Confederate sub Hunley to offer researchers a new view next year

Friday, August 6, 2010

CHARLESTON — Scientists hope to soon see a new side of the Hunley.

The starboard side, that is.

On Friday, officials at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center announced plans to rotate the Civil War-era submarine into an upright position early next year.

That move will allow scientists their first look at an entire flank of the submarine that has remained covered by the lifting straps used to hoist it out of the Atlantic Ocean 10 years ago this weekend. The sub’s rotation might help solve the mystery of why the Hunley disappeared in the waning days of the war.

"In its current position, we have no way to access the surface of the submarine," said Paul Mardikian, senior conservator on the project. "This is going to be the moment of truth when we look at the skin of the sub."

The Hunley, which became the first successful combat sub when it sank the USS Housatonic off the coast of Charleston in February 1864, was lost at sea for more than a century. In 1995, it was discovered four miles off the coast by Clive Cussler and his dive team. The Hunley was found five feet beneath the ocean floor, listing at a 45-degree angle. Scientists insisted the sub be raised in that position so the location of artifacts inside the sub would not be disturbed.

It has rested at that angle ever since.

Now the sub has to be removed from its lifting truss so that scientists can begin to remove the concretion — hardened sand, sediment and shell — that cocooned the hull in its 136 years under the sea. Removing that concretion is the final step before restoration of the hull begins, using chemicals and electrical currents. But it will be delicate work, and in some places, that shell is stronger than the iron hull beneath it.

"It is like pouring concrete on an egg and then trying to remove it without breaking the egg," Mardikian said.

Rotating the submarine will also be a delicate procedure, one scientists have studied for the past few years. Some parts of the hull are weaker than others and that has concerned scientists and slowed the process. Mardikian and his team has built a model to test the slow rotation process and are now convinced it can be done without damaging the sub.

"People have asked why it has taken 10 years to get to this point," said Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the state Hunley Commission. "Because we get it right."

The rotation is the biggest news out of the Hunley lab in a while, and could potentially lead to important new discoveries. The starboard side of the sub has remained largely unseen, even in Conrad Wise Chapman’s painting of the sub, the most detailed contemporary portrait of the Hunley. Officials hope that side of the sub will hold clues to what happened to the sub on Feb. 17, 1864, in the hours after the Hunley sunk a Union blockade ship. Some theories say the sub could have been hit by a ship coming to the aid of the Housatonic. If so, the clues may be hidden on the unseen side of the Hunley.

"There is a good chance they’ll find the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle buried under that concretion," McConnell said.

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