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Nameless Civil War submarine baffles researchers


Sunday, July 15, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff


     No one knows how the little Civil War-era submarine was built, how it operated or what happened to its crew.
     For more than a century those mysteries have stumped historians and scientists.
     Now the tiny submersible rests in a conservation lab, with scientists working to restore it to its former glory and unlock its many secrets.
     It is a familiar tale around Charleston, but this is not the story of the H.L. Hunley.
     This submarine, which belongs to the Louisiana State Museum, is undergoing rehabilitation anonymously in a New Orleans lab. If it ever had a name, it's long since been forgotten.
     Found in a clump of weeds on the bank of Lake Pontchartrain in 1878, the sub was long thought to be Horace Hunley and James McClintock's first effort, the Pioneer. New research by Louisiana scholars and Hunley historians indicates that's unlikely.
     If it's not the Pioneer, what is it?
     There is no shortage of theories. Some say a plantation owner built the sub and two slaves perished in it on a test run. Others believe it's a prototype for a submarine that a New Orleans businessman wanted to build. It may be one of a fleet of subs built during the war in Shreveport, La.
     Greg Lambousy, curator of exhibits for the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, says the best guess right now seems to be that the sub was built in New Orleans by one or two likely suspects.
     But he's ruling nothing out.
     "It could be related to McClintock and Hunley," Lambousy said. "But McClintock never mentioned it."
     The sub is 21 feet long - half the size of the Hunley - but shares many other characteristics with the world's first attack sub: It is made of iron; it had a propeller turned by men working a handcrank; it had diving fins and maybe even a spar.
     The lower part of the hull is rotted from poor early 20th-century preservation efforts, but it doesn't need the electrolysis treatment the Hunley requires to restore the health of its iron hull. Conservators estimate it needs another year or so of work before the submarine is ready for display.
     When it is put on exhibit, though, they aren't sure what beginning they will put on its long, strange history.
     The notion of underwater boats was in vogue among Southerners in the early days of the Civil War. Without a Navy of its own, the Confederates were desperately searching for a way to level the playing field on the water. Without the resources, money or time to build a fleet of warships, they had to improvise.
     A letter published in a Tennessee newspaper near the beginning of the war urged Southerners to build sneaky underwater war machines. The writer even provided a general blueprint - diving fins, screw propeller, etc. Whether that letter sparked it, several projects soon were under way across Dixie.
     Hunley and McClintock teamed up in this environment. Together with some wealthy investors, including Hunley's brother-in-law, they began work on a little sub they called, appropriately enough, the Pioneer.
     The Pioneer carried a crew of three: one man to steer and operate its diving fins; two to crank handles that turned the propeller. According to McClintock, it had no ballast tanks.
     The exact size is subject to debate. It could have been anywhere from 30- to 35-feet long. After the war, McClintock wrote, "She was made of iron a quarter-inch thick. The boat was of a cigar shape, 30 feet long, and 4 feet in diameter."
     In March 1862, the Pioneer received a privateer license. It was the only sub to receive official recognition from the Confederate government during the war. But it never saw combat - it was still undergoing test runs on Lake Pontchartrain when the Union invaded New Orleans in April 1862.
     There was no way to save the submarine. It was too heavy to carry out of the city, and it didn't have the range to escape upriver. Hunley and McClintock chose to scuttle the sub in a canal on the outskirts of town to keep it out of Yankee hands.
     Just before they escaped the city under siege, they watched as workers opened its hatch and let murky river water fill the hull until it disappeared.
     More than a decade after the end of the war, in 1878, workers dredging the mouth of Bayou St. John found a pumpkinseed-shaped submarine lying in the weeds on the banks of the lake.
     It piqued little interest, and the sub continued to lie there abandoned for years. Later it was moved to nearby Spanish Fort, then an amusement park.
     When William Alexander, the Mobile engineer who helped build the Hunley, published his lengthy history of the first attack sub in the New Orleans paper in 1902, an editor's note at the beginning of the article mentioned the abandoned sub out near Pontchartrain:
     "Visitors to Spanish Fort may still see, half submerged in the weeds and flowers growing on the bank of Bayou St. John, a rusty vessel of curious shape. It is built of iron, about 20 feet long, and besides a propeller at the stern, is adorned on either side by strangely shaped broad metal fins. ... It was built during the war by Captain Hunley as a submarine torpedo boat."
     Most likely, the sub had been misidentified as the Pioneer long before, but no one would question that claim for decades.
     In 1908, the funny fish-boat was moved to the nearby Camp Nicholls Confederate Home, where it would sit on display for more than 30 years. As the little sub began to rust out, it was partially filled with concrete - under the assumption that would preserve it.
     Dave Johnson, one of the conservators working on the sub project, said that well-meaning gesture did not help. The concrete trapped moisture in the sub, and the water sparked rust. As the concrete expanded, the hull began to crack. Slowly, the boat was being destroyed.
     In the mid-20th century, the Louisiana State Museum took ownership and moved the sub to Jackson Square across from the Cafe du Monde coffee shop. Eventually, its rudders and propeller blades disappeared - French Quarter souvenirs.
     Later, the sub was placed behind bars under a portico at the Presbytere arcade, one of the museum's exhibit halls. And there it sat until 1999, most of that time people still believing it was the Pioneer, the grandfather of the H.L. Hunley.
     After the Hunley was discovered in 1995, interest in Civil War submarines was revived. During that period, Mark Ragan, Hunley historian and author, found records that seemed to indicate the museum's boat was not one of the Hunley line.
     In late 1863, Union engineers stationed in New Orleans found the Pioneer lying in the mud around New Basin Canal, where McClintock had sunk his ship a year-and-a-half earlier. A sketch of the sub was sent to an assistant secretary of the Navy.
     The sketch looks more like an early version of the Hunley - which it was - and not the strange New Orleans boat.
     A few years later, the Pioneer apparently suffered a sad end. In 1868, a New Orleans paper reported that a torpedo submarine boat found in the New Basin Canal after the war would be sold at auction that day.
     The next edition reported the sub sold for scrap metal for $45. It was never seen again.
     It is almost fitting that the museum's sub was confused with the Pioneer for so long, because the Pioneer may have had its history mixed up with this submarine's.
     Lambousy says one historical account the museum found tells a strange tale about a wartime submarine boat. A wealthy plantation owner had built the submari