As part of our retirement-age plans to take occasional go-at-our-own-pace trips to historical sites, the Missus and I are planning on visiting Charleston, South Carolina, soon to tour the Hunley exhibit. The discovery of the long-lost Civil War submarine in 1995 and its subsequent raising in 2000 captured the attention of history buffs and marine explorers worldwide.
I decided to re-read a book about the Hunley’s history. “Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine” was written by Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf, two Charleston journalists.
And by page seven of its text, the narrative has already accurately referred to the Hunley as “the Holy Grail of the Civil War,” “pure history” and “the most complete 19th-century time capsule ever found.” The small war boat was the first of its type to sink an enemy ship during combat.
The book’s chronicle follows three logical blocks of history. Part one discusses the desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures design and evolution of a submersible craft that was powered by humans sitting on a bench and turning a crankshaft that operated a propeller.
The revelations disclosed in the book are fascinating, and continually stoke a
reader’s curiosity. For example, other prototype submersibles were built in the
Confederacy during the Civil War. One of them was built in Mobile and was lost in Mobile Bay. Named the American Diver, it has yet to be found.
The H.L. Hunley was also built in Mobile, and was technically not a ship of the
Confederate navy when it was built. Rather, it was a privateer, an iron manifestation of inventor Horace Hunley’s vision that was initially owned by civilians who had contracted with the military
In its time, the Hunley was not called a submarine. It was referred to as a “fish-boat.”
It sank twice during training missions in Charleston Harbor drowning 13 men
including its namesake. Salvaged and reconditioned after both sinkings, the Hunley’s one and only combat mission occurred on Feb. 17, 1864, when it rammed a Union warship, the Housatonic, and discharged an explosive torpedo that was attached to a spar on the submarine’s bow. The Housatonic quickly sank, and five Union sailors perished.
Utilizing a blue lantern, the captain of the Hunley signaled the shoreline that its
mission had been successful. Then the submarine disappeared for over 130 years, taking its crew of eight with it.
Part two chronicles the numerous quests to find the Confederate fish-boat, and
includes missed clues as well as the participation of showman P.T. Barnum and
mega-author Clive Cussler.
Once the Hunley was discovered, numerous claims and litigation ensued regarding salvage rights and ownership, which delayed its raising.
Part Three documents the actual lifting event on August 8, 2000 and the priceless submersible’s subsequent placement in a local research facility, where it sits to this day.
The earliest excavations of the interior are documented, including the discovery and extraction of the crew’s remains. Initially created as a unique warship, the Hunley had become a unique tomb and the crewmembers died at their duty stations.
And while I don’t want to give away too many revelations, it needs to be noted that the Hunley’s crew compartment apparently stayed airtight for decades, since stalactites (described as “calcium icicles” in the text) had formed on the roof of the interior. The holes in the hull that had allowed water and silt to enter were apparently caused by boat anchors happened to drop directly onto the Hunley over the decades.
It also needs to be pointed out that “Raising the Hunley” was published in 2002, and researchers are still involved with excavations and artifacts from the fish-boat. One wonders what subsequent discoveries and updates have been in the offing, and whether a new (photo-centric) volume might be merited, about the amazing machine that was so cutting-edge for its time (and “cutting edge” didn’t exist as a term back then).
I’d enjoyed reading the unique history of the Hunley some years ago, to the point that I considered “Raising the Hunley” to be a keeper in my (limited-space) office library. Pulling it back out and rereading it prior to a trip to Charleston validated my earlier decision.
Willie Moseley is the news editor emeritus for The Tribune. His column appears here each Wednesday.