New facts, theories emerge after phase one of
Sunday, June 10, 2001
BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier staff
First the candle went out, the flame shrinking into its
wick until there wasn't even a notion of precious light inside the cramped
Cold condensation formed on the iron walls, and the
only sound was that of underwater currents outside, surging around the hull.
Inside it was dry, quiet, almost peaceful.
And there, it all ended for the crew of the H.L.
Nearly a year after it broke the Atlantic surface,
after six months of studying its hull and three months of excavating its
interior, the Hunley's greatest mystery stubbornly refuses to give itself up.
Why did the world's first successful attack submarine
It is a question that continues to haunt
archaeologists. There has been no smoking gun, no irrefutable fact that points
to a single end for the crew in the hours following its sinking of the USS sloop
of war Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864.
But the facts that have turned up seem initially to
point to a peaceful end for the nine men, like going to sleep in the dark.
Still, no one yet has any idea why the sub ended up in that situation on the
bottom of the ocean.
Did the Hunley submerge to avoid the rush of Yankee
ships coming to the rescue of the Housatonic's crew? Was Lt. George E. Dixon and
his crew waiting on the tide to turn?
Did the submarine become stuck on the bottom or did the
crew lose track of time in the dark and ultimately, lose consciousness?
Those questions could come in the next year, or they
may never be answered.
Actually, it's no surprise the mystery of the sinking
has not been solved yet. Since its discovery, the Hunley has been reluctant to
give up its secrets. Besides, archaeological work often takes years, as the
clues are so slight, so hidden in the muck of time that it takes months of
analysis to even understand what's there.
The Hunley is just another example that quick answers
are hard to come by in science.
"There is still a lot of exploring to do to get
the whole story," says Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley.
"There's still a lot of exciting work to go."
The ongoing investigation, though, partially obscures a
mountain of finds and discoveries about the submarine's operation that have been
mined from the encrusted, hand-cranked submarine.
A year ago, no one was really sure what the submarine
looked like. No one knew where the spar was attached, or how it worked. With
nothing to go by but contradictory historical accounts, scientists didn't even
know for sure that crew members all sat on one side.
They weren't even positive there would be nine crew
But the initial archaeological dig into the Hunley has
unearthed a treasure chest of information. The remains of the submarine's entire
crew have been recovered, its propulsion system verified.
More importantly, scientists have unearthed the
artifacts - the blue lamp, Lt. George E. Dixon's gold coin - that prove the
legends surrounding the Hunley are true.
And there have been unexpected surprises - an air
circulation system operated with a bellows, a Union soldier's identification tag
onboard - that have raised more questions about the mysterious fish-boat. Even
the shape of the submarine, as sleek and hydrodynamic as a modern missile, was
an astounding discovery.
Scientists will not continue their exploration of the
submarine until the fall. Chief archaeologist Maria Jacobsen says it's important
to study the data they collected in the three-month marathon dig before
proceeding to the bulkhead controls of the submarine. Those areas remain covered
This summer Jacobsen and the other scientists will
X-ray those areas to get an idea of what they will uncover next.
"It's important to understand all that we have
before we continue the excavation, or we're doing it blind," she says.
"This is still a work in progress. But there are so many interesting
questions we may be able to answer."
While scientists pore through the data and continue the
excavation looking for answers to the remaining questions, some appear to have
been answered by what they haven't found. For instance:
The fact that all crew members were found at their duty stations makes a
slight dent in the single-bullet theory, which contends the hole in the sub's
front conning tower was shot out by small arms fire from the Housatonic during
Under that scenario, either Dixon was shot - he looked
out the forward view ports while steering the sub - and the Hunley drifted out
of control, or water that got in the crew compartment through the hole threw off
its neutral buoyancy, causing it to sink.
If either of those events had occurred, there most
likely would have been a mad scramble to take the control from Dixon, or to get
out of the sub. Neither happened, given the placement of the bodies. And Dixon's
skull showed no obvious signs of trauma.
Scientists are still looking for the fragments of the
broken front conning tower before they say decisively whether it was shot out,
but already the theory is losing some cache among scientists.
A quick look at the evidence points to a very calm end for the crew,
perhaps death from oxygen deprivation. Anoxia, it's called.
Archaeologists have found evidence the hull was filled
with air for some time after the sinking, and that the hull breaches may have
The proof is persuasive. There are signs that the crew
compartment did not have water in it until years, even decades, after the
sinking. In water, the crew's remains would have floated, co-mingling the
remains scientists found. That didn't happen. The positioning of the remains is
consistent with crew members simply blacking out when they ran out of air.
Even more telling, archaeologists found stalactites
hanging from the interior's roof. A stalactite, an icicle-shaped deposit of
carbonite, only forms over time by dripping water. That means they can't form in
water. Scientists have theorized that the water to form those stalactites, most
only a few inches long, could have leaked in at joints or around rivets. For
those to form, the inside of the submarine would have had to be dry for several
And, so far, the archaeologists have found no proof
that the three holes in the submarine are contemporary to its sinking.
The only problem with that theory is that it doesn't
explain what caused the Hunley to be stuck on the ocean floor.
More clues will come this fall when the archaeologists
begin the second phase of the excavation. They hope to learn more about the
Hunley crew's final moments after they uncover and remove the concretion from
the submarine's ballast tank controls.
The position of the seacocks will tell what the crew
was doing when the sub sank. When archaeologists uncover the bolts to the keel
weights, they'll learn whether the men were trying to drop weight to surface.
Lasch said he is most interested in learning more about
the human story of the Hunley. He looks forward to opening the storage boxes
scientists believe are beneath the crew bench. He believes they could find
wallets, eyeglasses, photos and other mementos.
And there is this. Archaeologists have found a number
of pencils on board, something they would not have carried if there was no need
Perhaps, Lasch said, the crew kept a ship's log. A find
like that - beyond the wildest dreams of the scientists - could fill in many of
the blanks in the Hunley's story.
But even a ship's log would probably not answer the
Used with permission of The Post and Courier