After 136 years, a homecoming for a historic sub


Archaeology: The Confederacy's H. L. Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship. This summer, scientists will try to recover it off the South Carolina coast and learn why it never returned.

February 11, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Submerged in the muck off Charleston Harbor is a Civil War relic that rivals Jules Verne's Nautilus for its ingenuity and prowess.

Verne's creation was mistaken for a monster from the deep, a mysterious creature whose armor-like hide repelled the sharpest harpoons. Horace Lawson Hunley's creation for the Confederate Navy was dubbed, among other things, "the murdering machine." A secret hand-cranked submarine, the cast-iron vessel sank a Union sloop, the USS Housatonic, on Feb. 17, 1864, and made naval history.

The H. L. Hunley was the first sub to sink an enemy ship in combat. But on that same moonlit night, the sub and its nine-man crew vanished in the murky waters off Charleston, the Confederate port from which it sailed on its final voyage.

This summer, a team of underwater archaeologists and engineers will raise the 40-foot sub from its entombment. They expect to find the remains of the crew and, they hope, the reason for its demise.

"Regardless of whether you're Union, Confederate or whatever," says South Carolina state Sen. Glenn McConnell, a Civil War buff and president of a Hunley preservation commission, "this is an American story of ingenuity and bravery."

For more than a century, the mystery of the ship's tragic end captivated Civil War enthusiasts, engaged naval historians and attracted treasure seekers. Showman P. T. Barnum offered $100,000 for its recovery. But the Hunley remained missing until May 3, 1995, when divers hired by adventure novelist Clive Cussler found the sub buried in sand and silt in shrimping waters they and others had overlooked.

Efforts have been made ever since to recover the Hunley, return it to shore, preserve its contents and present to the world the story of its last voyage.

The Hunley's historic feat, four years before Jules Verne wrote "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea," was not duplicated for half a century, until a German submarine, the U-21, sank the British cruiser Pathfinder on Sept. 5, 1914. Eight days later, a British sub, the E-9, sank the German ship Hela.

The Hunley killed five of the Housatonic's 155 sailors. It lost 22 of its men in tests and operations, including its namesake and chief financier, New Orleans lawyer Horace L. Hunley.

The H. L. Hunley was the third vessel financed by Horace Hunley and a group of investors who hoped to collect prize money for sinking Union ships. Prototypes of the submarine torpedo boat were built in New Orleans. But after Union forces overran the city, the ship-making crew moved its operation to a machine shop in Mobile, Ala.

The designers extended the length of the boat, scrapped the idea of powering it with an electric motor or steam engine and decided on a hand-cranked system. With two shifts of four men turning the crank, the sub could travel up to 4 mph and stay underwater as long as 2 hours and 35 minutes.

The crew took assigned places distributed along the propeller shaft to ensure that the ship wouldn't tilt. Candles lighted the cramped, damp interior. The sub had two glass-topped hatches, a narrow tower and an air box.

In an Aug. 8, 1863, letter to his fiancee, Confederate Lt. George Gift described "a very curious machine for destroying vessels" that he had helped transport to Charleston.

"Air is supplied by means of pipes that turn up until they are below a depth of 10 feet, when they must depend upon the supply carried down which is sufficient for 3 hours. Behind the boat at a distance of 100 to 150 feet is towed a plank, and under that plank is attached a torpedo with say 100 pounds of powder.

"I consider it a perfect success! and in the hands of a bold man would be equal to the task of destroying every ironclad the enemy has off Morris Island [at the mouth of Charleston Harbor] in a single night."

After its arrival in Charleston, the Hunley sank twice, drowning 13 men, including financier Hunley. Twice the boat was raised and resumed its mission, scouring the waters for Yankee prey. On occasion, it came so close to Union ships that the Hunley crew could hear the Yankee sailors singing.

On Feb. 17, 1864, the vessel slipped again into the water off Sullivan's Island. Commanded by Lt. George Dixon, the crew headed four miles out. Under the light of a nearly full moon, a seaman on the USS Housatonic noticed something in the water.

"He thought it was a porpoise coming to the surface to blow," says Mark K. Ragan of Edgewater, an archaeologist and computer programmer who has written a history on the Hunley.

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