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 waters<the hunley’ s=”” lantern=”” signal.=”” success.=”” and=”” miles=”” away,=”” the=”” crew=”” of=”” uss=”” housatonic=”” was=”” abandoning=”” its=”” sinking=”” blockade=”” ship,=”” still=”” baffled=”” by=”” attack=”” from=”” an=”” underwater=”” enemy.=””
. But 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.”
Members of at least two previous Hunley crews died during test runs after the Confederate Navy took over the ship. In one incident, the hatches were open when the captain stepped on a lever that made the submarine dive. Everyone but the captain drowned, and the ship was raised. The next fluke sinking killed Horace Hunley himself when he took it for a test drive with an experienced civilian crew. He literally drove the sub into the ground, suffocating the entire crew while they struggled at the crank.
But divers raised the ship again. And General P.G.T. Beauregard had his doubts.
“It is more dangerous to those who use it than to the enemy,” he concluded after the sinking.
Beauregard agreed to let another crew take over, under Alabama engineering officer George E. Dixon. But he made sure they knew about the dangers. The next nine men who climbed into the Hunley’s cramped hull knew exactly what they were getting into. They began practice attack runs, pushing themselves and the Hunley to the limit.
On Feb. 17, 1864, the Hunley headed for the USS Housatonic with the torpedo attached to its spar. Everything went according to plan: At 8:45 p.m. one of the USS Housatonic’s crew thought he saw a dolphin. Another thought it was a log in the water. But Union sailors had been warned about Confederate submersibles in the works and quickly opened fire from their pistols and rifles
Too late. The Hunley rammed the powder charge into the Housatonic’s wooden hull, and Dixon and his men cranked into reverse. Then the torpedo line tripped, blasting the blockade ship’s hull. The Housatonic sank in three minutes, taking five Union sailors with it and rocketing the Hunley into history.
Then the Hunley started for home, signaled its success, and disappeared.
Since the end of the Civil War, people have searched for the Hunley. Chains were dragged around the Housatonic’s wreckage. Entertainer P.T. Barnum offered $100,000 to anyone who found the Hunley, so that he could include it in his show. In the 1970s, marine archaeologist Dr. Mark Newell started researching and diving, backed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“The general public was so convinced that it was destroyed, that it was impossible to raise the money to go search,” Newell says.
Best-selling author Clive Cussler funded his own search in 1980. Newell says he helped Cussler but nothing was found until a September 1994 expedition with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the University of South Carolina. Cussler and his own divers excavated in May 1995, and Newell says Cussler jumped the gun on announcing the find, claiming sole credit. But historian Mark Ragan, who joined Cussler’s project in 1995, disagrees.
“I don’t have a PhD in underwater archaeology,” Ragan says, “but it looks like (the Hunley) was just covered in slime. It’s always been buried. Cussler and his group found it officially. I know there’s some dispute about that, but they’re just whistling Dixie.”
Newell says that’s fine with him. He’s just happy to see the Hunley out of the Atlantic.
“It’s very, very satisfying,” he says. “People kept telling us it didn’t exist. They assumed the Hunley was scrapped. But we knew all along it was out there, and to finally see it rise was a good moment for all of us.”
The home crowd
When it finally returned to the surface, the Hunley got a hero’s welcome. A crane took only a few minutes to lift the Hunley 30 feet off the sea floor in a protective sling. Nine women dressed in black, one for each crew member, dropped roses into the harbor. A 21-gun salute boomed. Thousands of onlookers cheered, and more than 400 boats escorted the Hunley’s carrier back to land.
Charles Rhodes of Charleston left home at 5 a.m. to see the raising. His ancestor, George Rhodes, signed South Carolina’s Articles of Secession, a document preceding the state’s decision to become the first to secede. Another one of Rhodes’ ancestors fought and died at Gettysburg.
“They completed their mission, and now to bring them home, it’s just amazing,” Rhodes says. “Now it’s time to give them the military honors that they deserve.”
Any remains of the crew will be given a proper Confederate burial with honors in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery with the Hunley’s previous crew members. Both Dr. Mark Newell and a spokesperson for National Underwater and Marine Agency, the project that raised the Hunley, say they plan to trace the crew’s ancestry and lineage so relatives can be aware of their ancestors.
But at least one important descendant was already waiting at the dock: The great-granddaughter of Lt. Dixon’s sweetheart, Sally Necessary of Richmond, Va.
As the Hunley headed for dry land and the safety of a laboratory, someone waved a blue lantern, the Hunley’s last signal. Success.