Raising the submarine H.L. Hunley

Raising the submarine H.L. Hunley

(The text of a mini-bit talk)

Who has seen the famous 1863 oil painting of Conrad Wise Chapman on the submarine H.L. Hunley hanging in the Confederate museum in Richmond, Virginia? Who has seen the TNT movie about H.L. Hunley?

On 2/17/1864 night, Lt. George Dixon encouraged his men to keep cranking. "One more mile, that's it. Only one more mile to go." They had already travelled 2 miles, and one more to go. The Hunley cranked its way silently through Breach Inlet and headed toward the blockade line and the sloop-of-war, USS Housatonic, named after a river in Western Massachusetts.

Lt. Dixon was reflecting, thinking. He was pleased that he was involved in this secret Confederate weapon and served his country. Six men from New Orleans planned this project in 1861: Baxter Watson, James McClintock, Horace Lawson Hunley, John K. Scott, Robert Ruffin Barrow and Henry J. Leovy.

In 1862 when the Federal force occupied New Orleans, they were forced to abandon their boat, PIONEER, and moved to Mobile, Alabama. Before they had a chance to test their second boat, AMERICAN DIVER, it sank off Fort Morgan while being towed through the water. In July of 1863, a third submarine was ready for testing -- the H.L. Hunley. Constructed from a steam-boiler, the Hunley required eight men to turn the propeller's hand cranks and could reach a speed of 4 knots. Ballasts, which were flooded by valves and pumped out by hand, were located both forward and aft. Once the submarine was several inches under the water's surface, the captain would use a lever to control two diving planes located on the exterior. A mercury depth gauge, compass, and candle were used for navigation. The only question is, where should Hunley go? The answer: Charleston, South Carolina, transported by rail. On Aug. 29, 1863, the Hunley sank near Fort Johnson when the wake of a passing ship swamped it. Five of the nine crewmen drowned. Two months later, after being raised and refitted, it sank a second time - this time killing all aboard (9 crewmen), including Horace Lawson Hunley himself. The inventors developed a new approach, attached to a bow-mounted iron spar with a 90-pound black powder explosive. Hunley's third crew, included a new commander, 1st Lt. George E. Dixon, an infantry officer from Kentucky, plus James A. WICKS, Arnold BECKER, C. SIMKINS, F. COLLINS, RIDGEWAY, MILLER, C.F. CARLSON someone who substituted William ALEXANDER (the 2nd in command) who was transferred to another Command.

Hunley facts: Weight: 7.5 tons, Length: 39.5 feet, Width: 3 feet, 10 inches, Hull height: 4 feet, 3 inches, Surface speed: 4 knots (4.6 mph), Crew: nine, Distinction: First submarine to sink another warship.

Dixon knew this is the hour, now or never, on this 2/17/1864 evening. At 8:45 p.m., one of the Housatonic's deckhands saw what he thought was a dolphin or a log. The crew of the Housatonic opened fire on the Hunley with small arms, cut their anchor and tried to steam away from the coming collision. They were too slow. Dixon's submarine rammed its spar-mounted charge into the rear starboard quarter of the Housatonic and reversed direction. A massive explosion ripped a hole in the sloop's hull. Five Union sailors died, and the blockader sank in just three minutes. Other Union vessels responded quickly, plucking Housatonic survivors from the water and searching for the mystery vessel. On the Confederate tracking station on land, they saw the "blue" light from the sub. The Confederate High Command knew their mission was successful, and their sub was returning home.

But H.L. Hunley never reached Home, not until 136 years later.

Let's fast forward the time to 1995.

Since 1980, four attempts were made to find HUNLEY and failed. Entered Millionaire novelist, Clive Cussler. The sunken Hunley remained four miles off Sullivan Island, untouched and unaccounted for, until 1995. It was then that divers funded by Cussler discovered the vessel largely intact, and plans for its recovery began to take shape.

Officials later obtained a crane with legs that could be sunk into the ocean floor. The conservation of the submarine is expected to take about seven years. It will then go on display in a new wing at the Charleston museum. Despite its sinking in 1864, the Hunley was a mechanical marvel ahead of its time. The next submarine to sink an enemy ship didn't succeed until 50 years later, in 1914. This time, they wanted to do it right, on the raising of the Hunley and the prevervation of Hunley. They won't start until all the necessary funding was in place. The cost of the estimated $17 million salvage and restoration project. The recovery of the Hunley will answer the question, "Why did the sub sink?" In order to recover Hunley intact, great care in planning and utilizing the latest under-water salvage engineering technique was used. This is a brief summary on how they do it. (1) Giant crane from 600-ton Karlissa, a 6-legs barge was used, 30 feet to the ocean. (2) Silted sea floor. (3) Built 2 suction piles. (4) Lift box truss. (5) Synthsetic straps. Divers connected the straps. (6) Foam-filled sacks.

The lifting force was on different points on the truss. The straps from the truss were connected to the bottom of the sub with foam-filled sacks, distributed the holding force evenly and securely, so that the sub would have little chance to break up during this raising operation. On Tuesday, 8/8/2000, salvage crews using an elaborate truss, carefully loosened the U.S. Civil War submarine from its encrusted resting place near Charleston Harbor and brought it to the surface about 8:40 a.m. Salvagers believed the bodies of the sub's nine crew-members were still inside, perhaps in a preserved condition. As a shipload of onlookers watched, the 39.5-foot-long Confederate submarine was set on the deck of a barge. People applauded, ship horns sounded, sirens blared, and Civil War cannons boomed from shore. The sub was to be secured to the barge deck with spot welding and bathed in a continuous spray of saltwater before being taken to a specially built laboratory at the old Charleston Naval Shipyard. Ringing bells and the thundering cannons were to greet the vessel as it makes its way into Charleston Harbor and up the Cooper River to the conservation facility at the old Charleston Naval Shipyard. Sea cadets waving a blue-lensed lantern were then to lead the Hunley back to shore. At the conservation lab, a bugler was to play taps, and ministers were to bless the sub and the remains of its crew. New tests show there's no reason to hurry to open the sub. The scientific staff leading the mapping, investigation and excavation of the H.L. Hunley at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston have set mid-January 2001 as their date to get into the submarine.

The decision to wait on opening the Hunley follows a lab analysis that found there is no oxygen inside the sub's tightly packed hull to threaten the human remains inside. The lack of oxygen means there is no immediate threat that microbes will destroy human remains anytime soon. That scenario is that a Yankee sharpshooter on the Housatonic may have put a hole in the cast-iron front conning tower with a well-placed musket. That shot could have hit the sub's commander, Lt. George Dixon, leaving the sub without a driver. The hole would have let in enough water to throw off the sub's fragile buoyancy. So far, efforts to X-ray the submarine's interior have been unsuccessful. That's because the silt and sand that has probably preserved the artifacts inside is so tightly packed that scientists can't make out clear images.

Tour groups were limited to 30 people and the time beside the Hunley to about 20 minutes. Ticket to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center costs $10 each. Big bucks are being offered for tickets, with some reportedly being offered for auction - bids start at more than five times face value - on the Internet's E-bay site. Items inside may include canteens, pistols, photographs, food and perhaps even the gold coin that sub commander Lt. George Dixon is rumored to have carried. It's a treasure trove of history and a time capsule.

{Source: books, newspapers, magazines.} (2000)

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Author and Webmaster, Gordon Kwok

First posted on March 15, 2001
Uploaded on current server: March 19, 2009