Thursday, October 5, 2023

The Hunley Submarine: Part Two - Recovery, Restoration, Solving the Mystery of Its Loss

 By Mary Dodge Allen

"Confederate Submarine, Hunley" artist Conrad Wise Chapman, 1864

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.

Clive Cussler (center) with NUMA team members, May 3, 1995 (

Before its recovery, decisions had to be made about the Hunley’s ownership and the best way to preserve it. Once it was determined that the United States government owned the sub, the decision was made to recover it from the bottom of Charleston Harbor, in light of its historical significance. This would also protect the sub and its human remains from looters. 

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.

Diagram of the metal truss and Hunley's foam/sling cradle. (

On August 8, 2000, crowds assembled to watch the Hunley as it was lifted to the surface and placed onto a transport barge. The sub was brought to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston and submerged in a 75,000 gallon steel tank of chilled, fresh water to protect and stabilize its iron hull - which had been weakened by spending over 100 years in salt water. If exposed to open air, the sub would rapidly rust and fall apart.

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. 

Hunley crew exhibit, Warren Lasch Conservation Center - Crewmen at duty stations. (

All eight crewmen were found seated at their duty stations. This seemed odd, since the prevailing theories of the Hunley’s loss centered around a breach of the sub’s hull by the torpedo explosion or a collision with the USS Housatonic, or its debris. Any of these possibilities would have likely given the crew enough time to attempt an escape. Why did they remain seated peacefully at their stations?

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.

Conservators removing concretion from Hunley's exterior. (

In 2011, the Hunley (which was still cradled as it was found, on its starboard side) was finally rotated upright. Then in 2014, the 75,000 gallon holding tank was filled with a chemical bath to help loosen the rock-like concretion. Over the next several years, a series of fresh chemical baths were employed to loosen the concretion, while a team of conservators carefully chiseled it away.

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.

Cramped seating inside the crew compartment. (author's personal photo)

Below are a few artifacts and personal belongings, cleaned and restored:

Captain George E. Dixon's $20 gold coin (

According to legend, George E. Dixon’s girlfriend gave him a $20 gold coin for luck before he left for war. Dixon was shot in the Battle of Shiloh, but he claimed the coin in his pocket stopped the bullet, saving his life. Historians weren’t sure if this was fact, or romantic fiction – until this 1860 gold coin was found resting on Dixon’s hip bone. The coin was warped from a violent impact and traces of lead (used in bullets) were found on the coin. One side was engraved with these words: Shiloh, April 6th 1862, My life Preserver, G. E. D.

Lantern recovered from Hunley. (

The Hunley crew planned to use a lantern as a signal to people on shore that the attack was a success. Those on shore would then light a bonfire to guide the sub home. At the time, some claimed they saw the Hunley's lantern signal after the torpedo explosion. It is unclear if this lantern was used for this purpose.

Captain George E. Dixon's binoculars, before and after restoration. (

One of eight canteens recovered, before and after restoration. (

Oil can, before and after restoration. (

Captain George E. Dixon's gold pocket watch, before and after restoration. (

Interesting Note: The hands on Dixon’s broken pocket watch were stopped at 8:23 PM

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:

Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Thank you for posting this fascinating story! I have no knowledge to base an opinion on that would contradict or confirm what the experts say. But this is a very interesting piece of history.

  2. Hi Connie, I agree, it's an interesting snapshot of history. What fascinated me the most, was seeing the restored artifacts, especially Dixon's gold coin that stopped a bullet.