Single bullet theory surfaces

HUNLEY'S FATE: Sen. Glenn McConnell says some evidence suggests a lone Yankee bullet may have led to the submarine's sinking.

Friday, September 15, 2000

Of The Post and Courier staff


     A single Yankee bullet to the Hunley's front conning tower may have set off a chain of events that slowly sent the Confederate submarine to the bottom of the Atlantic 136 years ago.
     Since the Hunley was raised last month, that is the prevailing theory  that's risen with it, according to state Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission.
     "Right now, the evidence - if you blend scientific fact with historical facts - makes it a plausible theory. It just fits as the culprit," McConnell said Thursday.
     In talks up and down the Eastern Seaboard in recent weeks, McConnell has entranced audiences with new details about the Confederate submarine - the first submersible to ever sink an enemy vessel - and its mysterious disappearance.
     Although scientists have barely begun to study the sub, a clearer picture of it is emerging. And, sitting in clear water and laboratory conditions at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, the Hunley is slowly beginning to discount some old theories and revealing evidence that points to the "lucky shot" story.
     For instance:
     Scientists have found a new, and busted, porthole or eyesight on the front of the forward conning tower. It sits to the port side of the cutwater blade that arches up from the hull to the tower and - perhaps tellingly - just below a 4-by-6-inch hole in the sub.
     Previously, experts thought the Hunley sailed blind unless someone was looking through an open hatch. That forward porthole, illuminated with candlelight from the sub's interior, would have served as a bull's-eye for Union soldiers on the Housatonic.
     The damage to the conning tower is unlikely to have come from a collision because the hatch just above the hole appears undamaged, McConnell says. A bullet, however, would likely have shattered the cast-iron conning tower. It appears, McConnell says, that the eye piece was shot in.
     Although covered with layers of concretion - hardened sand, silt and sediments - the hull so far shows no signs that it has buckled. One theory has held that the Hunley, too close to the Housatonic when its 90-pound charge detonated in the Union Sloop of Wars arsenal, could have sunk from concussion blasts that buckled the iron plates of the hull, allowing water in.
     Another theory was that the Hunley successfully completed its mission only to sink after it was hit by the Union ship Canandaigua, coming to rescue the Housatonic's crew. The hull, however, so far shows no signs of impact with another ship.
     And, the submarine's dive planes are in the up position. McConnell says that indicates the crew was trying to surface when the Hunley went down.
     McConnell, who is out drumming up support for the Confederate submarine's excavation and restoration, is carting around a slide show and video of the submarine from its discovery through its recovery.
     He says the response to the talks have been "amazing." So far, McConnell has given his talk in North Carolina and New Jersey, and Wednesday in Bluffton to the Lowcountry Civil War Roundtable.
     The story he tells of the Hunley's final minutes are chilling.
     The Union sloop Housatonic, more than three miles off the shore of Sullivan's Island, is anchored pointing to the northwest. The Hunley's course comes up the coast, from behind the ship and slightly seaward of it.
     The submarine surfaces once, perhaps twice. General P.T. Beauregard has ordered them to attack on the surface, which makes the Hunley vulnerable to gunfire. Soldiers on the Housatonic think they see a log or a dolphin. Later some will report seeing something like a "glowing eye" - possibly the illuminated front sight.
     They open fire on it.
     The Hunley rams its charge into the Housatonic and backs away - toward the open sea, in an outgoing tide.
     Sometime during all that, at least one Yankee bullet hit the forward conning tower, and probably sub commander Lt. George Dixon. Water rushing over the Hunley's deck would have easily flowed into the submarine.
     McConnell says that people close to the project realize the submarine is so small that, if Dixon were killed, it's unlikely the crew could have moved him out of the way to get to the controls.
     "When we open the submarine, we will be able to tell if Dixon was shot in the face," McConnell says.
     McConnell cites two sources - one Union soldier hanging in the Housatonic's rigging, and a Confederate on the shore at Battery Marshall - as seeing the blue light signal from the submarine. That, he says, indicates that whatever else happened, crew members at least initially thought they could make it home.
     "But it's rough out there, and with that hole in the tower, I believe it was robbed of its positive buoyancy," he said.
     Then, even if Dixon were only wounded or the crew could get him out of the way, there would have been little they could do to keep the sub up.
     The biggest test of the theory comes when scientists open the submarine, probably sometime this fall. Scientists are working on a plan to open the sub without harming it to allow excavation.
     Until then, the archaeologists are hesitant to offer theories. But looking at the submarine in good light is bringing things into focus.
     For instance, McConnell says, the hole on the starboard side near the stern appears to be damage from an anchor. A smaller hole near the bottom of the forward section remains a mystery.
     Even though he realizes the facts might not bear it out, McConnell says this is the story that fits best, so he's sticking to it. For now.
     "She's proved us wrong before," he says. "The real mystery won't be solved until the sub is X-rayed and opened."


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


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