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For THE FREE LANCE-STAR
For Becky Farence, seeing the face of her ancestor Frank G. Collins 140 years after his death in the Civil War was "surreal."
"The eyes, I can't place in my family," she says of the reconstruction unveiled this week of Collins, a Fredericksburg sailor lost aboard the Confederate submarine Hunley in 1864. "I see the cheeks, though, and wonder."
Collins' likeness was unveiled Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C., as part of a weeklong buildup that will culminate in the burial today of eight members of the final crew of the sub.
The CSS Hunley made naval history on Feb. 17, 1864, when it attacked the Union blockade ship USS Housatonic just outside Charleston's harbor, becoming the first submarine ever to sink an enemy vessel. For reasons still unknown, the Hunley never returned to base after the attack.
The Hunley was raised intact four years ago and taken to a special facility at the old Charleston Naval Base for conservation. Subsequent archaeological excavation of the sealed submarine led to the recovery of the remains of all eight crewmen, including Collins.
A team of world-class scientists and researchers identified the eight members of the Hunley's crew. Sculptor Sharon Long, working with Smithsonian Institution forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley, has produced reconstructions of the faces of the crewmen.
Those faces were publicly revealed, two at a time, at the end of lectures about the Hunley this week at the College of Charleston.
What Farence and others in attendance learned about Collins was that he was the tallest crew member of the crew, standing 6-foot-1. He had to crouch down just to fit into the tiny vessel, which was only 4 feet tall, 42 inches wide and 40 feet long.
Collins was one of seven men who hand-cranked the propeller. The commander steered from the front, using a single candle to illuminate a compass and map.
Sitting in the fourth seat in the single row, Collins would have been farthest away from the two escape hatches, making his position the most dangerous in the sub.
Unlike four of the eight crewmen, who were from Europe, physical evidence Owsley studied suggests that Collins was born and raised in America. He was living in Fredericksburg at the start of the Civil War in 1861, and joined the Confederate Navy at the recruiting station in Richmond in April of 1863.
While much has been learned about Collins, researchers still have questions.
"He was of age to respond to conscription calls at the start of the war, so why did he wait two years to enlist?" Hunley genealogist Linda C. Abrams asked during her lecture Thursday night.
Collins appears to have been the only adult male in his household in Fredericksburg at the beginning of the war, living with his aunt and her two small children after his grandfather's death.
"So that might explain his delay in enlisting," Abrams said.
Another puzzle is why Collins sought service in the navy instead of the army. He enlisted as a seaman, a rank reserved for men with prior experience on the open seas, according to Abrams.
The 1860 Census listed Collins as a day laborer. Researchers think he worked with his grandfather and uncle in their trade as cobblers. Where he got his nautical experience is unknown.
Farence is related to Collins through her father. He may not have been her only ancestor who fought in the Civil War.
"We're not certain, but on my mother's side there was a Union soldier that we think fought in the Peninsula Campaign," she said, referring to the Union effort in 1862 to seize Richmond.
Farence learned about the Hunley in 2000 when she and her family were on vacation in South Carolina.
"My family and I were in Myrtle Beach when it was raised. We watched it on the news, and that was my intro to the Hunley," she said.
She knew about Collins, but did not learn about his connection to the Hunley until researchers began looking into the backgrounds of the crew.
Farence lives in Harrisburg, Pa., but said she doesn't find it awkward to have a ancestor who fought for the Confederacy.
"I found the answer in my children," Farence explained.
Her two boys--in the fifth and third grades--don't look at the Hunley or Collins with the eyes of adults, concerned with the rightness or wrongness of the cause.
"They see it for what these men did. These guys got into this invention and made it work," she said.
The Hunley was high-tech for its time. It would be another 50 years--at the start of World War I--before another submarine would sink an enemy vessel.
And it was dangerous. Thirteen men from two previous Hunley crews died when the submarine sank during training exercises. Yet every time the vessel was raised from its latest watery grave, there was no shortage of volunteers for the next crew.
Now that she has a bona fide Confederate ancestor, Farence is qualified to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy. No one from that group has solicited Farence, but she received something special from the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"They gave me a certificate saying that I am now a 'true Southern belle,'" she said with a smile.