Legend has it that Lieutenant George Dixon of the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment was quite a lucky man. Shot at the battle of Shiloh, the ball from a Union soldier’s musket hit that him in the thigh should have taken his life, or at the very least his entire leg. Serious arm and leg wounds during the Civil War were often treated by amputating the affected limb, the practice of which required nothing more than an ether-soaked rag over the nose and a surgeon’s saw.
But Lt. Dixon’s wound would require none of this because when the musket ball struck him in the leg it was deflected by a $20 Double Eagle gold piece that he kept in his pocket as a lucky charm. The story has been passed down through the years that the gold piece was given to him by his true love as a token of her affection.
Whether or not this is true is beside the point. The coin was where it needed to be when fate struck regardless of who gave it to him. Instead of dying on the battlefield at Shiloh, the lucky lieutenant walked away with both legs and nothing more than a permanent limp. A greater fate awaited him.
Because of his keepsake coin, Lt. Dixon was allowed to live on and find his true place in history. It would not be at Shiloh. Lt. Dixon would find his real place in history, the one that fate had planned for him, on the night of February 17, 1864 in the dark waters just outside of the harbor of Charleston, SC.
On that night Lt. Dixon commanded the CSS Hunley, the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship in battle. Dixon and the other seven men of his crew slipped beneath the surface of the water in the hand-cranked, cigar-shaped Hunley and proceeded to navigate towards the looming hulk of the USS Housatonic, a Union warship engaged in blockade duty just offshore of the port of Charleston.
When the long spar on the front of the Hunley struck the Housatonic, Dixon ordered his men to reverse their cranking in order to deposit the TNT charge in the hull of the Union warship. The idea was to deposit the charge and then back away from the Housatonic so that the charge could then be detonated by a pullcord. But Murphy’s Law took over and the resulting explosion not only sank the Housatonic in less than five minutes, it also sent Dixon and his entire crew to the bottom of the harbor shortly thereafter. On that dark night, the Hunley became their tomb. The submarine would not surface again until it was located and raised in August of 2000.
Speculation about the identities of the crew, and most notably the commander of the Hunley ended when one of the researchers found a $20 gold piece inside the hull of the Hunley near the remains of one of the crewmembers. Not only was the coin bent like it had been struck hard with something, it bore the initials G.E.D and the inscription My Life Preserver. Sadly, the coin that saved George Dixon’s life at Shiloh and allowed him to find his true place in history was not able to save him from his watery grave.
Ghost stories about the Hunley and its crew abound in the Charleston area. When the remains of the crew were finally buried in the Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, next to the two previous Hunley crews that had lost their lives during the Hunley’s sea trials, thousands of people turned out for the event. The people engaged in the burial ceremony wore period-correct Confederate uniforms and civilian attire in order to pay respect to the fallen crew of the Hunley.
Spectators reported seeing Civil War soldiers walking among the crowd but when they later examined the photographs they took of the ceremony these soldiers could not be seen in the photos. One woman reported snapping a picture of a Confederate soldier adjusting the canteen strap of one of the reenactors standing in formation near the gravesite but when she later examined the photo the soldier was not there, leading her to believe that the soldier she saw adjusting the canteen strap had been a ghost.
The crew of the Hunley had been instructed to surface and light a signal lamp upon successfully sinking the Housatonic. Witnesses on shore reported seeing a light shortly after the Housatonic sank, but the Hunley never returned.
But ask any Charlestonian and they will tell you that if you go to the water’s edge on the night of February 17, you might just see a light in the distance, hovering just above the surface of the water. Some say the ghost ship and its crew, the first submarine crew in history to sink an enemy ship, remain on patrol signaling in vain to a shore party that has long since vanished.