| |For the first time since the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate vessel H.L. Hunley—the world's first submarine to sink an enemy ship—was revealed on January 12 after 11 years of conservation work.
Shown in a South Carolina conservation facility, the Hunley sank the U.S.S. Housatonic off Charleston (map) in 1864. Within minutes the sub itself sank too-killing its eight-man crew and creating an enduring mystery.
Five years after the Hunley wreck's discovery in 1995, conservators raised the sub using a special steel truss that was removed only weeks ago.
"No one alive has ever seen the Hunley complete," said engineer John King on January 12 as a crane lifted the truss at Clemson University's Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, Reuters reported on January 13.
Fleeing the Scene
he Civil War submarine Hunley reels backward as a torpedo explodes with the Union warship Housatonic on the evening of February 17, 1864, off Charleston, South Carolina. Seconds earlier, the Hunley crew had speared the ship with a torpedo-tipped iron rod projecting from the submarine's nose.
Before the collision, a lookout on the Housatonic had spotted a bizarre vessel approaching just below the surface—only its coning tower visible—and sounded an alarm. The Housatonic's cannons couldn't be lowered enough to fire at the strange craft, so crewmen used rifles and pistols, but to no avail.
Five minutes after the explosion, the Housatonic was 30 feet (9 meters) under the ocean.
The Hunley—manually powered by seven men—surfaced briefly, so its commander, Lt. George Dixon, could fire flares to signal Confederate officials on shore that the attack had succeeded.
The craft and its crew never returned from its historic mission. Soon after the signal had been fired, the sub sank about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) off Charleston, where the Hunley remained for 136 years.
Raise the Hunley!
Suspended on slings beneath a steel truss, the Confederate submarine Hunley is raised from the Atlantic Ocean off Charleston, South Carolina, on August 8, 2000.
If all four legs of the truss hadn't touched the deck of the recovery barge (center) simultaneously, the truss—and the Hunley—could have been seriously damaged, Maria Jacobsen, head archaeologist for the Hunley preservation project, told National Geographic News.
"It was a very tricky moment," she said. "It looked picture perfect, but there were lots of people sweating there"—in part because of the submarine's precious cargo.
The Hunley contained the remains of its eight crewmen, which were later removed and buried with military honors in Charleston in 2004.
Driven by 136 years of chemical reactions between salt water and the Hunley's iron hull, concretions lend a rough appearance to the rear hatch (pictured with its cap removed) and to much of the rest of the Civil War submarine.
The concretions will provide valuable information about what happened to the submarine after it had sunk in 1864, according to archaeologist Maria Jacobsen. Already the concretions suggest that natural forces alternately covered and uncovered the sunken Hunley with silt.
The Hunley's journey began in July 1863, when the sub was built in Mobile, Alabama, and named for one of its designers, Horace Lawson Hunley. Shipped to Charleston by railroad, the revolutionary warship was intended to break the Union blockade of the city.
Senior conservator Paul Mardikian points to a large hole in the rear ballast tank of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley.
The 40-foot-long (12-meter-long) Hunley had two ballast tanks—one front, one rear—which could be filled with water to submerge the submarine. Crewmen manually pumped out the water to rise again.
Conservators found a large hole in each ballast tank but think the holes had been made sometime after the Hunley sank, though the causes are unknown.
At only about 4 feet (122 centimeters) tall and 2 feet (61 centimeters) wide, the interior of the Hunley was so cramped that its eight crewmen couldn't trade places after they'd taken their stations.
During a mission, seven men sat on a long-gone wooden bench on one side of the craft and turned a crankshaft (visible above) to power the Hunley's propeller.
The handles on the crankshaft were arranged in a staggered fashion, so that all crewmen weren't applying maximum force at the same times. The arrangement kept the propeller turning smoothly and kept the Hunley from lurching.
The eighth crewmember was the submarine's commander, who stood at a small conning tower with small glass windows at the front of the Hunley. The commander steered the sub via a rudder and controlled horizontal fins that helped the Hunley dive and surface.
The Hunley's crankshaft operators (such as this one shown in a diagram) entered one by one and crawled or duck-walked through the submarine to take their positions. The commander was the last to enter.
When the submarine was recovered and opened in 2000, archaeologists discovered that the eight crewmen had died at their stations. There was no indication that the crewmen had tried to escape.
Archaeologists think the men passed out and eventually suffocated as the air inside the submarine was used up.
A rectangular opening (center) near the Hunley's bow was made when conservators removed a panel. But the grapefruit-size hole in the conning tower (far right) occurred before the sub was raised. The hole may or may not have been opened during the attack on the Housatonic, archaeologist Maria Jacobson said.
A lucky shot by a Housatonic sailor could have hit the tower, but conservators did not find a bullet inside the submarine, Jacobson added. Likewise the torpedo blast could have caused the hole, if the Hunley hadn't been able to get far enough away before the explosion, she said.
Though the Hunley has finally been fully revealed, more answers may remain beneath the ship's scaly concretions.
Later this year, conservators will begin removing the concretions, in hopes of solving the puzzle of the sub's sinking. In particular, "the hole in the forward conning tower," Jacobson said, "is a big mystery."
The Hunley's propeller had been protected by a curved iron shroud, part of which has been torn away, probably sometime after the Hunley sank in 1864.
Naval engineers still marvel at the Hunley's design and construction. For example, the ship's knifelike, rolled-iron hull and recessed rivets helped reduce drag as the sub cut through the water.
Despite the Hunley's ahead-of-its-time design, the sub was dangerous to operate. Five of seven crewmen drowned during a test in Charleston Harbor. During a second test, the entire crew of eight, including Horace L. Hunley himself, drowned.
That Confederate officials raised the Hunley a second time—for its third, and final, run—is testament to their determination to break the Union blockade chocking the South's ability to wage war.