Civil War Submarine Resurfaces
9/22/2009

Even before its final mission, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was a coffin ship.

When nine men climbed inside on a cold night in 1864, they knew that its iron belly had suffocated previous crews. But the Confederacy needed a secret weapon against Union ships blockading vital routes.

Confederate soldiers on Sullivans Island waited for the crew's return, stoking bright fires to guide the Hunley back to port. Finally a blue glow bobbed in the black watersBut the guide fires burned all night, with no other sign from the sub. It would stay in the Atlantic for another 136 years. The Hunley became the first submarine to sink a ship in battle, which wouldn't happen again until World War I. But it would be one of the last Confederate ships to return.

On Aug. 8, a team of marine archaeologists raised the Hunley from its resting place. The project was run by the National Underwater and Marine Agency, which was funded by best-selling author Clive Cussler. The find ended a string of searches that began right after the Civil War.

Soon scientists hope to discover what the Hunley took to its grave. If the sediment preserved the sub's position, the sailors' bodies may still be crouched inside. And if silt sealed the sub away from nibbling creatures, they may even find flesh and clothing. Researchers could discover the men's ethnic origins through DNA testing. And the soldiers' personal belongings may still fill their pockets.

Many history buffs hope researchers find a legendary $20 gold piece belonging to Lt. George Dixon, the ship's commander. Given to him by his sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, it once caught a bullet meant for his leg. Dixon supposedly carried the bell-shaped coin in his pocket always, with the Yankee Minie ball still inside, for good luck.

But not every answer lies within the sub. The Hunley's crew climbed willingly into a known death trap, powering the ship for hours by turning an eight-man crank, with no outside oxygen. What made them do it?

The bravery of the crew represents America's heritage of struggle and courage, says Dr. Mark Newell, a Hunley expert and marine archaeologist.

"Americans have fought all over the world and died for the basic freedoms of this country," he says. "What the men of the Hunley did was a magnificent thing."

The legacy of the Confederacy isn't always rosy, with battles still being waged today over the Confederate flag's right to wave. But the Hunley represents a point of pride for the South, Newell says.

"It's a very important part of Southern history," Newell says. "A lot of people hold the view that the Confederacy was not very technologically advanced. But the Hunley was built with sophisticated techniques that say a great deal about the capabilities of the South."

The Hunley also opened a chapter of international submarine warfare that continues today. The nuclear-powered giants of post-Cold War fleets can claim the Hunley as an ancestor. And that includes the tragedy. In mid-August the Russian submarine Kursk, with a 118-man crew and a nuclear generator, was lost in unforgiving Atlantic waters, too.

Under the gun
By 1863 Union ships had choked off Charleston, SC, and made blockade-running almost impossible. Horace L. Hunley and a team of engineers and investors aimed to weaken the blockades and maybe collect bounty from the Confederate government for the kills. They nicknamed their submersible "the porpoise," which is what a Housatonic sailor mistook it for right before the attack.

The Hunley was one of a few submersible ships during the Civil War. The French developed a submarine for the Union, and Hunley's civilian team also tried with two other subs. The first was scrapped as the Yankees approached, keeping the secret safe as the inventors fled with blueprints. The second sank at sea while being towed.

The final version of the Hunley ran on manpower, made from train boilers and propelled by eight men turning a crank shaft. At about 40 feet long and four feet high, it reached speeds of four knots (around five miles per hour). A 17-foot iron pole attached to the bottom of the sub and packed the Hunley's punch: a 90-pound powder charge ("torpedo").

The torpedo was originally designed to be towed behind the sub and detonated on contact, but it also risked colliding with the Hunley itself in choppy seas. The night of its final mission, the torpedo was rigged to a cord threaded on a spool and set to detonate when the Hunley backed away and the line reached its end.

A mercury gauge measured depth, which they read by the flame of a single candle, the only source of light. Two small viewing towers on the front, which rose a little higher than the rest of the sub, would have looked like eyes coming toward the deckhands of the Housatonic.

"It was far more technologically advanced than we thought it was going to be," says Mark Ragan, a historian on the project that raised the Hunley. "It's not a crude machine. It's hydrodynamic. A lot of thought and effort went into the design and building of it."

But being inside would have been torturous, Newell says.

"It was just over 4 feet in diameter, so their knees would have been bent and their shoulders crouched as they cranked the propeller for hours on end, with very little air and very little light," Newell says. "It makes it all the more amazing that these people were actually volunteers."

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