by Khush Patel, 2023 SCDNR Archaeology Intern
Summer 2023 I had the opportunity to visit the Warren Lasch facility in Northern Charleston. Warren Lasch holds one of the most important parts of Civil war and modern naval history, the H.L. Hunley. There I met Nick DeLong, a maritime archeologist, and Johanna Rivera, the Senior conservator at the facility. They gave us a tour of the Warren Lasch facility while explaining the detailed history of the Hunley and the efforts put into conserving the vessel.
During the peak of the Civil War, Union forces surrounded Charleston Harbor, ensuing a naval blockade in the area. As things looked bleak for the Confederate forces, First Lieutenant George Dixon, along with seven other volunteers dived into the Charleston Harbor onboard a first-generation Confederate submarine, the H.L. Hunley to end the blockade just to not be heard from again for another 100 years.
The H.L. Hunley was invented by one Horace Lawson Hunley in 1863. Hunley wanted to contribute to the Confederate war effort by making a submarine to aid the Confederate navy to end the naval blockade of Charleston. Hunley gathered a crew of engineers, mechanics, metalworkers, carpenters, etc., in Mobile, Alabama in 1862 to get started on making prototypes. The Hunley had two predecessors, the first a short and missile-like vessel and then a submarine that closely resembled the Hunley. During the 1800s, steam power was the main mode of energy, and it was evident that the Hunley could not rely on steam energy underwater in a confined space. The engineers rather looked towards using hand cranks to power the ship. Ultimately, the Hunley was designed to run on seven hand cranks that propelled the ship. For the time, the H.L. Hunley was an engineering marvel and was soon seized by the confederate navy soon after one successful trial.
Before its final sinking in 1864, the Hunley sank twice before. First on August 29, 1863, when one of its hatches was left open, instantly sinking and killing five of its seven-man crew. Then on October 15, 1863, the Hunley failed to resurface during a mock attack, this time taking eight lives, including its inventor H.L. Hunley.
Despite having a terrible track record, George E. Dixon assembled another crew to lead the Hunley in its final mission to end the Union blockade. The crew successfully departed the harbor and made its way to the Union Blockade ship the USS Housatonic. The Hunley crew took it to a depth of almost 30 feet when they attacked the Housatonic, launching a spar torpedo. The Hunley sank the Housatonic and became the first submarine ever to sink a warship. But in the wake of its triumph, the H.L. Hunley mysteriously disappeared. Following its disappearance, boats were sent to look for the Hunley to no avail. The location of the Hunley stayed a mystery until 1995 when it was discovered by Clive Cussler and his NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) crew on the harbor floor. Though it has been found, the submarine’s failure to resurface remains a mystery to this day.
Although there have been a few theories presented to explain the sinking of the Hunley. One theory that is put forward and is most popular is that the Hunley was affected by the torpedo it used to sink the Housatonic. The Hunley carried its torpedo in front of the vessel. Instead of launching a missile like modern submarines, the Hunley held a high-grade explosive capsule in front of it to blow up the hull of enemy ships. It is believed that due to the close proximity of the mine, some damage was done to the Hunley and or its crew hindering their ability to resurface.
Another popular theory is that the Hunley was caught in the wake of Union ships hurrying to save the Housatonic survivors. It is possible that the increased movement in the bay caused large currents to form, and these currents would have made it harder for the Hunley to surface and or escape the scene, potentially causing it to crash into the seabed. One final, and the most likely theory, is that the Hunley’s crew suffocated at the bottom of the sea. As mentioned earlier when the Housatonic sank, there were Union ships rushing in to help rescue the crew. To avoid detection the Hunley and its crew might have intentionally sat at the bottom of the sea, intending to leave later while the commotion had settled down. Unlike modern subs, the Hunley was not pressurized, nor did it carry oxygen with it. The crew had to resurface and get oxygen by opening its hatches. From prior testing, it was established that the crew of the Hunley would have at least two hours of clean air before having to resurface. The crew failed to meet this limit and most likely suffocated on the ship. This theory is also backed up by the fact that the crew members’ bodies showed minimal signs of panic.
Today, the Hunley rests in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at the Clemson University Restoration Institute in North Charleston, South Carolina, undergoing conservation in the facility to help get rid of the years of rust and to make it easier for experts to study the ship. Warren Lasch is open to the public on the weekends for people to visit and see the historic submarine along with many artifacts recovered from the ship’s crew. H.L. Hunley stands as a symbol of the commitment and bravery of mankind to persevere in times of need. As the Hunley rests in wait for experts to uncover its secrets, the vessel leaves behind an everlasting legacy that will be remembered for decades to come.
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