Thousands welcome Confederate sub home
Wednesday, August 9, 2000
By SCHUYLER KROPF
Of The Post and Courier staff
Like an injured dolphin hanging in a rescue sling, the submarine
H.L. Hunley rose safely from the sea Tuesday and returned to Charleston, escorted by an
armada of boats eager to accompany the long-lost Confederate sub home.
"It's a treasure, and we got it all," proclaimed
National Park Service diver Dr. Dave Conlin. "It's a piece of world history. It's the
granddaddy of all submarines."
"I'm numb - just numb," added author Clive Cussler.
"Everybody assured me that this thing would go like clockwork, and it did."
The Hunley broke the ocean's surface at 8:39 a.m. after a tense,
one-minute pause when it hung suspended in its lift cables, barely 10 feet off the bottom.
But after the crane operator got the final "OK go," up
it came, marking the successful recovery of the world's first attack sub - a vessel so
daring it helped render wooden navies obsolete.
"What an emotional day. I can't describe how I feel,"
said Paul Mardikian, the French archaeologist who will treat and restore the sub and its
artifacts for the next seven years.
"If I don't cry today, it's incredible," he said.
With a national audience watching on TV and thousands of South
Carolinians following from shore, the recovery closed a story five years in the making.
In May 1995, a dive team funded by Cussler said it found the sub,
solving the first riddle of the elusive stealth weapon. Since then, it has become an
object of worship by both Confederate faithful and maritime historians.
What those lucky enough to get a glimpse of the Hunley on Tuesday
saw was something resembling a giant cigar encrusted in a thick coating of corrosion and
It's also covered by a new layer of 4-month-old barnacles, just
like what anyone would see at low tide growing on a pier. If you touch it, you'd risk
razor-cutting a finger.
Still, scientists ooed and awwed.
Almost immediately, they started picking out the multiple design
features they couldn't fully see underwater but will study for decades.
There's a conning tower porthole they didn't know about. The bow
slopes like an icebreaker, and at a cramped 42 feet long, the idea that nine men could fit
inside the Hunley looks downright impossible.
"We did it! We did it!" exclaimed Warren Lasch,
chairman of Friends of the Hunley, as the sub surfaced.
"Oh my gosh," said Hunley Commission Chairman Glenn
McConnell, who went nearly speechless. "Look at that fin. Look at that incredible
"It's almost a contradiction to have a beautiful vessel like
that also be a coffin," Lasch said.
Researchers believe nine men, including skipper Lt. George Dixon,
have been entombed inside ever since the night of Feb. 17, 1864, when the Hunley left the
north end of Sullivan's Island on a seek-and-destroy mission against Union blockade ships.
The Hunley men found, rammed and sank the USS Housatonic four miles off shore. But the
Hunley never returned, her nine sailors presumably drowned. This was its third and final
crew; 22 men in all were killed in the sub.
Now, with the sub finally back on dry land, teams can begin the
painstaking process of solving the mysteries of the sub's last night.
One key aid could be found inside the sub's cramped quarters:
Forensics experts expect to find the crews' remains nearly at their exact rowing stations
but buried in the layer of silt that collected inside.
"The oxygen went down very quickly because of the
decomposition of the bodies," Mardikian said. "I am very confident we may find a
lot of artifacts."
But the real story Tuesday was the recovery from beneath 28 feet
of swirling ocean. There was no countdown. No "3-2-1." Just a lift ... followed
by honking horns and cheers as it was shown off, hanging 15 feet over the ocean.
Once out of the water, the sub was moved by crane to a bobbing
barge where engineers discovered they'd have, at most, 28 seconds of calm water between
swells. It was planted with perfection.
"Those fellas will not spend another night in the Atlantic
Ocean," state Sen. McConnell said as he regained his voice.
The sub, still locked in its lift truss, rested on its side at
the same 45-degree angle in which it was found. To keep it protected from the atmosphere,
the Hunley was continually wetted by spray - from a set of ordinary garden sprinklers.
Moments later, the barge was tied to a tow barge and pointed
toward shore as police and more than 300 pleasure boats followed alongside. Some flew
giant Confederate battle flags.
Though Tuesday was a celebration of recovery, it quickly took on
a carnival flair. Boats and crowds welcomed the sub in as it crossed into Charleston
Harbor near Fort Moultrie.
John Tucker, the Park Service's chief ranger for Fort Sumter
National Monument, estimated about 5,000 witnessed the Hunley passing by the fort.
"This day shows that the Southern spirit is alive and well
in Charleston," added native Virginian and Mount Pleasant resident Travis Wolfe.
"It's a positive day for the South. I'm glad to be a Southerner, and I think the
people who aren't wished they were."
Off-duty Marine Sgt. Calvin Foster, a black man from Millen, Ga.,
had mixed feelings about the scene, as he waited for the Hunley with 10 fellow Marines
"I think it's a part of history - something to see and share
- but I also think we should let go of it," Foster said, noting his discomfort with
all the Confederate flags.
Spirits were much worse down the harbor at Patriot's Point. Most
of those who assembled there missed a close view of the sub despite the fact it was
advertised as a prime viewing spot. The route was either too shallow for the tug to make
or it was too wide a turn to get back to after the tug paraded the Hunley past the
Charleston Maritime Center. It never got closer than 300 yards off the aircraft carrier
"Doesn't look like much, does it?" added Johnny Roberts
"Eleven dollars for that?" said Fred Jackson, a
Charleston resident who was obviously disappointed.
Another high note came when traffic on the Cooper River bridges
came to a complete stop at noon as the Hunley passed under. Drivers abandoned their cars
to peer over the side of the bridge as the sub passed under. No one seemed to experience
road rage because of the delay.
It took three hours to make the 15-mile trip from the wreck site
to Pier Juliet at the old Charleston Naval Shipyard. Upon its arrival at about 1:20 p.m.,
the vessel was unloaded and gingerly carted to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. A
ceiling-mounted crane lowered it into the conservation tank where it will sit in a cold
It could be months before scientists find a way into the sub. But
they have plenty of time.
So far, the Hunley project has cost about $8 million in taxpayer
and private funding. That includes $5 million for the lift and $2.8 million for the
After the Hunley was placed in its tank, Lasch declared "the
Hunley has completed her long journey. Soon we'll be solving the mystery of why she didn't
come home 136 years ago."
Added McConnell: "If these men could stand here today, they
would tell you thank you for bringing them home."