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Ill-Fated Submarine May Yield Secret Held Since 1864

The Confederacy's Hunley was the first submersible craft to sink an enemy warship, but it didn't survive the mission. Now it has been brought to the surface.

March 29, 2001|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the moonlit evening of Feb. 17, 1864, the revolutionary Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sneaked up on the 1,240-ton federal warship Housatonic and rammed it with a torpedo containing 90 pounds of black powder. As the Hunley withdrew, the Housatonic was rocked by an explosion that sank it in minutes--making it the first warship ever sunk by a submarine.

A few minutes later, the sub signaled watchers on the shore that its mission had been successful. But for reasons that remain a mystery, it never made it back to land, sinking in 30 feet of water.

Now, however, archeologists feel they are on the verge of explaining that mystery. The Hunley was lifted from its sandy grave last summer and taken to a specially built laboratory in Charleston, S.C., where researchers are painstakingly removing the blue-gray clay that apparently began filling the submarine shortly after its demise.

Although they are only a third of the way through their excavation, the team is already finding well-preserved artifacts and partial skeletons that suggest the boat will reveal much about its final moments.

"This is the most precious time capsule in history," said South Carolina state Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, which is overseeing the research.

Already, the team has found at least part of the remains of a short young man who may have suffered a herniated disk from operating the hand crank that powered the submarine. Researchers believe they will find the bodies of all nine crewmen who were aboard during the historic mission.

"At this point, we're confident we'll be able to positively identify the remains and hopefully even be able to create 3-D models of what these men looked like," said archeologist Robert Neyland.

"There's information aboard the Hunley not available anywhere else on Earth," added forensic pathologist Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution, who has been examining the bones. "We'll be the first to see what's aboard since the night those men went down with the ship. If I told you I wasn't very excited about seeing what's in there, I would be lying."

The Hunley, constructed in 1863 in an effort to break the naval blockade of Charleston Harbor, was essentially a hollow tube about 40 feet long and a little more than 4 feet in diameter inside. Historians had thought that the 7.5-ton vessel was constructed of two locomotive boilers welded together, but examination shows that it was built specifically as a submarine.

Its design foreshadowed many aspects of modern submarines, including diving planes and forward and aft ballast tanks, and a snorkel to admit air while the craft was submerged. The Hunley's snorkel could never be made to work, however, and the ballast tanks were emptied by unreliable, hand-operated pumps.

With eight men on the crank, the Hunley could reach a top speed of about 4 knots (about 5 mph). When the hatches were closed for submersion, the commander would light a candle to produce the sub's only light. When the candle was snuffed out by lack of air about 25 minutes later, he knew it was time to surface and open the hatches to admit fresh air.

The vessel sank twice during test runs in the harbor, both times because of pilot error. The first time, four members of the crew managed to escape through the hatches, but five drowned. The second time, all nine crew members went down with the ship, including Horace Hunley himself.

Army Lt. George Dixon supervised the recovery of the Hunley and fitted her out for one more chance, despite the warning by commanding Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard that "it's more dangerous to those who use it than to the enemy."

Historians have speculated that its final sinking may have been the result of damage suffered in the Housatonic's explosion, of punctures produced when the Housatonic's guards fired at the sub or of a collision with a rescue vehicle. Neyland's team hopes to gain clues from the stopcock valve of one of the Hunley's ballast tanks, discovered last week, but the device is still too encrusted to determine if it is open or closed.

The team's first effort to crack the mystery of the Hunley was to X-ray the interior, but the mud filling the boat was too dense to allow researchers to see anything. So they drilled the rivets out of three of the panels from which the boat was constructed and began the laborious task of removing the muck, bucket by bucket.

The team had not expected to find many artifacts yet because it is still working near the submarine's top and most artifacts are expected to be found on its floor.

Nonetheless, the researchers have so far come across a uniform button adorned with an anchor--typical of the Confederate navy--a patch of well-preserved fabric, and a corked medicine bottle with liquid still inside. Researchers hope the fabric represents a larger item of clothing.

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