The Hunt for Gray October: The H.L. Hunley

February 16, 2013 — On August 8, 2000, a crane lowered a steel truss into the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, where its padded nylon belts were affixed by divers to a 40-foot-long cigar-shaped artifact. Once secure, the dark oblong was pulled from the mud and water and carefully set on a barge headed for the mainland. The South had risen again. Or at least one of its submarines had.

That’s right. A Confederate submarine. And none other than the H.L. Hunley itself.

Now, “Confederate submarine” sounds like evidence of time meddling or at least like an anachronistic artifact, a screw found in a clump of three-million-year-old coal or a metal gear in the belly of a Tyrannosaur fossil. But as I stood at the lip of the pool-sized tank of temperature-controlled water where the craft is today being preserved, nothing seemed more real than that Civil War submarine/impromptu coffin.

Truth is, people were experimenting with underwater vehicles as far back as the 1600s. Mostly these were glorified diving bells that only worked well enough to get wet for a few minutes and inspire lots of prayers to makers.

But it was the arms race of the American Civil War that really pushed the design forward. Even though the ironclads got all the press at that time as far as naval technology went, both the Blue and the Gray were trying to figure out how to take the combat below-water. Heck, Wikipedia claims a staggering 20 of these ships were operational at the time. Meaning, again, that they could get wet.

But the H.L. Hunley is the most famous of them because it’s the first one to ever accomplish something substantial, in this case sinking a ship during combat. Such a thing as a successful sub attack wouldn’t happen again until World War I, half a century later.

And, somehow, that piece of history is around for everyone to see.

Built in Mobile, Alabama, and named after the guy who financed it, Horace Lawson Hunley, the sub was finished in the summer of 1863 and sent on to Charleston.

It was about 40 feet long, just over four feet tall, and had two tiny hatches at each end. The iron ship was propelled by a hand-crank that ran the length of the interior of the boat. The sub was barely designed for eight crewmen, seven to sit side-by-side and turn the crank and one at the front to steer. There was no internal air supply or periscope, so they had to surface to replenish oxygen and see where they were going.

In short, it was a terrifying, sweaty, claustrophobic death trap.

And history bears my spinelessness out.

The Hunley killed its first crew when the skipper accidentally hit a dive lever while the hatches were open. Only three of the men were able to slither out of the tiny, water-filled tube to safety.

The second crew included Horace Hunley himself, and all were killed when the submarine wouldn’t surface. There could be only one H.L. Hunley.

But then came glory. And more crew death. After which it disappeared for a century and a half.

On the night of February 17, 1864, eight men jumped into this tiny iron fate-tempter and set out for the USS Housatonic, one of the Union ships blockading Charleston Harbor. By the time the Housatonic crew figured out that the “fish boat” was a threat, it was too late.

The Hunley was equipped with a 22-foot-long spar at its front end, like a narwhal tusk. At the end of the spar was a barbed explosive, unlike a narwhal tusk. The idea was to ram the ship with it, lodge the bomb, and then get out of there, detonating it from a distance with a trip line.

The explosive went off, and the Housatonic capsized, although slow enough that only five of the 121 crew died from the attack. The Hunley went down as well, although its ending is more mysterious. Either way, whatever’s left of the wreck of the sloop still lies at the bottom of Charleston Harbor. Unlike the Hunley.

For although the Dixie diver didn’t return that night, it was only temporarily lost to history.

The sub was apparently discovered sometime in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the wreck was confirmed. Five years later, it was placed at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. If that doesn’t really sound like the name of a museum, there’s a reason for that.

The powers that resurrect things from the deep misjudged public interest in the Hunley. They planned on interring it in the research facility to conserve and study in private, but people really wanted to see it. So they cobbled together a public exhibit around the main attraction so that people could come see this amazing artifact…but only on the weekends. The rest of the time is devoted to working on the submarine.

Of course, my timing was of the usual broken-watch variety, and I found myself in Charleston in the middle of the week. Fortunately, I was able to connect with Kellen Corriea, executive director for the Friends of the Hunley organization, who let us in for an empty-museum tour. The price? One effusive OTIS article.

Just kidding. The effusive part is unavoidable. Remember, Civil War sub?

The Warren Lasch Conservation Center is a large, repurposed warehouse-type building located on a defunct naval base in North Charleston. It’s immediately apparent upon entering that the space wasn’t intended to be a museum. Various artifacts and displays are spread around a large interior, reminding me of the way a science fair fits into a gymnasium.

Now, I said that they cobbled this exhibit together, but that’s mostly because I love to use the word “cobbled.” The exhibit is actually pretty impressive, especially in light of the fact that it’s centered around one main artifact.

For instance, they had a full-sized model of the Pioneer, the three-man, automobile-sized predecessor to the Hunley. Also small items pulled from the Hunley that were literally the crew’s last earthly possessions: pen-knives, coins, even a Union dog tag. Along one wall was a reclaimed cannon from the Confederate raider Alabama, which was sunk in the English Channel just a few months after the Hunley went down.

Then there were the eight severed heads under glass.

Arranged in a single row in a lighted display case were the facial reconstructions of the final Hunley crew, based on their water-logged skulls.

