The HL Hunley, the first submarine in history to sink an enemy battleship, did so 150 years ago today. The Confederate sub set sail out of South Carolina towards its target, the Union ship Housatonic. The sub and its crew of eight never returned, sparking a mystery that continues to baffle scientists, who believe that the true reason why the Hunley sank could be discovered soon.
The Hunley was a 40-foot-long ship built in Mobile, Ala. and described as “curious” looking. It depended upon a crew of men to hand-turn the crank that powered the lone propeller. Its dive time was short due to concerns that the crew would not have adequate oxygen. It was also difficult for the captain to be fully aware of the ship’s movements.
The submarine set out on its mission on Feb. 17, 1864, during the Civil War, as part of a Confederate effort to break a blockade that was having dire effects on Charleston. The sub ignited a black powder charge that was located at the end of a 200-pound spar, sinking the Housatonic and killing several crew members, before it too sunk.
The sunken submarine was discovered in 1995 just off the coast of Charleston in Charleston Harbor. Thousands gathered five years later, in August of 2000, to watch the raising of the sub. The HL Hunley was then brought to a lab in North Charleston, where scientist began their quest to discover the secrets that the Hunley held. Amidst the sand and silt that filled the interior of the submarine, scientists first recovered buttons from the uniforms worn by the crew. An even more remarkable find was a $20 U.S. gold coin which saved the life of the commander of the Hunley, Lt. George Dixon, by deflecting a bullet during the Battle of Shiloh. Dixon had been given the coin, inscribed with the words “Shiloh April 6, 1862 My life Preserver” by his girlfriend.
With further study, it was also discovered that instead of the nine crewmen who had been thought to be on board the HL Hunley when it sank, there had been only eight. The crewmen’s remains were discovered in their position at the hand crank. Scientists also were not able to detect any sign that the crew had attempted to escape the sub through its hatches, a finding that led to greater speculation surrounding the reason the ship had sunk; a mystery that will hopefully be solved soon.
The crew that died on the Hunley were the submarine’s third crew. The first two crews were killed in accidents before the submarine was even launched on its mission to sink the Housatonic.
One crew member who has been identified by DNA testing, Joseph Ridgaway, enlisted in the Confederate Navy in 1862. His reported duties included the operation of the seventh crank, the seacock, and the aft pump, as well as the closing of the aft hatch. His remains were discovered along with a pipe, which suggests that he had been a smoker. Around his neck he wore a Union soldier’s ID tag reading “Ezra Chamberlin.”
Scientists have discovered that the spar showed signs of damage which were consistent with an explosion. If the Hunley was located less than twenty feet away from the Housatonic as scientists now believe, the crew of the submarine could have been knocked unconscious when the explosion occurred and perhaps expired without ever awakening.
It appears as though the reason for the sinking of the Hunley may be close to being finally determined. A group of scientists, researchers, and federal and state agencies named The Hunley Project, are using a chemical bath this year in order to remove the last layer of sediment from the sub’s exterior and from within its interior. Doing so would give researchers a never-before-seen glimpse of the actual exterior of the sub to perhaps help them determine the true reason for its demise.
To commemorate the loss of the Hunley’s crew as well as the five Union sailors who died aboard the Housatonic, a memorial service was held on Monday evening at an inlet northeast of Charleston. The HL Hunley currently resides at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where visitors can view it within its 90,000-gallon tank while scientists continue their quest to soon discover the true reason for the sinking of the ship.
By Jennifer Pfalz