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The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine

Submariners have long known the general outlines of the story of the Confederate submarine H.L. HUNLEY, the first submarine to have sunk an enemy warship in combat. Two of our tenders, now unfortunately decommissioned, were named after members of the boat’s ill-fated crews: HUNLEY (AS 31) honored Horace L. Hunley, who promoted and financed the submarine’s construction and died at its helm on a trial dive, while DIXON (AS 37) was named after George E. Dixon, who commanded the boat and made the successful attack on USS HOUSATONIC. Ironically, the Navy has never given comparable recognition to the submarine’s actual designer, James R. McClintock.

Concerning HUNLEY’s major particulars there was always general agreement: built in secrecy during the Civil War, the diminutive submersible, its single screw cranked by the muscles of a volunteer crew, had rammed a spar torpedo into the side of the Union warship HOUSA TONIC and sunk it to the bottom just outside of Charleston, South Carolina harbor, then disappeared without trace. The submarine thus achieved fame for an exploit not to be repeated for another fifty years. In other respects the history of H.L. HUNLEY was shrouded in mystery, confusion, and misinformation. Although the story was revived every few years in books, magazine articles, and newspaper features, the few definite facts were usually obscured amid erroneous conjecture, sensational speculation, and unsupported claims by searchers that the wreck had been found. Even the most sober accounts, including the U.S. Navy’s official ship’s history, relied for many details on eyewitness statements written from memory.

The news in 1995 that the long-sought wreck of HUNLEY had finally been found and positively identified, immediately stimulated hopes and demands that the hull be raised, its secrets revealed, and the bones of its lost crew be laid to rest ashore. In spite of some squabbling over the assignment of credit for locating the sub and competition for its possession and ultimate display, the team that found it, sponsored by novelist Clive Cussler, made sure that it would be painstakingly excavated by marine archeologists and professional salvagers from the sand and silt in which it was buried, then turned over to qualified conservators for study and preservation. Raised in August 2000, HUNLEY now lies in a well-equipped laboratory on the former naval base at Charleston, where it has already disproved several long-accepted facts about its construction. Its hull, long believed to have been crudely improvised from an old boiler sliced in two, was actually carefully fabricated with frames and plates and smoothly streamlined. Instead of having a propeller shaft with eight hand-cranks directly driving the screw, there are cranks for only seven men and the shaft is connected to the propeller through a reduction gear. Other features of the boat are considerably more sophisticated than was originally believed. What has not been, and may never be, determined, is the cause of the boat’s sinking and the crew’s demise. Some evidence seems to indicate that the hull remained unflooded for a considerable period of time and that the crew died of asphyxiation rather than drowning.

Despite some excessive journalistic hype, the authors have struck quite close to the facts concerning their main subject. Only in their comments on broader naval matters do they reveal some background weaknesses. HOUSATONIC, a 1,240 ton screw sloop does not merit being described as “mighty”, “formidable”, or “a huge Union Warship”. At one point it is even called a “battle-ship”. Likewise, HUNLEY, ingenious as it has proven to be, was hardly a “marvel of nineteenth-century engineering”. Referring to a sketch of the boat sitting on a pier, they describe it as being in “dry dock”. With regard to later submarine developments, the authors characterize Simon Lake as “the father of the modem submarine” and state that he “ultimately set the standard for underwater boats”. Most students of the subject would give greater credit to John Holland. Most egregiously, the writers repeatedly refer to the ironclad CSS VIRGINIA (ex-USS MERRIMACK) as MERRIMACK. The book is also weak in technical details, many of which remain to be revealed or clarified after further study of the relic. Such minor lapses aside, this book presents a readable and reasonably complete account of what is currently known about HUNLEY and the people who designed, built, and operated it. I strongly recommend it to submariners who are interested in knowing more about the origin of the boats in which they serve or have served, and the men who devoted their lives to making them what they are today.

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