Sunday, February 16, 2014

Civil War Sunday - The H.L. Hunley 150th

150 years ago tomorrow, February 17, 1864, submarine warfare began.

We don't think of the United States Civil War as being a naval war, but in fact, a portion of it was fought in naval actions - in harbors under siege, and on rivers.

On February 17, 1864 a Confederate submarine, primitive by today's standards but a marvel of technology back in 1864, embarked on a mission in Charleston Harbor. Charleston, in Confederate South Carolina, was where the Civil War began.  The Federals had been blockading the harbor. The brave men of the Hunley's crew knew that the vessel had sank the previous October, killing its crew and the man the sub was named after.  Would they accomplish their mission and return safely?

Can you imagine being in a small, claustrophobic sub, lit only by candles, powered by a hand crank, approaching a Union ship with a torpedo attached to a spar jutting out from your tiny vessel?

That night, the Hunley approached and sank a Union vessel, the USS Housatonic, signaled that they had achieved success...and then disappeared, not to be seen again until 1995.  The sub was raised in 2000, its dead buried with great ceremony and the sub moved to a building in North Charleston, South Carolina.  Now, researchers are closer than ever to finding out why the Hunley never returned from its mission.

Below is a post I wrote on the H.L. Hunley when I visited the restoration lab in 2012.  I do love the legend of the gold coin below, and this weekend, visitors to the H.L. Hunley will receive a copy of the coin.

The Legend of the Gold Coin (From April 7, 2012)

 Legends are always fascinating.  And sometimes, they are even true.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the second day of the two day Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing) in Tennessee.  This battle was the bloodiest battle in America up to its time (but would be surpassed later that year near a creek in Maryland called Antietam).   General Albert Sidney Johnston of the Confederate States of America lost his life at that battle (which was won by the Federals).  In a war that had so many "what if" turning points or "could have been" turning points, it may have been the death of Johnston that lead to the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy. (Ironically, it is also possible he was killed by friendly fire).  But, I will leave those debates to the historians.

What I love about the Civil War is those "rest of the stories" and one concerns a legend that turned out to be true.

The legend tells us that the sweetheart of one George Dixon gave him a gold coin as a token of her love as he went off to war, on the Confederate side.  He promised his sweetheart he would keep it with him always, and he kept that promise.  The coin was in his pants pocket as he fought at the Battle of Shiloh, and a bullet hit him - in the coin.  The coin deflected the bullet enough that the wound did not require amputation, and George Dixon lived to fight another day.

Lieutenant George Dixon died on the submarine H. L. Hunley, in Charleston Harbor, in 1864, as I have blogged about previously.  The Hunley was a marvel of the technology of the 1860's, a functional submarine that saw combat, but the crew met their death at the bottom of Charleston Harbor hours after their first and only battle action for reasons still unknown.

During the excavation of the H. L. Hunley, the coin was indeed found next to Dixon's body.

It is a $20. gold piece, bent, with an inscription:
April 6 1862
My life Preserver

In the lab, traces of lead were discovered on the coin, leading scientists to conclude that the coin was indeed hit by a bullet.  And, due to where it was found, the authenticity of the coin is unquestioned.

I recently toured the lab restoring the Hunley.  You can not take photographs, but you can see the ship (in a preservation tank) and the coin.  And, that morning, something happened that could only happen in Hollywood. Except it didn't.

I was examining the coin, in its display case, with an older gentleman.  He mentioned that his great-great-great-great (I may have left out a "great" or two) grandfather had fought at Shiloh.

Bet Lieutenant Dixon was winking at us at that moment.


  1. I love reading your historical facts Alana. I learn something new every day :)

    1. Thank you, Sophie. I enjoy introducing people to the stories of the human race.

  2. Oh! The legend of the gold coin would have made a good Valentine's Day post!

    1. It would have. I was so focused on the Civil War aspect. Maybe I've repost it next Valentine's Day.

  3. Fascinating. Even during the horror of war, life goes on, romance lives, and legends survive. Love the chance meeting too.

    1. This is one of several interesting stories surrounding this early combat submarine. Perhaps that is why the Hunley has interested me ever since I first learned about it.


Your comments sustain me, as long as they are civil, are on topic, and do not contain profanity, advertising of any kind, links or spam. Any messages not meeting these criteria will immediately be composted, and my flowers will enjoy their contents.