H.L. Hunley is rotated upright; 'stealth-like' craft now visible

The H.L. Hunley has been rotated and put into her original upright position in the climate controlled tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, SC.  Photo: Artist T.G. Skerret

VIENNA, Va, June 28, 2011 — Word has been received that at long last, the H.L. Hunley has been rotated and put into her original upright position in the climate controlled tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, SC.  

The Confederate submersible/submarine was resting on her starboard side at an approximate 45-degree angle when finally raised from the ocean floor in August 2009.  Due to the sediment inside which had not been disturbed in over 100 years, and the presence of the remains of the eight men who had sailed her, it was felt that a full examination of the contents should be made before any attempt was made to right the seven and one-half ton ship, which was 39’ long.

It took two days to accomplish the shift in position of the craft, which had been held in place by large slings.  Moving in micro steps of two millimeters a day, the repositioning was finally accomplished, providing the scientists and conservators with the first glimpse of that side of the Hunley’s hull.  Apparently no specific damage was evident on the long-hidden side, which means that the scientists will still continue their hunt to ascertain what caused the ship to sink.

Talking with Kellen Correia, Executive Director of the Friends of the Hunley organization today, she said that “seeing the Hunley right side up  has given us a whole new view of it – it looks stealth-like now.”

They will soon remove the keel block supports, she said, as well as the slings. “It’s hard to realize that over a half million people have come to see the Hunley in the last ten years,” she related, “and we hope that the new positioning will bring even more to our facility.”

Ms. Correia continued that “within the next two to four weeks, the trusses will be completely removed” from the little craft, although what the ultimate preservation process will be is not known at this time.

History records the fatal steps that led up to the ultimate Hunley’s launching, which made her the first of her kind to sink an enemy ship during warfare.  On February 17, 1864, sliding out of Charleston Harbor late at night, she quietly approached the U.S.S. Housatonic, a Union blockade ship preventing ships from entering the Harbor, and fired a 135 lb. torpedo attached to a 150` detonation rope into the Housatonic’s side. 

The Union ship sank in less than five minutes. After coming to the surface to flash a signal to the crew waiting on shore, the Hunley sank beneath the waves, where she remained for over a century.

Before that final fatal voyage, two previous attempts had been made to pilot the Hunley — on August 29, 1863 and on October 15 of the same year.  While three men survived the first effort, all eight were killed in the second, including Horace L. Hunley who had first envisioned the concept of the submersible. 

Despite the loss of so many men in the efforts, it was easy to again enlist a crew for the final run, with Lt. George E. Dixon in the lead.

We visited the Hunley several years ago in North Charleston, and it was the highlight of our trips that year.  To actually stand on the catwalks surrounding the tank in which the craft hung in a specially prepared water bath, and see the Hunley herself, frankly was a thrill that was absolutely fantastic.  It was difficult to envision how eight men of normal height and weight could have stayed inside her, manning the crank that ran down the center of the interior, was impressive.

The H.L. Hunley

The H.L. Hunley

Outside the museum was a full size replica of the ‘little fish boat’ as it was termed, and visitors were allowed to go inside to get the feel of what it must have been like on that dark, cold night in 1864.  Now I’m a little less than five feet in height, and trying to sit at the seats inside and operate a hand-crank was a close fit even for me, giving a greater appreciation of what those men of normal height had to contend with. 

Entry into the Hunley was through two “man holes” with openings roughly 14” x 15,” no easy feat.

Forensic examination of Lt. Dixon’s remains indicated that he was 5’9” tall, and had sandy brown hair.  If I recall correctly, wear on the inside of his lower teeth revealed that he had been a pipe smoker.  He obviously came from a well-off family, as he had a fine gold watch, a diamond ring and a diamond pin in his pockets, no doubt presents for the lovely Queenie upon his return.  He had lived in Mobile, Alabama early in the War years, active in the community and had joined the local Masonic Lodge.

It was at the Conservation Center that we saw the famous $20 gold piece carried by Lt. Dixon, the story that resonated with so many people who heard it.

His fiancée, Queenie Bennett, had given him a gold coin engraved with the words “My life Preserver – G.E. D.” before the Battle of Shiloh, and when he was struck by Union fire, the shot literally left the gold coin bent, the way it was found deep in the Hunley, near his remains. Examination of his remains confirmed that he had previously sustained a gunshot injury shot his upper left thigh, with small lead fragments embedded in the bone!

Ever since the Hunley sank, and Clive Cussler with his National Underwater and Marine Agency, a private group funded by the adventure writer and marine archaeologist, stated that he had found where she lay, various efforts began to raise her to the surface and to find out what happened to the crew.

There are several theories as to what happened; one which occurred to me after reading the books on the Hunley, that the actual attack on the Housatonic and resulting concussive shock felt through the water, rendered the Hunley crew unconscious, where they remained as the oxygen was dissipated within the craft by their breathing and the lit candle. 

Others think that it could have been damaged by fire from the Housatonic, though no fire damage apparently has been noted, or that another Union vessel coming to aid the Housatonic may have damaged it.   Further examination may tell the final story, though examination of the crew’s remains apparently gave no indication.

When entry was made into the boat upon it’s raising in 2009, the remains of the eight men were found intact, each at his station, in a seated position, with no indication that they had fought to get out or near the opening, etc.  Thus death must have come easily and quietly to those brave early sailors, whose job was to turn the heavy iron cranks which propelled the Hunley through the water.

The little submarine may never sail the ocean waters again, but the contribution of her and her intrepid crews will provide scientists and historians with ample food for thought for many years to come.

The Warren Lasch Conservation Center is located at 1250 Supply Street, (old Charleston Navy Base), North Charleston, SC; its number s (843) 743-4865.

Follow the blog on Face Book and LinkedIn  at Martha Boltz; my email is MBoltz2846@aol.com

Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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