Sunken Civil War sub reveals new clues
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Scientists say a pole on the front of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley designed to plant explosives on enemy ships may hold a key clue to its sinking during the Civil War.
The experts are to release their findings Monday at a North Charleston lab where the hand-cranked sub is being preserved and studied. The Hunley was the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship.
The pole, called a spar, was once placed at the front of the sub and used to plant a powder charge into the Union blockade ship Housatonic in 1864.The Housatonic sank, while the Hunley and its eight-man crew never returned.
The sub was found in waters off South Carolina in 1995 and raised five years later. It’s been in the laboratory ever since.
By David Reed
Humboldt (California) Beacon
Submarines, that’s World War 2 stuff, right? Go back about 80 years earlier and you’d be closer. The sub “H.L. Hunley” sank the USS Housatonic in early 1864 during the American Civil War, becoming the first craft of its kind. Humboldt County residents will get a chance to see a replica of the historic sub at Fortuna’s Civil War Days on Sept. 20 and 21.
”She had everything on board that you would see in a modern submarine except a nuclear reactor and an electric motor,” explains John Nevins, member of the “Friends of the Hunley” and one of the curators of the traveling exhibition. Nevins explains that spectators are surprised that the ship looks so much like what they’d consider a “modern submarine” even though it was built 145 years ago.
”It was 100 years ahead of its time,” Nevins says of the 40 foot long, 4 foot high and 4 foot wide war ship.
Spectators at the Civil War Days event will get free access to the Hunley exhibit with their admission. Nevins says there’s a lot to learn about the historic craft and the presentation changes depending on the interests of the crowd….
It’s a multifaceted story with elements of technology, innovation, persistence, sacrifice, even love and ‘sneaky stuff,’ like spies.” Nevins lives in California and is one member of a team that brings the reproduction to events all over the country.
The reproduction was built at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston S.C., just feet from the real “Hunley.” The Hunley has resided at the conservation center since it was raised from Charleston harbor in 2000 where it had rested since sinking just after its successful first battle.
The exhibit is a working model of the original both inside and out. “ The right side of the ship comes off so even a grade school child can see inside,” Nevins adds that he and exhibit leader John Dangerfield do their presentation from inside the craft. They show how the 8 man crew worked the propulsion, navigation and unique weapon the ‘spar torpedo’.
The Hunley exhibit will be shown both days of Civil War Days in the upper portion of the event site. The reenactment and battles will take place down in the “Bowl” area behind the River Lodge Conference Center.
The Fortuna Civil War Day’s event is co-produced by the Reenactors of the American Civil War and the Rotary Club of Fortuna Sunrise with funds going to local Rotary projects and Reenactor educational events.
The reenactment is held directly west of the Kenmar exit, bordered by the Eel River and Highway 101. Free parking and the re-enactment site are just a quarter mile west of the highway.
Re-enactment organizers ask that spectators do not park at the River Lodge Conference Center either day, due to events at the lodge. Admission to the event is $8 for adults and $2 for children. For details about the 2008 Fortuna Civil War Days, go to http://www.civilwardays.com/
Link to our Civil War page on Hunley:
CSS Hunley: Submarine’s Hatch May Have Cost All Their Lives
This has happened maybe once this Century: in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 14, 2006!
Marine archeologists and historians investigating the once lost remains of the submarine CSS Hunley in Charleston made a shocking discovery in July 2006: The forward hatch of that vessel was not properly secured and locked into its diving position when the sub was recovered on August 8, 2000.
Using X-rays and forensic analysis, archaeologists and others working to restore the submarine recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Sullivan’s Island have found evidence the forward hatch may have been opened intentionally on the night the sub sank.
The forward hatch was one of two ways crew members got into and out of the sub. Covered with concretions plus a thick layer of sand and other ocean debris, X-rays revealed that the hatch is open about half an inch, after more than five years of preservation and detailed investigative work.
Historians and archaeologists concluded earlier that rods that could have been part of the hatch’s watertight locking mechanism were found at the feet of the sub’s commander, Lt. George Dixon.
Now that evidence leads investigators working on the Hunley to think that maybe the hatch was opened intentionally.
“The position of the lock could prove to be the most important clue we have uncovered yet and offers important insight into the possibilities surrounding the final moments before the submarine vanished that night,” said Hunley Commission chairman state Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston.
Had the hatch been intentionally unlocked, there are several possible explanations.
Dixon could have opened the hatch to survey his vessel after successfully attacking and sinking the USS Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864. Housatonic exploded after Dixon maneuvered Hunley and rammed a black powder filled drum or “torpedo” into Housatonic’s side. Housatonic became the first ship in history destroyed by a submarine.
Dixon or another crewmember could also have opened the hatch to allow fresh air into the stifling hot submarine.
Finally, an emergency sighting by Yankee boats could have led the Hunley’s crew to open the hatch to abandon ship. Historians know that after the Hunley attacked Housitonic Union seamen searched the nearby waters for the attacker using small boats. But Hunley’s after escape hatch was found in the locked position, so many doubt that a submarine evacuation was attempted by Hunley’s crew on the night of Feb. 17, 1864.
“If the Hunley crew opened the hatch, it must have been for a critical reason,” said archaeologist Michael Scafuri. “Even on a calm day, three-foot swells can occur out of nowhere on the waters off Charleston. Every time the hatch was opened, the crew ran the deadly risk of getting swamped.”
In her brief but historic service with the Confederate Navy, Hunley sank three times, killing a total of 21 crew members.
Although scientists said the new discovery of the open forward hatch could help determine the cause of the sinking, it also is possible that the lock was damaged after the sub sank and the hatch opened while it sat on the ocean floor. Further investigative work is underway.
Hunley has become a huge tourist draw for those interested in the Civil War, the evolution of the submarine and marine archeology. CSS Hunley and her many historic artifacts are open to tourists at the old U.S. Naval Station in Charleston.The crown jewel of Charleston’s Civil War heritage, Fort Sumter, draws approximately 280,000 visitors annually, despite a thirty minute boat ride each way. The fort, which participated in the first artillery duel of the Civil War in April 1861, is accessible only by boat during a trip that also offers breathtaking views of the historic city.
Charleston also has many beautiful surviving antebellum buildings; including the old trading market, the old slave market, several lovely churches including St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (one of dozens of National Historic Landmarks), and many other private homes and public buildings still in use today. Many are open for tours.
Charleston’s many pre-Civil War cobblestone streets and architecture copied from ancient Greek and Roman structures offers a unique historic journey back in time. Charleston even has horse or mule drawn carriage rides complete with tour guides in period Civil War costume. Barns and stables just a block from the old market give the old city the air of Civil War history.
The author of the book “Charleston at War,” Jack Thomson, gives Civil War walking tours daily in old Charleston. He is known for his expertise and is considered a town character in his own right.
The Museum of Charleston has a full-size replica of the Hunley in an outdoor display near the museum entrance. Unfortunately, the museum has been sometimes slow to keep up with Hunley revelations.
“The spar used to position the explosive mine on Yankee ships was actually affixed to Hunley’s keel,” Charleston architect and part-time City historian Gary Boehm said. The museum has yet to update the replica with information discovered by Hunley investigators.
Charleston remains a lovely and unique Civil War tour destination filled with people that cherish her history and culture.
John E. Carey writes for the Civil War page of The Washington Times. He recently explored Charleston.
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