Hunley excavation vindicating 1902 Alexander sketch

Now with links to the Alexander drawing

Sunday, April 1, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff


     Alexander sketch:

     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 South.
     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, exist.
     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 the submarine.
     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