CHARLESTON, S.C. - Thousands of men in Confederate gray and Union blue, and women in black hoop skirts and veils, escorted the crew of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship, to its final resting place yesterday.
In what was called the last Confederate funeral, the coffins of the crew members, draped in Confederate flags, were first taken to Charleston's Battery and placed in a semicircle, a wreath set in front of each.
Then, a column of the uniformed re-enactors stretching 1 1/2 miles took the crew of the Hunley, which sank outside Charleston Harbor, to their final resting place in Magnolia Cemetery, about five miles north. It took the column more than an hour to file into the cemetery.
After horse-drawn caissons brought the coffins to the breezy, oak-shrouded plot, rifles crackled and cannons rumbled across the marsh.
"These men taught us, and they will teach future generations, the meaning of words like honor," said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, the chairman of the South Carolina Hunley Commission. "Their spirit will live beyond the horizon of time."
An estimated 30,000 or more Civil War re-enactors, members of Confederate legacy groups and ordinary Southerners crowded into Charleston to pay respects to the crew of the Hunley, a historic vessel lost in 1864 but recovered four years ago.
But amid the solemnity, there was controversy as some on hand used the events to reclaim and reassert their Confederate history and heritage, which they contend is being stamped out by civil rights groups and "political correctness" advocates bent on erasing symbols of slavery.
One group even tried to have the American flag banned here during the weeklong commemoration, but their petition drive was defeated by Confederate legacy organization leaders who deemed the move inappropriate.
The issue proved so sensitive that none of the 14 Southern governors invited for the burial ceremonies planned to attend yesterday, with most citing scheduling conflicts. South Carolina's Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who was absent from commemorations last week, said he had Air Force Reserve duties this weekend that prevented his appearance.
Most blacks planned to shun the occasion, said the Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a leader in the successful fight to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol in Columbia.
"There's history, and there's heritage," Darby said. "Heritage is when you fondly embrace that history."
Still, Confederate heritage groups hoped to make a strong point.
Billy Moore, a white-bearded visitor from Eastman, Ga., said, "This is history. You can't pretend it didn't happen. There should be a Confederate flag flying from every street corner."
"In Georgia now we've got this new sissy [state] flag," said his son, Tim Moore. "I have the original Confederate flag on my truck."
Randy Burbage, a member of the Hunley Commission, which organized the week's events, put the matter in deeply religious terms.
"One of the gifts the Lord has given us as Southerners is our Confederate history," he said Wednesday night at John Wesley United Methodist Church, the site of one of several memorial services held for the Hunley crew last week. "With this gift comes the solemn responsibility to see that these men are honored, that names are not forgotten and that the true history will be told."
Local historian John Jowen, a member of the Hunley Funeral Committee and a Confederate re-enactor, said the Civil War was fought for a number of reasons.
"I had an ancestor who fought as an 18-year-old private," Jowen said. "He wasn't fighting for the right of rich people to own slaves, any more than a teen-ager today would fight for the right of rich people to own Cadillacs."
Controversy aside, the saga of the Hunley remains one of the most fascinating episodes of the Civil War. Only 25 feet long and built mostly of boiler parts, the submarine was developed and financed by wealthy Southern businessman Horace Hunley, who had it shipped to Charleston from Mobile, Ala., in an effort to break the Union blockade of Southern ports late in the war.
Hunley and 12 crewmen perished during training exercises, giving the primitive submarine the nickname "the Peripatetic Coffin." Nevertheless, a new crew of eight men led by Lt. George Dixon launched the vessel into Charleston harbor on the cold, moonlit night of Feb. 17, 1864.
Turning the sub's lone propeller by means of a long crank, the crew moved silently toward its target, the state-of-the-art, steam-driven Union warship U.S.S. Housatonic, part of a large blockade that had sealed off Charleston Harbor.
The Hunley rammed the Housatonic with a 90-pound explosive charge encased in a primitive torpedo, killing five of its crew members and causing it to swiftly sink.
The submarine moved off, giving a blue "success" light signal to shore.