Next step: Solve Hunley's mysteries

Wednesday, August 9, 2000

By BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier staff


     Its journey is complete. Now it's time to tell the Hunley's story.
     As it came into Charleston Harbor for the first time in more than a century, people crowded along the riverbanks Tuesday, straining for a glimpse of the storied submarine that is, nevertheless, still pretty much a mystery.
     No one knows why the submarine sank shortly after its successful attack on the Housatonic. For that matter, no one is sure how the sub operated, or even the names of all the men on board.
     Now that the submarine has been recovered, scientists vow to work until all its secrets are discovered.
     "I consider the recovery the easy part," said Dr. Robert Neyland, the project's manager. "The hard part is going to come in the lab."
     On the surface, the submarine seems infinitely more familiar than it did just a few short months ago, when no one knew exactly where the Hunley's spar was mounted.
     As engineers, archaeologists and divers have worked to dig the sub out of the silt, the new finds have come as regular as the tide: the spar, bottom-mounted, was moveable; its sleek, hydrodynamic design with deep-set rivets, a rear cutwater and razor-like bow; trim tabs, just like modern subs, that appeared in no contemporary drawings or sketches.
     The submarine is surprisingly intact. Recovery team divers found the missing rudder, snorkels - even some rope that may be from the spar's triggering system. It seems like we have everything but the answer to one simple question: What happened?
     Those answers may not come for years, as scientists put the sub and its contents through a series of investigations. Using X-rays, fiber optics and plain old sifters, these historical detectives will try to read the clues left behind by the Confederate dead to unravel the secrets of the Hunley.
     Inside that iron hull, scientists are sure, the answers will be found.
    
Unanswered questions
     The questions pour out of holes in the Hunley's story.
     The submarine, the third in a line of experimental diving craft, was stealth technology in embryo. The Confederates didn't want this getting out.
     As a result, there was little about it on paper; the best drawings we have of its mechanics and interior were made nearly 40 years after the sub disappeared.
     Scientists working on the recovery have repeatedly marveled at how advanced technologically the sub appears to be; how astute its design is. Still, it was evidently not easy to operate.
     It sank off Fort Johnson on a training mission; then it sank in the Harbor, killing its namesake, Horace L. Hunley. And then, a few months later, it left Breach Inlet on a cold February night in 1864.
     The plan was to ram the explosives at the end of the spar into the hull of a Union ship. On Feb. 17, the Housatonic looked like the best target. Inside the icy hull of the Hunley, a crew of nine began cranking for the long trip to the blockade.
     When the Housatonic exploded, the Hunley's story abruptly stops without an ending. More than a century of conflicting accounts and sketchy theories have immersed the submarine in a contradictory mythology. For instance:
     •  Did the Hunley survive the blast, or did shock waves envelop the ship, blasting rivets through the hull like bullets, killing the crew members while water filled their ship?
     •  Did a Union sailor shoot out the Hunley's front conning tower porthole, allowing the cold ocean water to flood the sub?
     •  And, did Confederate troops on Sullivan's Island really see a blue light, the signal for a successful mission and a request to ignite a light to guide the crew home?
     Even the sub's resting place was a mystery and one that kept the sub hidden for more than a century: It was resting seaward of the Housatonic.
     Staff archaeologists, led by Maria Jacobsen, will use the location of relics, the preservation of remains and the sub's condition to reconstruct the Hunley's final mission.
     They may discover the medical histories of all the crew members and what the submarine has survived since its sinking. They may recover and restore uniforms, photographs, even letters.
     What they learn will fill volumes of reports. But ultimately, it comes back to one lingering question.
     "The big question," Jacobsen said, "is why did the submarine sink?"
    
The treasure
     On a recent tour of the newly named Warren Lasch Conservation Center, Paul Mardikian, the project's senior conservator, raised more than a few eyebrows with his wish list of what he hoped to find inside the Hunley.
     The French scientist, who has worked on the Titanic relics, believes it's possible that the Hunley crew still may be sitting at their posts.
     "There was not much room to move around," he said.
     It was cold, he explains, and the crew likely wore heavy uniforms. Those uniforms could possibly hold skeletons together.
     There is no way to know what is inside the hull. Filled with sand and sediment shortly after it sank (if you call 20 years shortly), there is the potential to find much, much more than the usual shoe sole and bone fragments.
     Scientists believe they could even find hair or flesh samples from the crew. It would not be unprecedented. Divers searching a 17th-century shipwreck off the coast of Texas recently found a skeleton with brain tissue in its skull.
     Curious about the state of technology in the pre-industrial age South, scientists are as eager to figure out how the submarine was constructed and how it operated.
     If all crew members sat on the same side of the ship, Neyland questions, how did they counterbalance the weight?
     Historians aren't even sure how the Hunley's mercury depth gauge worked. If it's still in there, scientists may know by year's end.
     The prize in this iron treasure chest, however, is the gold coin carried by sub commander Lt. George Dixon.
     Dixon's sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, gave him the $20 gold piece when he went off to war. At Shiloh, a Yankee Minie ball meant for him struck the coin in his pocket. It bent into a bell shape, and probably saved his leg - if not his life.
     Legend has it Dixon carried that coin everywhere. Even to his death.
    
Plan of attack
     Before archaeologists can unlock the mysteries of the Hunley, they must first figure how to, well, unlock the Hunley.
     This could take months. One does not spend millions to find a one-of-a-kind relic, a hand-cranked treasure that just happens to be the first submarine to sink an enemy warship, then take a can opener to it.
     Once the submarine is in its 55-foot-long, 10-foot deep holding tank, Mardikian will begin to X-ray the submarine. While archaeologists closely study the Hunley's hull, Mardikian hopes to get a few clues to coming attractions inside the submarine. But he'll also be looking for a way in.
     "We have to figure out how to get into it with the least amount of harm," Neyland said. "It will be a few months until we figure out what we're going to do. It could be November before interior excavation begins."
     The conning towers, which Mardikian said he could get open, will do little good. At 16 inches wide, they're barely big enough for a fifth grader, and no way in for an excavation.
     The X-rays could show how the submarine was constructed and how to best remove one or more of the sub's side panels. Another option is to work through one of the holes in the hull - but even the biggest is no more than a couple of feet wide.
     The first peek inside may come through the three holes in the Hunley's hull. Archaeology crews may try to slip a microscopic fiber-optic camera in for an early look around.
     The Hunley's next journey, a trip through archaeology back to the 19th century, will provide many of the answers to questions about the submarine - and likely reveal more surprises. The discoveries made during the sub's recovery show there is still much to learn about Civil War-era technology.
     Today, just five years after a Clive Cussler dive team discovered the Hunley in the muck four miles off Sullivan's Island, the Friends of the Hunley have finished two-thirds of their to-the-point slogan/mission statement. They've completed the journey and celebrated the history.
     Now it's time to solve the mystery.
    
    

 


Used with permission of The Post and Courier and Charleston.Net



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