J. F. Carlsen was a European by birth. He seems to have been drawn to danger and adventure. Before he lost his life on the H. L. Hunley at approximately 20-23 years of age, he had crossed the Atlantic, run the blockade surrounding the South, and been part of a crew taken over by a mutiny. He was also recognized for bravery during fierce battles for his service to the Confederacy.
In addition to his young age and European origin, forensic analysis also confirms that Carlsen was about 5 feet 10 inches tall. Forensic genealogist Linda Abrams has traced Carlsen’s history in America to 1861, when he was helmsman onboard the Jefferson Davis, a privateer ship based out of Charleston, with a black hull, masts, and sails. Privateers captured merchant vessels, took on their crew, and returned to port to sell captured goods.
On June 28, 1861, the Jeff Davis sailed from Charleston, South Carolina. During this voyage, the privateer captured seven merchant ships and their crews. After such a successful run, captured crewmen eventually outnumbered the men of the Jeff Davis, and the captives attempted to take over the ship. The crew survived, but the conflict caused the ship to be lost near St. Augustine, Florida in August of 1861.
Though the crewmen who revolted on the vessel were captured, the laws still looked upon this action as mutiny, a serious crime in the 19th century. In September of 1861, members of the Jeff Davis crew, including Carlsen, returned to Charleston and filed charges of treason at the Courthouse against the men who led the revolt.
During the trial that followed, Carlsen signed witness statements. Those documents have enabled Abrams to confirm the correct spelling of his name, which had not been previously known.
“Tracking down the crew can be like searching in the dark. You can’t always trust historical accounts of the spelling of a name. There are some accounts of Carlsen’s name being spelled with different initials, and with an ‘o’ instead of an ‘e’ in his last name, which made it very difficult to track down information about his life,” Abrams said.
During the time Carlsen was testifying in the mutiny trial in Charleston, the German Artillery was stationed in nearby Green Pond (Colleton County) and was actively recruiting members. Since Carlsen was not a native of South Carolina, he was most likely not subject to conscription laws. He became one of the recruits, volunteered for the artillery and was later recognized for his bravery at the Battle of Fort Walker in Hilton Head, South Carolina in November of 1861.
Carlsen stayed with the German Artillery through 1864. In early 1864, Carlsen became one of the men who volunteered for service on the Hunley. Several accounts say Hunley Commander Lt. George Dixon found two crewmembers in the German Artillery, and used one to replace William Alexander, an engineer from Mobile that came to Charleston to help Dixon man the submarine. Alexander had helped build the vessel and had experience navigating the Hunley in test runs in Mobile Bay.
Carlsen was assigned to the fourth crank handle, a dangerous spot in case of an emergency evacuation. He was most likely assigned this position because he was the newest member of the crew and the least familiar with its operation.
Based on documents found to date, Carlsen’s official military records indicate he died on the Hunley. Absent from his unit when the Hunley disappeared after sinking the USS Housatonic, the muster roll states that Carlsen was “…lost in the Submarine Torpedo Boat on the 16th, [17th], of Feb 1864 while in the act of sinking the U.S. Steamer Housatonic.”