Hunley find adds to mystery
Watch suggests sub’s crew asphyxiated

By MIKE TONER, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Archaeologists gently pried open Lt. George Dixon’s ornate gold pocket watch this week, hoping that the hands, frozen in time for almost 140 years, would help resolve the mystery of the final minutes of Dixon and his crew aboard the doomed Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley.

Instead, the mud-caked hands of Dixon’s watch have deepened the mystery — raising the possibility that the eight submariners may have died slowly from asphyxiation, not by drowning, as many historians had assumed.

From the position of the broken hour hand and the intact minute hand, it is clear that the watch, carried in Dixon’s right vest pocket, stopped at 8:22.

But historical records from the USS Housatonic, which the Hunley attacked and sank on the evening of Feb. 17, 1864, put the time of the attack between 8:45 and 9 p.m. Soon after the attack, during which the Hunley rammed a single explosive charge into the Housatonic’s hull, the submarine disappeared beneath the waters of Charleston Harbor, where it — and the bodies of the crew — remained until they were raised in July 2000.

It’s possible that Dixon’s watch simply wasn’t set properly. But historians believe that is unlikely, because he needed accurate time to determine when the tides changed.

Hunley experts believe that it is more likely the watch kept running for another 12, 24 or perhaps even 36 hours after the attack. They believe it would have stopped if it were underwater. So the position of the hands "raises the supposition that the submarine may have remained less than flooded long after the demise of the crew," says Glenn McConnell, the South Carolina state senator who chairs the Hunley Commission.

"If the submarine had flooded shortly after the attack, it seems probable that the watch would have stopped at a time closer to, but after, 8:45 p.m.," he said Friday.

Archaeologists say additional clues may shed more light on that theory. In coming weeks, they plan to clean out the silt that still fills the back side of the watch to see if the watch spring is fully uncoiled, as it would be if the watch had stopped of its own accord.

"The hands of the watch give us one more clue," says Hunley Project Director Robert Neyland, chief archaeologist for the U.S. Navy. "But we still have many more clues to piece together."

Neyland and other archaeologists agree, however, that the watch itself is one of the most remarkable of the hundreds of artifacts entombed in the sediment-filled interior of the 40-foot hand-cranked submarine.

"The watch is something everyone can relate to," says Neyland. "It is certainly symbolic of the end of the Hunley and its crew."

The team of archaeologists, conservators and anxious onlookers spent two days cleaning the watch — using dental picks, scalpels and gentle pulses of water to clear away almost 140 years of sediment.

The ornate fob attached to the watch is inscribed with the name of Dixon’s Masonic lodge. From the engraved mark of a lion’s head and a serial number on the 18-karat gold case, archaeologists say it appears that the watch, or at least the case, was made in England.

Archaeologists say they are still puzzled by a thin mineral deposit on the inside cover of the watch, which may be the residue from a long-vanished tintype photograph. The residue will be sent to a laboratory for further analysis.

As the tabletop excavation of the watch moves to the back portion of the case, researchers hope to discover inscriptions that may shed light on how Dixon, whose personal background is still mostly a mystery, came to own such a lavish timepiece.

"For someone on a dangerous mission, Dixon was carrying a lot of personal wealth," says Neyland. "This was a very expensive watch — the Rolex of its time."

In addition to the watch Dixon was carrying other personal items — a $20 gold piece, a ring containing nine diamonds and a woman’s brooch with 37 small diamonds — that suggest the Hunley’s commander was no ordinary junior officer.

The brooch is believed to have been intended as a gift for Dixon’s girlfriend, Queenie Bennett. The coin was a good luck charm — bent out of shape by a bullet which struck Dixon’s leg at the battle of Shiloh.

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