What makes a good plot line for a story?
First I think you need interesting characters….people you can care about….people you are willing to invest a few minutes of your time with. Second, you need an interesting backstory…something going on in the background to move the story along …throw in a little true life to the characters and to the events of the back story and gee, you’ve got a genuine blockbuster.
That’s what I look for when I teach history standards. In and of themselves the standards can be a little boring. Teaching in a “just the facts ma’m” kind of format will more often than not lead to a room full of students with glazed over eyes and off task behaviors…doodling, throwing spit balls, reading ahead in the text, repairing make-up, etc.
I look for the details of history that will enthrall others, old and young alike, the quirkiness of history, the stuff of history that make it alive and worth remembering.
The Civil War is a historical topic full of facts and my Georgia teaching standards are quite clear as to what students should know when they tackle that test each April. The Civil War is also a historical topic that is jam packed with great backstories and wonderful, real characters that can be used to motivate students to delve deeper into the content and analyze the context of the times and the motivation behind all of the parties involved.
The story of the CSS Hunley is interesting not just from a naval and technological viewpoint, but since I have to consider my audience and what will drag them kicking and screaming to the historical roundtable, the story of the Hunley is a gem for any serious teacher of history.
Last week for my wordless post I presented the front view of a gold coins that seem simple enough at first glance, but oh….what a story these gold coins have to tell. Homeschooling Granny made a correct assumption that the coins I pictured were indeed the coins given to George Dixon by his sweetheart Queenie Bennett as he left for war.
Highlighting literature is an important part of my teaching style and the book The Story of the H.L. Hunley and Queenie's Coin Edition 1. (True Story) by Fran Hawke and illustrated by Dan Nance (2004) is a wonderful story to share with history students from 9 to 90.
Throughout our great history men have gone off to serve our country and have received parting gifts from their loved ones. George Dixon was no different.
During the Civil War many soldiers received miniature paintings or photographs of their sweethearts, a handkerchief, scarf, or a tender love letter.
As he left in 1862 to join the 21st Alabama Regiment to serve under General P.G.T. Beauregard George Dixon’s sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, handed him a $20 gold coin. George instantly placed the coin in his pocket where he carried it into war. Can’t you see him sitting around a campfire at night pulling out the coin, turning it over and over in his fingers, thinking of Queenie….thinking of home?
What was given as a token of love actually served many more purposes. On April 6, 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh the coin actually stopped a bullet from injuring his leg. Dixon would have a lasting limp from the injury, but he survived because of the coin.
When he returned to Mobile he had the coin inscribed….Shiloh, April 6, 1862 My life preserver GED…and he continued to carry the coin in his pocket as a symbol of his love and devotion to Queenie as well as to commemorate his experience at Shiloh.
Dixon was unable to return to the battlefield, but continued to serve the Confederacy. He volunteered for another duty working with a new type of weapon the Confederacy was investigating….a new type of boat called a submarine. The Confederates hoped the submarines would allow them to bust the blockade that had blocked Charleston’s harbor as well as several other Confederate harbors.
At this point Fran Hawke’s book takes the interesting love story of Queenie and George and moves it to the sidelines a bit to tell the story of the Hunley. The text explains:
Learning and experimenting as they worked, the men molded iron plates into a sleek shape.
There would barely be room for eight or nine men, sitting on a wooden bench, turning the shaft that moved the propeller.
A long pole was affixed to the front of the submarine. It would hold an explosive, which would be jammed into the hull of an enemy ship.
Then, of course, as stories often do the plot returns to love. After a couple of disasterous tests George shared with Queenie that he was going to request command of the Hunley. He felt certain that the South should use submarines. He stifled any fear Queenie might have regarding his safety by reminding her he carried her gold coin.
George convinced Gen. Beauregard by telling him, “Sir, the Hunley is still in perfect working order. It only sank because the other crews made mistakes…The submarine is temperamental, but she is not a death trap.”
Under George Dixon’s command the Hunley was finally ready to attack Union ships in Charleston Harbor on February 17, 1864.
The book continues with a discussion regarding how the Hunley attacked the 200-foot-long USS Husatonic, and how the Hunley tore a hole in the side of the Union ship and sank her.
Sadly, however, the Hunley never returned to port.
The Confederacy tried to keep the loss of the Hunley secret, hoping that the Union would fear more attacks. Any hope of ending the Union blockade ended with the missing submarine and Queenie’s George.
Over the years quite a few myths surrounded the Hunley and her disappearance.
PT Barnum, a late nineteenth-century circus owner, offered a reward of $100,000 to anyone who could find the Hunley for him to display in his traveling show.
More than 100 years after the Hunley disappeared, famed author, Clive Cussler, arrived in Charleston to begin his search for the submarine. He was a Civil War expert, an underwater archaeologist, and an author. “Shipwrecks,“ he liked to say, “are never where they are supposed to be.” Cussler and his team kept looking, on an off for 15 years.
The Hunley was finally located on May 3, 1995 but it was not raised until August 8, 2000.
The book goes on to detail the painstaking efforts the folks at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina made to excavate the Hunley’s secrets…the propeller shaft, the crew’s bench, the men’s clothes, pipes, pocketknives, canteens, a wallet, a brooch, and a corked bottle. The remains of the crew members were also gathered for a proper buriel.
But what of Queenie’s gold coin?
Maria Jacobsen, the chief archaeologist sifted through the area where Lt. George Dixon would have sat. Through the mud she saw the glint of the lucky gold piece.
The coin is displayed today at the Hunley Exhibit at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.
Fran Hawke’s book is a perfect addition to any history classroom and can be used with any age group. The story motivates students to learn more about the submarine by drawing them into the tragic love story of Queenie and George, by strategically interchanging the back story and the historical record back and forth in such a way you are totally unaware that you are learning something.
You can see both sides of the coin here.
The website for Friends of the Hunley can be found here
A picture of Queenie and more information can be found here