Lt. Dixon's Gold Coin
From the CSS Hunley

This coin is the $20 double eagle gold coin carried by Lt. George E. Dixon, commander of the Confederate submarine CSS H.L. Hunley on the night it became the first submarine to sink an enemy warship. I took this photo of it on March 16, 2014 at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, the incredible laboratory in North Charleston, SC where the recovered Hunley is being excavated and restored. 

I am intensely interested in the Old West but the American Civil War also holds a special fascination for me. The story of the Hunley is absorbing. A primary strategy of the Union during the Civil War was to blockade the ports of the Confederacy and strangle it. Charleston was one such port. Necessity is the mother of invention. Breaking the blockade was essential for the Confederacy. But the Confederate Navy was tiny compared to that of the Union, so it explored innovations in ironclad ships – and in submarines. 

The Hunley was 40 feet long and wedge-shaped. It was four feet high and three-and-a-half feet wide. Seven crew members sat next to each other and cranked a shaft that turned a propeller. The captain stood or knelt in the front with his head and shoulders inside a conning tower. He controlled an explosive torpedo (a mine) attached to the end of a spar extending from the bow of the submarine. The interior was dark and claustrophobic. It took great courage to volunteer to serve on the Hunley

Most of the first crew drowned in an accident, and the entire second crew (including Horace Hunley, the designer of the submarine) drowned in another accident. But yet a third crew was easily recruited.  

On the night of February 17, 1864 the Hunley attacked the blockading steam sloop USS Housatonic off Charleston harbor. The torpedo blew the stern off the Union warship and she sank in a few minutes. The Hunley had made history. But the Hunley never returned. 

The wreck of the Hunley was discovered in 1995, the ship was finally raised in 2000, and she is now undergoing painstaking excavation and restoration. It will take many years. 

The skeletal remains of the crew were found inside the Hunley; this was very sobering and moving. The remains of the Captain, George Dixon, were most easily identified because of their position at the front of the boat. 

Legend had it that Dixon’s sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, had given him a gold coin for luck when he went off to war in 1861. The gold coin saved his life at the Battle of Shiloh when a bullet that would have been fatal hit the coin and bent it but saved Dixon’s life. And he continued to carry the bent coin for good luck. Or so the legend went. Was it true? Or was it just a romantic story? 

When excavating the Hunley, archeologists found Dixon’s gold coin right where his trousers’ pocket would have been. It had been minted in 1860, and they discovered that the back of the coin had been sanded and an inscription added:  

Shiloh
April 6th 1862
My life Preserver
G.E.D. 

The legend was true. My photo shows that coin. 

Friends of the Hunley: http://www.hunley.org/