A Civil War Time Capsule From the Sea

Artifacts from the South's submarine are turning fable into fact.

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Genealogy. To flesh out the backgrounds of the dead sailors, forensic experts were brought in to analyze the sub's interior as though it were a crime scene. Historians had long assumed the Hunley's crew would fit a certain mold: "We thought they'd be young-expendable, in other words-shorter than average, naïve," Jacobsen says. But the bones told a very different story. All were taller than average, and two topped 6 feet; the ages ranged from 20 to late 40s. Says Jacobsen: "These men were a hand-picked, crack team."

While the archaeologists worked their way through the sediment inside the sub, Abrams delved into archives and history books on two continents to figure out who these sailors might have been. Piecing together everything from crew manifests to English immigration re cords to European census lists, Abrams discovered that half the crew was foreign-born. Abrams has tracked two-Arnold Becker and J.F. Carlsen-all the way to Germany. "How do you explain four foreigners volunteering for what they knew was probably a suicide mission?" asks Abrams. "It's almost like those who became involved in the Confederacy had different motivation than those in the North."

The researchers were even able to confirm an old legend. Thesub marine's final commander, Lt. George Dixon, was already a veteran of several battles by the time he squeezed through the hatch of the Hunley. At the battle of Shiloh, Dixon was shot in the hip, but the bullet was stopped by a gold coin he was carrying. Excavating the ship's prow, Jacobsen found a $20 gold piece from 1860, badly bent. "My life preserver" was engraved on the back. "When we started the project, that was historical legend," McConnell says. "When we went to lift the remains out, historical fable became fact."

Now that the sub's interior has been cleared, researchers intend to go to work on the hull, which is still covered in a hard layer of sand, silt, and rust. When they start removing this concretion later this year, Jacobsen hopes they'll find the answer to the Hunley's biggest secret: What sank the sub on that February night? "It's a forensic site 140 years old," Jacobsen marvels. "People died, and we don't know how."

That sense of enduring mystery is part of the sub's magnetism. Since the project began more than a decade ago, tens of millions of dollars have been donated to fund the excavation and research. Organizers hope to open a museum in 2013, showcasing a conserved submarine. "Never when we started the project did we think we'd find it with that little corrosion and with that kind of preservation inside her," McConnell says. "The Hunley has all the history and romanticism of something lost at sea like the Titanic."