Thursday, July 8, 2021

H.L. Hunley: Sub's commander was a sharp-dressed man. Experts are piecing together a report on what crew wore when they made history

Nick DeLong and Johanna Rivera with Dixon clothing (Friends of the Hunley)
He was dressed more for a night on the town than for a moonlit submarine journey toward Union vessels blocking Charleston Harbor. Lt. George Dixon was decked out in a three-piece outfit, mid-calf suede boots and silver suspender buckles bearing his initials. Dixon’s clothing clearly demonstrated attention to how the young man presented himself.

So when he led his eight-man crew of Confederates on their mission, the soldier (rendering below) brought along the confidence that had sustained him since the early years of the Civil War. In addition to jewelry and a gold pocket watch, he carried a disfigured gold coin that absorbed a bullet during the April 1862 fighting at Shiloh and saved his leg.

“My life Preserver” was engraved on one side of the coin.

On Feb. 17, 1864, H.L. Hunley made history by becoming the first submarine to sink an enemy warship. The 40-foot iron vessel -- bullets pinging off its iron exterior -- planted a torpedo in the hull of the Union ship USS Housatonic, setting off a charge that sent the Federal vessel and five crew members to the sandy bottom within minutes.

The Hunley disappeared beneath the waves and entered the realm of legend. To this day, historians, scientists and others debate what caused it to end up on the ocean floor. Discovered a few miles off Charleston in 1995, and raised in 2000, the Hunley is being conserved at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston.

Experts have been analyzing the incredible array of artifacts found inside the submarine and are now working on a volume about the crew, including personal effects such as clothing, buttons and shoes. They hope to have the volume, which they are preparing for the U.S. Navy, finished later this year.

"The Hunley as a crew did not have a set uniform at all. They wore what they were comfortable or what they were used to,” said Nick DeLong, maritime archaeologist at the center. Six of the eight wore something that was part of a military uniform. 

G.E.D. is engraved in the suspender buckles (Friends of the Hunley)
Dixon’s clothing was the best-preserved of the group. Like the others, his remains were found at his station. “A lot of it (looked) like a disarticulated ball of wool and fabric,” DeLong told the Picket.

The Friends of the Hunley -- which supports the ongoing conservation of the submarine -- a few months ago posted photographs of much of Dixon’s clothing. The items had completed conservation a few years before.

DeLong and others are trying to put together a deeper picture of the crew from the many artifacts and the clothing they left behind. “He has interesting garments and we want to know a little more about the man himself,” he said of Dixon.

One of the first people brought in on the project to help with the analysis of the textiles was Mary Ballard, senior textile conservator at the Smithsonian Institution.

Conrad Wise Chapman depiction of the Hunley (Wikipedia)
“She was crucial in the identification of some of the fibers and helped the team determine that Dixon was wearing cashmere,” DeLong said. Textile curator Virginia Theerman of the Charleston Museum also was consulted and provided examples of clothing that might have matched what Dixon wore on the mission. It's possible he was wearing a sack coat, which is designed to fit more loosely than a tailored jacket.

The conservators are seeking additional experts to help determine what the crew members were wearing.   

DeLong and senior conservator Johanna Rivera have been carefully studying Hunley artifacts. Because the interior of the submarine was intact and filled with sediment, virtually everything the crew was wearing or carrying survived, although much of it is in fragments.

Dixon’s clothing had an impressive array of 19th century buttons (below, courtesy of Friends of the Hunley) made of several materials, including bone, brass and mother of pearl.

“We probably have all the buttons associated with him. Missing one or two can drastically change our understanding of what the garment looks like,” DeLong said.

The fabric itself is piecemeal, extremely fragile and it’s impossible to fully recreate each garment. Dixon’s undergarments, likely made of cotton, did not survive 135 years of being underwater, even in relative air-tight conditions.

The clothing appears to be brown, but experts are pretty certain its original color was black. DeLong said the cashmere wool was of high quality.

Conservators once thought that the clothing remnants included a cashmere vest, but DeLong says they have determined the vest no longer exists. It may have been made of a silk blend that deteriorated.

“We are trying to piece it all together. It’s a big puzzle and no picture to put it together,” he says of the endeavor to present some kind of picture of each man’s appearance.

The team hopes to get a fuller understanding what Dixon was wearing. “It could tell us more of the man himself, and the thought process going into the night of the attack.”

Traditional methods of excavating the human remains and textiles were not particularly effective because of the Hunley’s unique situation. Instead, a block-lift technique was used nearly 50 times to minimize damage to the items. Here’s how the center describes the process:

“The block-lifting technique consisted of probing the sediment and dividing the areas along major bone groups and sensitive artifacts. Steel plates were then slid under each block to separate the section from the rest of the sediment. The purpose of using block lifts was to safely retrieve the extremely fragile textiles that archaeologists were unable to excavate using traditional archaeological methods. The block lift would be removed intact and later x-rayed, documented, and excavated for small or fragile artifacts.”

A section of Dixon's cashmere coat (Friends of the Hunley)
DeLong said not much is known about Dixon before Shiloh. He was a Mason and is not believed to be Southern-born, though it appears he had some kind of social stature. In 1860, he was a steamboat engineer on the Mississippi River.

He enlisted in the Confederate army, likely in Mobile, Ala., and served with the 21st Alabama. At Shiloh, Dixon suffered a serious wound to the upper thigh when a bullet hit the gold coin, which is on display at the Lasch Center. Conservators found evidence of a healed wound while examining his skeletal remains.

At some point, Dixon returned to Mobile during the construction of the Hunley and became involved in the effort.

Dixon was perhaps in his mid- or late 20s when he became the Hunley’s third captain (two previous crews had died in sinkings). He had sandy hair and an athletic build, scientists determined from his remains. Gold fillings are another indication of some wealth.

As commander, Dixon navigated the submarine, using only a compass bearing and the limited visibility provided by the view ports in the forward conning tower,” the Friends of the Hunley say in an online biography. “Dixon controlled the movement of the rudder and the dive planes, which dictated the inclination and level of submersion of the submarine.

"Ultimately, Lt. Dixon was the crewmember who triggered the explosive device that would send the USS Housatonic  to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, a maritime first that changed the landscape of naval warfare worldwide.”

DeLong said the Dixon clothing, as depicted in the photographs, will likely stay in those positions. It’s possible the center can do a more visual presentation if it knows how the items were constructed and pieced together. (The photo above left includes suspender parts and buttons.)

“There will be no stitching back together,” he said of the fragile cloth.

A portion of Dixon's clothing before conservation (Friends of the Hunley)

1 comment:

  1. How interesting. First time I ever considered the preservation of clothing recovered from such conditions.