Hunley crew, she found that
the trail of information had been affected by preconceived theories
that were not substantiated by hard evidence. Her research with the
National Archives on Confederate military records was based
on 3 by 5-inch index cards, all that was left of the original records
which had been destroyed.
Full names were missing, places of enlistment weren't listed,
although some military transfers were inscribed. It was incomplete
information at best. Abrams went through 120 Confederate ship
rosters. She spent hours searching for existing records obtained
from various archives, probate courts, funeral homes and libraries
throughout the country.
She says she encountered staffers at some institutions who were
woefully ignorant about the Hunley crew's significance and were
reluctant to give their support. She also found others who couldn't
do enough for her. Abrams became acquainted with crew descendents
who were unaware of their ancestor's place in history and were grateful
to learn about it.
Historians were not entirely sure who the last crewmembers aboard
the Hunley were.
Obtaining permission from families whose ancestors probably
served aboard the Hunley to exhume a known relative's grave takes patience
and persistence. Also, it is very vital that any DNA extracted
this way must come from the maternal line of the family to be considered
The crew of the Hunley was comprised of soldiers and sailors
who volunteered for the mission. Some of the crew was from Europe.
At least two of the men were nearly or over 40 years old.
One was identified as James A. Wicks, married with two daughters.
He had deserted the U.S. Navy by jumping ship from the USS Congress
and swimming to shore. Shortly afterward, he enlisted in the Confederate
Navy in Richmond.
An artilleryman, J.F. Carlsen, 20 to 23 years old and European,
possibly Scandinavian, enlisted with Co. A, Light Artillery
South Carolina Volunteers, also known as the German Artillery, before
he volunteered to become the very last crewmember aboard the Hunley
before its fateful voyage.
The man in charge, Lt. George E. Dixon, had been a riverboat
engineer on the Mississippi. He had enlisted in the Confederate Army
as a private and rose through the ranks quickly.
Abrams found records of two male friends of Dixon who had named
their sons George. Dixon was described as handsome, "quite the
fellow" from some sources. According to Abrams, "Dixon had the right
stuff." She hopes to find more information on him. "He must have been
an exceptional person," she says.
Abrams admits that the research and analysis required to identify
the Hunley's last crew is more daunting than her work identifying
the remains of contemporary POW-MIAs. She has faced their skulls
almost pleading for them to "talk to me!"
Although the eight men will be laid to rest after 136 years
submerged in the H.L. Hunley, the work in uncovering the secrets of their
life and death will continue.