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Scientists Study The Last Men Who Served On The H.L. Hunley
By Nancy Jennis Olds
April 2004

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 enemy ship.

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 the teeth.

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 DNA.

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 remains.

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 reliable.

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.

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