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Find Your Family - The Hunley

Article Date: 
20 May, 2011 (All day)


Last week was the National Genealogical Society  Conference in Charleston, South Carolina.  One of the speakers reviewed the history of the Hunley.  The Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship.  Unfortunately, her crew also died.  It was a confederate ship.  It was one of the first ships to use a screw propeller instead of a paddle wheel and it was powered by a crew that manually turned a crankshaft to drive the propeller.

The Hunley was about 40 feet long and about 4 feet wide and its shell was made of a steam boiler.  It had an eight man crew.  On February 17, 1864 the Hunley sunk the USS Housatonic.  The submarine used a ramming spar to hook the charge in place.  It then backed away and detonated the charge.

After it sank the Housatonic, the ship was lost with all onboard for an unknown reason.  It is after this event that the story turns to family history.

This ship remained sunk until the mid nineties.  All that was known of the crew was the commander, Lieutenant George E. Dixon.  When the ship was recovered work began to try to identify the crewman.  

The first analysis that was done was on the bones of the crewman.  From this is was determined that four of the crewman were American born and four were from Europe.  The bones indicated that four of the crew had a diet primarily of corn (a U.S. diet) and four of the crew had a diet of mostly wheat and rye (a European diet).

After it was determined that four were American and four European the researchers began to look at confederate records to identify potential candidates.  This search then became a classical genealogical search only instead of searching for ancestors they were searching for descendants.  

Through a process of elimination the researchers determined the likely candidates.  They then contacted the descendants of the candidates and asked them to take a DNA test.  The DNA test revealed that the crew of the Hunley were, Lieutenant George E. Dixon (Commander), Frank Collins, Joseph F. Ridgaway, James A. Wicks, Arnold Becker, Corporal C. F. Carlsen, C. Lumpkin, and Agustus Miller.

The research further collaborated some long held family legends.  As the story went, Commander Dixon had a coin given to him from a sweetheart that he carried with him for good luck.  At one of the battles in the war he was shot in the leg.  The legend reported that the coin from his sweetheart stopped the bullet.  

The story had been handed down through the family for many years, but they had no evidence to substantiate it.  When the Hunley was recovered a coin was found on Commander Dixon with a dent in it similar to what would be found if the coin was shot.  The coin had been engraved with the date of the battle where it had saved his life.

I thought that this story was a great intersection of history and genealogy.  It also shows some of the wonderful tools that can be used in genealogical work and demonstrates how family legends can help to identify individuals and how searches can be aided by family legends.

For me, this is much of the joy of family history.  Finding the puzzle pieces and seeing how they fit together.  Finding new ways to use records and using new techniques, like DNA testing to help confirm or disprove theories.  The Hunley was a great story about courageous individuals and about a great research problem, uniquely solved.