Time Capsule From the Sea
Artifacts from the South’s submarine are turning fable into fact
By Andrew Curry
In a war filled with amazing stories, the H. L. Hunley’s is one of the standouts.
An invention born of desperation, the Confederacy’s secret weapon was the first
submarine ever to sink an enemy warship. The craft was an example of tremendous
creativity and engineering under tremendously difficult circumstances.
The Hunley is also one of the biggest Civil War mysteries left. Since the conflict
ended in 1865, an estimated 50,000 books have been published on nearly every aspect
of its politics, strategies, daily life, combat, and civilian experiences—at
least a book a day for a century and a half, or one for every 10 men killed in
America’s most costly war. But in that avalanche of words, the complete story
of the Hunley submarine has never been told.
That started to change in August 2000, when the submarine was raised from the
bottom of the Atlantic near Charleston, S.C. Since then, researchers have been
pulling together the story of the Hunley’s final moments from the artifacts
and remains preserved inside. "It’s a true time capsule, preserved intact
from the Civil War," says Maria Jacobsen, the archaeologist in charge of
the Hunley project run by South Carolina. "It’s the entire crew, with everything
they carried with them that day. It’s a treasure for illuminating Civil War
history and maritime archaeology."
Hunleytized. Today, that time capsule sits in a tank of near-freezing fresh
water. It’s not exactly on the beaten path for any of the hundreds of thousands
of tourists who visit Charleston each year. Located on a decommissioned naval
base 5 miles north of the city’s famed waterfront, the Hunley can be viewed
by visitors only on weekends. And yet thousands manage to find it, crowding
the walkway above the tank to stare down at its debris-encrusted hull. "When
you stand over that tank and look at her, she speaks to you," says Glenn
McConnell, a South Carolina state legislator and the head of the Friends of
the Hunley nonprofit. "We like to say that’s when you’ve been ‘Hunleytized.’"
This isn’t the first time the people of Charleston have been so hypnotized.
When the sub arrived on a railcar in 1864, rumors of the new secret weapon flew
through the besieged city like wildfire. Three years into the war, the Confederacy’s
situation was dire. Economically reliant on cotton exports and imported manufactured
goods, the South depended on its ports. From the war’s first days, the Union
targeted Southern cities such as Charleston and Savannah with naval blockades
dedicated to starving the rebel states out of resistance. With these ports hemmed
in by Union warships, trade was impossible. The Southern populace was struggling
just to stay alive, let alone wage war.
Into these desperate straits waded Horace Lawson Hunley, a New Orleans inventor
and investor. Hunley and his partners saw lifting the blockades as a combination
of patriotic duty and business opportunity. With the Confederacy offering bounties
for each Union ship sunk, Hunley and his partners decided a submarine could
bring in big bucks. A prototype was tested in 1862 near New Orleans; a more
advanced machine called the American Diver was launched in January 1863 near
Mobile, Ala., but it soon sunk during a storm.
Hunley’s team quickly applied the lessons learned from the first two subs—hand-cranked
propulsion worked better than a steam engine, for example—to the construction
of the Hunley, finishing it in July 1863. After a quick test in Mobile, it was
shipped north to Charleston. The city’s military commander, Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard,
skeptically referred to it as "the fish torpedo boat."
Once thought to be a converted steam boiler, the sub was actually quite sophisticated.
Nearly 40 feet long but just 4 feet high, it had 10 sealed portholes, two narrow
hatches, and a smooth, flat, streamlined shape that resembles a World War II-era
German U-boat. It used a snorkel system for piping air into the vessel, possibly
using bellows for pumping. With seven men cranking a propeller shaft, the Hunley
could cruise at 3 knots, or 3.5 miles per hour. The craft’s commander sat in front,
steering with a primitive joystick. Water tanks at either end could be filled
and emptied to move the submarine up and down. Even the exterior rivets were ground
down to make the Hunley’s skin smooth as a fish’s scales. "It represents
a quantum leap to the modern 20th-century submarine," McConnell says.
Barbed bomb. Despite all of these technological advances, operating the sub
involved a lethal learning process. Shortly after its arrival in Charleston,
the sub sank during a test run because of a crewman’s error, killing five of
the sailors on board. A few months later, Hunley himself was on the ship when
it sank a second time, killing everyone inside. The sub—and its dead crew
and inventor—remained at the bottom for days before the Confederate Navy
Despite the reservations of Beauregard and others, Charleston’s situation was
desperate enough to organize one more try. The target was the Housatonic, an
11-gun Union steamship stationed at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. The plan
was simple: The crew would crank its way more than 5 miles out to the Housatonic,
ram a barbed bomb into the ship’s wooden hull, and detonate it. On a cold night
in February, the Hunley set out on the attack.
Just before 9 p.m., lookouts on the Housatonic spotted something slipping through
the water nearby. Within minutes, an explosion ripped the Housatonic in half
and killed five Union sailors. It was the first time a submarine sank a warship.
