By Mary Dodge Allen
In the early evening of February 17, 1864, the Hunley, a Confederate sub with a crew of eight men and armed with a primitive torpedo, made history as the first combat submarine to sink an enemy ship. But after accomplishing its mission – the Hunley disappeared without a trace. And for the next 131 years, its fate would remain a mystery.My blog last month described the two previous attempts (and failures) as builders tried to construct a workable submarine. You can read The Hunley Submarine: Part One by clicking this link:
After the Hunley disappeared, many efforts were mounted to find it. The Union fleet dragged the area near the wreck of the USS Housatonic, hoping to snag the sub. And P.T. Barnum, the famous Circus showman, even offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who found the Hunley. This reward is equivalent to nearly $2,000,000 in today’s dollars!
Fast forward to May 3, 1995. After fifteen years of searching, author Clive Cussler – (who founded the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), an agency that searches for historic shipwrecks) – located the Hunley in Charleston Harbor, using sonar and a magnetometer. The sub was found at a depth of nearly 30 feet, buried under three feet of silty sediment. It was resting on its starboard side with its bow pointed toward Sullivan’s Island, as if it was heading home.
An international team of maritime experts and engineers were assembled, working with the U.S. Dept. of Navy, National Park Service, Dept. of Natural Resources and Oceaneering International. Care had to be taken in raising the 20 ton sub, so it wouldn’t break apart. A metal truss was constructed over the sub, while divers dug 30 tunnels beneath the sub, so that flexible slings could be slipped underneath it. These slings were injected with inflatable foam to conform to the sub’s contours, creating a soft cradle to lift the Hunley out of the sediment.
Over the next several years, archaeologists wearing protective coveralls and respirators patiently removed over 11 tons of sediment inside the sub, in a respectful fashion. Slowly, they uncovered many artifacts and personal belongings, along with the skeletal remains of the eight crewmen – who were later identified through DNA testing, and facial reconstruction.
Hunley Crew: Captain George E. Dixon, Frank Collins, Joseph Ridgaway, James A. Wicks, Arnold Becker, Corporal Johan Frederik Carlsen, C. Lumpkin, and Augustus Miller.
In 2004, the eight crewmen were buried with full military honors in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery.
The answer wouldn’t be revealed for many years, until the concretion – encrusted sand, sediment and shells – had been removed from its exterior and interior.
My husband and I visited the Warren Lasch Conservation Center several years ago, and we were impressed with the conservation of the Hunley and the many exhibits. Below is a photo of my husband sitting at a duty station in a life-size cutaway replica of the Hunley’s crew compartment.
What caused the loss of the Hunley Submarine?
Now that most of the concretion has been removed from the Hunley’s hull, specific areas of damage have been found, such as holes in the hull and a broken ballast intake pipe. But it remains unclear if this damage was caused by the torpedo explosion or over one hundred years of salt water corrosion.
One intriguing theory - proposed by biomedical engineer Rachel Lance in a March 2020 article in Smithsonian Magazine - is that the Hunley crewmen were victims of a catastrophic blast wave injury, which can cause instantaneous death through lung and brain damage. Lance is a former civil engineer with the U.S. Navy and has a PhD in biomedical engineering. She works at Clemson University, studying the physical effects of underwater explosions.
Lance’s theory explains why the crewmen were still seated at their duty stations. The Hunley’s torpedo was filled with over 100 pounds of gunpowder, which caused an explosion powerful enough to sink the USS Housatonic warship in a matter of minutes. The blast wave injury from this violent explosion could have fatally incapacitated them.
Do you agree? What do you think happened to the crew of the Hunley Submarine?
To learn more about the Hunley restoration, and view its fascinating exhibits, visit the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, SC. For more information, visit: www.hunley.org
Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview: Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books