And those eight ghosts were really hard to shake from the exhibit. Even though the Hunley killed a total of 21 of its crew over its career, it was this crew that went down in history for their mission and this crew that sat hidden and unheralded in a watery tomb at the bottom of the harbor all this time.

No photos have yet to be released of the remains, but one display did show an in-situ, color-coded scan of the bone arrangements inside the sub. Each man was still basically at his station, meaning that they probably died of anoxia, slipping first into unconsciousness and then death due to lack of oxygen. Had they drowned, the remains would more than likely have been piled at both ends near the hatches, as they fought panic-stricken to escape.

Kind of like I’m doing just thinking about it.

Keep in mind this was a four-foot-tall ship, and the average height of those eight men was about 5’10”, including a couple of six-footers…all crammed into this tiny space and separated from any possible rescue as sure as if they had been in orbit.

And as much as attempting to makes me hyperventilate, it really is difficult to imagine their plight. However, one way you can get kind of close while at the museum is to sit in a prop piece of sub made for the 1999 cable movie based on the story called, succinctly enough, The Hunley. It starred Armand Assante and Donald Sutherland and was the film that introduced me to the Hunley so many years ago.

And while it was really cool to actually sit inside a movie prop, it was also disconcerting. You see, the prop was oversized compared to the sub itself and completely open at one end. And you know what? It still kind of got to me. Maybe even because of that. Man, I just wanted to sit in a movie prop, not get some perspective.

Of course, we were there to see the real thing. That piece of corroded history was secreted behind an innocuous-looking door at the far end of the warehouse. Blossoming around the portal were signs that prohibited food, drinks, photography, and admittance, while warning of video surveillance. Also, a giant red placard announced, “Tours begin here.”

For while visitors can move about the exhibit in general freely, entrance to the Hunley itself happens only every 20-30 minutes, and only under cautious supervision.

Inside the inner sanctum, the Hunley lab, it takes a bit to realize exactly where the sub actually is. The tank that continues the drowning of the Hunley was built before they realized it would be a makeshift display case, so the sides are opaque. You had to ascend a flight of metal stares and look at the submerged sub from the top.

The tank is about 55 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 9 feet deep. It was full of fresh, circulated water and kept at a low temperature for preservation reasons.

Up until just recently, even the view from the top wasn’t that clear. The Hunley had been set at an angle and within a cradle the obscured much of the ship. Today, though, the cradle has been removed and the Hunley righted so that we basically got the same view of it that the crew of the USS Housatonic did before everything went all fire and water on them.

My first impression of the ship was that it was the coolest thing ever. My second and third impressions were the same. It did seem oddly small, though. I felt like I could have strapped it to the roof of my car with little problem.

The thing was covered with brown accretions, so almost none of the bare metal was evident. Part of the work they’re doing on the sub is to remove that layer to see if any exterior scarring can help them determine just why the sub went down that night.

Some of the top plates were removed, so we could see down inside it. The hand-crank was evident, as were the levers for the ballast.

All in all, that dirty piece of saltwater detritus imade me want to toss everything in my life away to become a marine archeologist.

But the Hunley wasn’t the only artifact protected in that lab. Off to one side was a small display case with a bent gold coin and a heck of a story.

The commander on the Hunley’s final voyage was Lt. George Dixon, who fought at the Battle of Shiloh. A seemingly apocryphal tale has long been told of Dixon that he had survived getting wounded at that battle thanks to a gold coin that his girlfriend had given him as a token. A rifle bullet supposedly struck him in the thigh, glancing off the coin in his pocket, and convincing him to carry it around as a lucky charm from that day forward.

But it was only a story told around the campfires of Civil War battle reenactments. Then, one day, one of the Hunley preservationists stuck her hand in the right bit of mud and pulled out a $20 coin that bore a bullet-sized dent and an engraving: “Shiloh, April 6, 1862, My Life Preserver, G.E.D.”

So it seems that the only part of the story proven untrue was that it was a lucky charm.

And now that I’ve given a name to one of the dead, the classic question naturally arises, “But where are the bodies?”

Simple answer: Buried. The final resting place of all three crews of the Hunley can be found grouped together in a memorial at Magnolia Cemetery, about three miles south of the museum. However, to pull off the reunion, they had to pull the first crew out from under the football field of the Citadel, South Carolina’s military academy. That’s a pretty cool story, too.

Kellen told us that eventually the Hunley will be the star attraction at a full-fledged museum to be situated not too far from its current location, one with more public-friendly opening hours, an easier way to view the sub, and, hopefully, an answer to the mystery of what happened in those final moments after the attack.

And it should be that way. This is an amazing piece of history, of technology, and of stranger-than-fiction-ness. Like Kellen told us in a practiced-but-no-less-true manner, “North Carolina has the Wright Flyer. South Carolina has the Hunley.” Except that to see the former you have to go to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. You get to see the Hunley right in the city where it made history and from whose waters it was resurrected.

Still, I don’t know how people can get over claustrophobia and hydrophobia enough to get into the leviathans that are modern day submarines. To do so in in 1864 in such a tiny experimental vessel just took the proverbial balls of brass.

No wonder the Hunley sunk.