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Research on the remains of the H.L. Hunley submarine crewmen, including Frank G. Collins of Fredericksburg, proved conventional wisdom to be wrong. By Scott Boyd
Date published: 1/7/2006
"IWORK WITH Civil War remains more than anyone out there," said Dr. Douglas W. Owsley, division head for physical anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution. He is one of the foremost forensic anthropologists in the world today and spoke in Fredericksburg recently.
"H.L. Hunley: The Faces of History" was the title of Owsley's presentation at Walker-Grant Middle School. The event was sponsored by the Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield.
Owsley's team identified the remains of the crewmen in the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley after the vessel was raised intact near the harbor entrance of Charleston, S.C., in 2000. The Hunley is famous for being the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy warship, which it did on Feb. 17, 1864.
His team's work led to the surprising announcement (first made public in The Free Lance-Star) that one of the Hunley's eight crewmen, Frank G. Collins, was from Fredericksburg.
"I've been involved with Civil War remains since the earliest days in my career. They've had a major effect on my field," Owsley remarked. "Sometimes we use these techniques [modern forensic science] to solve historical mysteries. The Hunley is one of them."
Much conventional wisdom about what the Hunley crewmen would be like was contradicted by what Owsley and his team found.
"We expected to find nine men," Owsley told the audience. They found only eight bodies in the small, sealed submarine after it was opened for preliminary examination.
"We expected them to be little, tiny men," Owsley said. This is because of the 40-foot-long submarine's very small interior, 4 feet high and 3 feet wide. In fact, the men were a little taller than the average Civil War soldier or sailor. Fredericksburg native Frank Collins was the tallest, at 6 feet 1 inch tall.
"We expected them all to be young," Owsley said. This was the next piece of conventional wisdom that would be challenged. One crewman's age was judged to have been 19, but the oldest was calculated to be 45.
Because the Civil War pitted men from the Northern states against those from the South, the eight Hunley men were expected to have come from somewhere in North America. Owsley's startling conclusion, however, was that four of the men were from Europe.