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Hunley findings bring surprises

January 7, 2006 12:50 am

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Becky Farence of Harrisburg, Pa., stands over the reconstructed face of her ancestor, Hunley crewman and Fredericksburg native Frank G. Collins, at a ceremony in 2004 in Charleston, S.C. The remains of the recovered Hunley crew were buried in a Charleston cemetery./Photo by Scott Boyd

"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.

This conclusion is based on chemical analysis of the bones of the crewmen for the presence of carbon 13, an isotope found in human bones, the quantity of which varies according to diet.

"The diet in America is very different from Europe," Owsley emphasized. "There is corn in the U.S. diet which is not found in Europe." Wheat, barley and rye were staples of the typical 19th-century diet in Europe, rather than corn. This would leave a different amount of carbon 13 in their bones. He displayed a chart showing the different levels of carbon 13 isotopes among the crewmen, effectively dividing them into American and European groups.

The Hunley researchers tried to bridge the gap between the 19th and 21st centuries by locating living descendants of the crewmen. Linda Abrams, the Hunley team's forensic genealogist, identified the crewmen as closely as possible through documentary evidence in archives and family collections.

"Four [crewmen's identities] we're positive about, two pretty certain and two can flip either way," Owsley told the audience.

Once the crew's identities were established, Abrams reversed direction in her genealogical quest and searched for living descendants of the Confederate submariners.

The Hunley researchers believed they may have found living descendants of some of the eight crewmen, but this would have to be confirmed by DNA testing, Owsley explained.

Mitochondrial DNA that stays intact for a considerable time can be found in some kinds of human remains. This kind of DNA passes through the female line in a family tree, so for these Hunley crewmen the researchers had to trace a maternal line from them to descendants living today.

One of those sailors who might have descendants alive today was none other than Fredericksburg's own Frank Collins. The body of a suspected maternal relative, Edward Clarke Gosnell (1853-1929) was exhumed in 2004 to retrieve some DNA that could be tested against material recovered from Collins' body to see if the men were related. Gosnell has known living relatives.

Owsley showed pictures of the cemetery where Gosnell's grave was opened with the family's permission. Owsley recalled that as he crawled over the opened casket to cut Gosnell's trouser leg to get a sample of bone marrow from the man's thigh bone, the lid fell on him, pushing him partly into the casket with the body. Owsley said this was quite an experience. But he did retrieve the sample he wanted.

Unfortunately, there was no DNA match, and researchers concluded that Gosnell's father may have had more than one wife over his lifetime and this might have created the apparent break in the family tree's maternal line with the Collins family.

So far only one of the eight Hunley crewmen, Joseph Ridgaway of Maryland, has a living descendant today who can be proved through DNA testing.

The eeriest sight in Owsley's presentation were the photos of the reconstructed faces of the Hunley crewmen. Owsley explained the enormous amount of scientific work that went into the sculptures. "Facial reconstruction is a very venturesome kind of thing," Owsley commented, and he praised the work of forensic sculptor Sharon Long, who worked with him to bring the faces of the crewmen to life.

In addition to his Civil War work, Owsley has helped the FBI identify human remains in some famous modern crime scenes, such as the burned-out Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas; victims' body parts associated with cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee, Wis.; the mass graves of victims of ethnic violence in Croatia; and bodies of Pentagon workers and airline passengers killed by the terrorists who crashed an airliner into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Someone has said Doug's number is on speed dial at the FBI," joked Friends of Wilderness Battlefield Education Director Dale Brown as he introduced Owsley.

SCOTT BOYD is a freelance writer living in Spotsylvania County.





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