When the H.L. Hunley was recovered last year, scientists knew
very little about the crusted piece of maritime history that had been buried
beneath the Atlantic for more than a century.
Now, after 23,670 man-hours of work, archaeologists have cleaned out the Confederate submarine's crew compartment, made dozens of unexpected discoveries and learned a lot about the state of Southern engineering in the 1860s.
But they still haven't figured out why the world's first successful attack submarine sank.
On Friday, Hunley archaeologists announced they had finished digging the mud out of the submarine's central compartment (they still have to dig out the sub's two ballast tanks). Senior archaeologist Maria Jacobsen said the work now turns to drawing and photographing features and finishing the reams of paperwork they will use to start analyzing what they've found and trying to answer lingering questions.
What the archaeologists have not found is a smoking gun - a single, irrefutable fact that points to a cause of the Hunley's sinking on Feb. 17, 1864, in the hours following its attack on the USS Housatonic. That could be years away, after the sub's hull is cleaned of concretion, after all the information scientists have collected is analyzed.
Friends of the Hunley Chairman Warren Lasch said Friday that what they have now is "what many consider to be the world's biggest jigsaw puzzle."
To figure out what happened to the Hunley, scientists will look at the sediment that was inside the submarine to try and determine how and when the sub was filled.
They will examine the hull, after the concretion is removed, for signs of trauma, and they will look at the holes in the sub - particularly the softball-sized hole in the forward conning tower.
Hunley Commission Chairman Glenn McConnell said Friday they have not found the glass from the forward viewing port that sub commander Lt. George E. Dixon would have used to see out of. If that hole was made the night of the attack, the glass may still lie in one of the 50 or so chunks of sediments taken out of the sub in a block to help preserve fragile artifacts, such as clothing.
Archaeologists will turn their attention to that block-lifted sediment soon. However, if the hole was made after the attack, when the sub was filled with sediment, the glass could have washed out of the tower and be lost forever.
Scientists have said they ultimately will find a reason for the submarine's sinking - or at least a good theory. Even if that answer isn't coming, in the past year, they have uncovered a wealth of information about the submarine that had been lost since a cold winter night in 1864.
Among the major Hunley discoveries made during the excavation:
The crew: Perhaps the biggest revelation of the excavation is that there were only eight men on board the Hunley. Most historical accounts said the sub carried a crew of nine. But last month, as the excavation neared its end, it became obvious scientists would not find a ninth crewman. The archaeologists had suspected as much after the initial dig last spring, but could not be sure until they had scoured every inch of the crew compartment. No one can explain how almost every historical account of the sub could be wrong.
Also, the remains of the crew show a much more diverse band of men than was originally thought. It appears the ages of the crewmen ranged from 19 to as old as 45.
The sub's operation and construction: A closer look at the submarine goes a long way toward proving history wrong. Even the early peeks inside the Hunley dispelled any claim that the fish-boat is just a converted boiler. It was built of semi-circular hull plates that were flush-mounted with support ribs inside. The construction was way ahead of its time and incorporated design features - such as forward-mounted dive planes - that are still used in submarines.
Inside, the mechanics are more complex than old sketches revealed. Dixon steered using a vertical tiller, sort of like a joystick, while seven men turned hand cranks behind him that turned a reduction gear that powered the propeller. Scientists also found that the crew used a bellows to pump air from the snorkels throughout the crew compartment.
For everything archaeologists discovered about the Hunley, however, it seemed another question arose with it. Among the biggest lingering questions are why is half the propeller shroud missing? And what caused the huge stern hole that is more than two feet wide?
The strangest mystery may be that of the dog tag of a Union soldier named Ezra Chamberlin found on board. Historians and genealogists are still trying to solve that riddle, to determine whether Chamberlin was on board the sub.
But, like the demise of the sub's crew, that one may never be solved. All scientists can do, they say, is keep looking at all the facts they've collected in this past year, hoping one day to fit thousands of pieces of this historical jigsaw puzzle together.
Contact Brian Hicks at (843) 937-5561 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier Staff