"That night, she changed forever the way war was fought in the water,"
It’s what happened next that remains shrouded in mystery. After the Housatonic
exploded, the Hunley surfaced long enough to send up a blue flare. Then it disappeared
without a trace. For more than a century, Charlestonians and others obsessed
over the demise of the Hunley. At one point, circus impresario P. T. Barnum
offered a $100,000 prize to anyone who could find the ship.
But it wasn’t until 1970 that someone succeeded, when underwater archaeologist
E. Lee Spence plotted the vessel’s location with a compass and maps. It took
another 25 years before permission was granted by South Carolina to salvage
the wreck. Divers feeling their way through murky water exposed part of the
sub’s hull. In 30 feet of water and beneath 3 feet of fine silt, lay an almost
perfectly preserved craft, listing at a slight angle.
Inside, excavators knew, artifacts and human remains would be suspended in a soup
of mud. Disturbing the contents would erase volumes of information about the sub’s
final moments. Even the metal exterior of the craft was tremendously fragile.
Project organizers had to throw out the rule book. "Normally when you have
a shipwreck, you do the excavation underwater," Jacobsen says. "There
was no way we could conduct a standard forensic excavation underwater and still
gather the data we would need down the road."
So on Aug. 8, 2000, after years of planning, the Hunley was carefully lifted whole
from its resting place and moved to a specially prepared tank. The effort was
unique in the history of underwater archaeology, involving 40 divers working around
the clock and millions of dollars in equipment.
But the hull’s corrosion also meant the researchers couldn’t relax once it
was out of the water. "Once you bring it up to the surface, you have a
ticking time bomb on your hands," says Jacobsen. "In a water-filled
tank, you could have more corrosion in one year than in 140 years on the bottom."
To deal with the challenge, the tank was constructed and filled with chilled
water. A mild electrical current runs through the water, slowing the corrosion
of the metal.
In 2001, researchers started to remove the iron plates from the top of the
submarine. The ship’s interior was filled with mud and sediment, some of which
had hardened over time to the consistency of concrete. Everything inside—the
crew’s bones, the ship’s controls, and any artifacts the sailors had brought
aboard with them—had to be chipped out of this cementlike layer. As excavators
pulled out artifacts, each item’s location was plotted on a three-dimensional
diagram of the Hunley’s interior, creating a map of thousands of separate objects,
including more than 1,600 bones.
The story the artifacts revealed has dramatically changed the way historians
see the sub—and the society that sent it on its final mission. Though
excavators still don’t know for certain why the sub sank, the distribution of
the bones inside shows that the men made no move to escape. "Each was found
more or less where that individual would have been stationed," says forensic
genealogist Linda Abrams, who is researching the Hunley’s crew. "Either
it happened so fast they were unable to react in time, or it happened in such
a way that they were unable to react. Maybe they were unconscious."
Genealogy. To flesh out the backgrounds of the dead sailors, forensic experts
were brought in to analyze the sub’s interior as though it were a crime scene.
Historians had long assumed the Hunley’s crew would fit a certain mold: "We
thought they’d be young—expendable, in other words—shorter than
average, naïve," Jacobsen says. But the bones told a very different
story. All were taller than average, and two topped 6 feet; the ages ranged
from 20 to late 40s. Says Jacobsen: "These men were a hand-picked, crack
While the archaeologists worked their way through the sediment inside the sub,
Abrams delved into archives and history books on two continents to figure out
who these sailors might have been. Piecing together everything from crew manifests
to English immigration records to European census lists, Abrams discovered that
half the crew was foreign-born. Abrams has tracked two—Arnold Becker and
J. F. Carlsen—all the way to Germany. "How do you explain four foreigners
volunteering for what they knew was probably a suicide mission?" asks Abrams.
"It’s almost like those who became involved in the Confederacy had different
motivation than those in the North."
The researchers were even able to confirm an old legend. The submarine’s final
commander, Lt. George Dixon, was already a veteran of several battles by the time
he squeezed through the hatch of the Hunley. At the battle of Shiloh, Dixon was
shot in the hip, but the bullet was stopped by a gold coin he was carrying. Excavating
the ship’s prow, Jacobsen found a $20 gold piece from 1860, badly bent. "My
life preserver" was engraved on the back. "When we started the project,
that was historical legend," McConnell says. "When we went to lift the
remains out, historical fable became fact."
Now that the sub’s interior has been cleared, researchers intend to go to work
on the hull, which is still covered in a hard layer of sand, silt, and rust. When
they start removing this concretion later this year, Jacobsen hopes they’ll find
the answer to the Hunley’s biggest secret: What sank the sub on that February
night? "It’s a forensic site 140 years old," Jacobsen marvels. "People
died, and we don’t know how."
That sense of enduring mystery is part of the sub’s magnetism. Since the project
began more than a decade ago, tens of millions of dollars have been donated
to fund the excavation and research. Organizers hope to open a museum in 2013,
showcasing a conserved submarine. "Never when we started the project did
we think we’d find it with that little corrosion and with that kind of preservation
inside her," McConnell says. "The Hunley has all the history and romanticism
of something lost at sea like the Titanic."