Hunley excavation vindicating 1902 Alexander sketch
Now with links to the Alexander drawing
Sunday, April 1, 2001
BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier staff
For the last century, everything known about the
inner workings of the H.L. Hunley has come from a single sketch. Many people
questioned its accuracy.
But now, as archaeologists have uncovered more of the
lost Confederate submarine's machinery, it's beginning to look like that old
drawing may be just about on the money.
"It seems very likely," Hunley Commission
Chairman Glenn McConnell said. "What we're beginning to see indicates
some accuracy in Alexander's drawing."
The sketch was drawn in 1902 using information from
William Alexander, one of the sub's builders and crew members. Alexander was a
member of the third Hunley crew until less than two weeks before it
disappeared after sinking the Union sloop Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864. He was
reassigned to Mobile, Ala., earlier that month, skirting death by missing the
sub's final mission.
Alexander, an engineer from Mobile, wrote a history
of the Hunley - along with detailed instructions on how it operated - for the
New Orleans newspaper at the turn of the century, after decades of
misinformation about the first sub to sink an enemy warship had spread across
The sketch that accompanied the article was taken as
the gospel - until the sub was lifted. Then, historians and scientists began
to worry about the sketch. Its exterior dimensions, admittedly drawn from
memory, portrayed a boxy craft that looks little like the sleek war machine
now housed at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.
They feared the inside diagrams would be just as
inaccurate. At first look, it appeared they had reason to worry.
Alexander's drawing shows that the sub was steered by
the captain from the front of the crew compartment. The cables or rods that
move the rudder appear to be at the top of the crew compartment. But
scientists found nothing there.
Scientists suspect that Alexander didn't draw the
sketch him self, but described the sub to an artist. He may have been talking
simultaneously about the Hunley and its predecessor, the American Diver. No
diagrams or sketches of that sub, lost in Mobile Bay before it saw action,
Aside from the mystery of the steering controls,
however, the Hunley's interior appears identical to Alexander's depiction.
The controls to the aft ballast tank, including a
pump with a long handle, appear to be identical to those in the Alexander
drawing. He would have known that area of the sub well. As first officer, he
would have worked those controls.
Earlier this week, scientists completely uncovered
two handles on the crank shaft that the Hunley's crew used to turn its
propeller. The exposed sections show squared-off bends in the shaft that form
a pattern of steps going up and down.
The crank is one of the more curious pieces of
equipment in the old sub, evidently bent at odd angles to keep the crew from
all moving together.
At first, scientists were worried when the handcrank
didn't show itself as high in the sediment as they expected. That it's lower
is the only surprise.
McConnell said the support brackets shown in the old
drawings are beginning to show through the fudge-like sediment packed inside
Maria Jacobsen, chief archaeologist on the
excavation, found the rod connecting the dive planes last week as well, just
about where Alexander said they would be. Alexander also accurately placed the
sub's dead lights and conning tower portholes, and was accurate on the
workings of the Hunley snorkel box.
Scientists are wary of giving too much weight to the
Alexander sketch because they still have a lot of submarine to see.
But the Hunley excavation teams admit the 1902 sketch
has provided a decent blueprint.
If the sub didn't give a few surprises - or hold on
to a couple of mysteries - it wouldn't be the Hunley.
Used with permission of The Post and
Courier and Charleston.Net