On the night of 17 February 1864, Confederate Ship Hunley made its silent way into the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, to attack the sloop-of-war USS HOUSATONIC. The boat was under the command of 25-year-old Lieutenant George Dixon and crewed by seven volunteers who ranged in age from 20 to about 45.
Upon reaching the warship, Hunley thrust into her hull a barbed torpedo which exploded as the tiny submarine backed away, sinking the ship and killing five crewmen. (The remainder of the sailors escaped in lifeboats or clung to the rigging, which was still above water, until help arrived.) Exactly what happened to Hunley next remains unclear. She signaled to a contact on shore, as planned, that she was returning to base, but she never arrived. Historians have suggested that she might have been damaged beyond saving by the torpedo’s explosion or accidentally rammed by USS CANANDAIGUA as she hurried to her sister ship’s aid. Others have theorized that the crew simply overestimated the amount of available oxygen and passed out; without their manpower turning the sub’s crank it would have sunk quickly. The most recent theory is that a minié ball fired by a HOUSATONIC sailor shattered one of the sub’s glass viewing ports, allowing water to gush in. Whatever the cause of her loss, the sub would not be seen again by human eyes for 131 years.
In April of 1995, diver Ralph Wilbanks found the boat, buried under several feet of silt and resting on her starboard side at a 45-degree angle, in about 27 feet of water just 100 yards away from where HOUSATONIC had sunk. At 0837 on 8 August 2000, Hunley was finally brought to the surface for transport to a local conservation center.
In the years that followed, the identities of the seven crewmen were discovered using available records and DNA testing. Two of the men hailed from southern states—James Wicks (North Carolina) and Frank Collins (Virginia). LT Dixon was born in Ohio and Joseph Ridgaway, his second-in-command, was from Maryland. The other four men—Arnold Becker, J.F. Carlsen, and the two known only as Miller and Lumpkin—were born in Europe. Despite their differing backgrounds, on 17 April 2004 all were laid to rest, with full Confederate honors, at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston. Each of the five branches of the armed services sent a color guard and submarine veterans served as pallbearers. Thousands of mourners, many dressed in period clothing, attended the event.
Conservation work on Hunley herself is ongoing. Perhaps the most poignant artifact found in the wreck was a misshapen gold piece that had been given to LT Dixon by his sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, in the hope that it would bring him good luck when he went off to war. It did: Dixon was shot in the hip at the battle of Shiloh, but the bullet was stopped by the coin before it could do any major damage, although evidence of the wound was still visible in his skeleton. He later had the coin engraved: “Shiloh April 6, 1862 My life Preserver G.E.D.” Sadly for Dixon and Queenie, the good-luck piece did not work on the night Hunley got underway for the final time.