The afternoon passed quickly as I became absorbed in Hunley
search results. The blast software finished its current project, and the large desktop computer I used for the DYSMAS computational modeling sat whirring softly, awaiting its next instruction. But I sat totally engrossed, reading piece after piece of the Hunley
The little handmade submarine had been constructed during the American Civil War, and on the evening of February 17, 1864, the crew of the submersible boat decided the conditions were right to attempt her mission. The Hunley
departed from near the city of Charleston, South Carolina, one of the last-standing Southern ports in the waning years of the war. She set out to try to break the Union blockade that prevented supply ships from bringing food and munitions to Charleston's battered citizens and weary troops. Her target had been the USS Housatonic
, which she destroyed with what seemed like ease to become "the first successful submarine to sink an enemy ship during time of war." This victory was the Hunley
's claim to fame, and almost the exact phrase was repeated in every reference. It was the reason she was remembered when so many earlier attempts at submarine technology had been long forgotten.
The small sub disappeared after her mission, and the relative lack of information meant that the internet was filled with countless speculative theories from professional and armchair historians. The modern public interest was resuscitated in spectacular fashion in 1995 when bestselling author Clive Cussler and his organization, the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA), announced they had found the wreck of the long-lost submarine. By 2000, a plan for raising the Hunley
and an agreement for her preservation had been formalized, and in exchange, Cussler and NUMA released the coordinates of her resting place. The US Navy would own her, as she was sunk in combat and therefore considered the spoils of war, but the submarine would be on permanent loan to the city of Charleston, South Carolina. The nonprofit group Friends of the Hunley
would be the public face of the collaborative "Hunley
Project" to enable her conservation, and they would work in partnership with the South Carolina Hunley
Commission, the Naval History and Heritage Command, and the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority. Clemson University would also be part of the collaboration, and the university's Restoration Institute would employ the archaeologists and conservators who performed the conservation and preservation of the artifact. With the paperwork finalized, the Hunley
was brought home to Charleston to see if her recovered hulk might reveal to the world why she disappeared that night so long ago.
In her custom water tank at her new home in Charleston, the archaeologists and conservationists from Clemson assembled into a team and got to work.
When the team cracked open the hull of the vessel, they discovered that the silt of the ocean floor had completely filled the interior cabin, but not until long after she sank. Based on the pattern of the layering in the sediment, they could tell that the hull had been intact when she first went down and for an extended period afterward, except for a small hole in the fore conning tower that occurred during or shortly after her sinking.
They painstakingly removed the layers of silt in blocks to allow careful mapping of the remains within. All eight men inside were found resting at their battle stations. None showed any signs of skeletal trauma. None appeared to have made any attempt to escape the vessel. There was no crowding near the exits or clambering on top of one another. There was no evidence of panicked attempts to claw out of the sunken wreckage, or even to unlock the firmly secured hatch of the rear conning tower. The pilot of the submarine had been seated directly below the first point of intrusion of the silt, the fore conning tower. The early trickles of sediment through the tower locked much of his skeleton in place before it had time to decay and crumble into the bilge. His head had tumbled from his spine before the sediment levels built to that height, but his limbs still sat poised on his small bench, ankles lightly crossed, one hand rested casually on his knee. He had slumped docilely onto his seat.
The bilge pumps were not set to pump out water, so the boat hadn't been filling slowly while the crew was conscious. Even the heavy lead weights along the keel remained firmly attached, with no efforts to turn the bolts inside the hull that would set the weights free and rocket the submarine to the surface. Furthermore, stalactites of concretion dripped from the roof of the interior. These slim, icicle-like formations can form only in gas, not in water, which means a large gas bubble remained inside the hull for a long time after she sank. It looked as if all eight men simply sat back, relaxed, and died.
People are born with the instinct to fight against their own death, to struggle with their last breath against even the most unavoidable and uncompromising ends. That universal instinct is why the Hunley
case fascinates. It would be simple to think that the crew members saw no logical option and chose to spend their last moments nobly, in peace, but it would defy human nature. Something killed these men. Something that left no trace on the boat or the bones.
This excerpt ends on page 15 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington by Ted Widmer.