A Civil War Time Capsule From the Sea

Artifacts from the South's submarine are turning fable into fact.

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In a war filled with amazing stories, the H.L. Hunley's is one of the standouts. An invention born of desperation, the Confederacy's secret weapon was the first submarine ever to sink an enemy warship. The craft was an example of tremendous creativity and engineering under tremendously difficult circumstances.

The Hunley is also one of the biggest Civil War mysteries left. Since the conflict ended in 1865, an estimated 50,000 books have been published on nearly every aspect of its politics, strategies, tactics, daily life, combat, and civilian experiences-at least a book a day for a century and a half, or one for every 10 men killed in America's most costly war. But in that avalanche of words, the complete story of the Hunley submarine has never been told.

That started to change in August 2000 when the submarine was raised from the bottom of the Atlantic near Charles ton, S.C. Since then, researchers have been pulling together the story of the Hunley's final moments from the artifacts and remains preserved inside. "It's a true time capsule, preserved intact from the Civil War," says Maria Jacobsen, the archaeologist in charge of the Hunley project run by South Carolina. "It's the entire crew, with everything they carried with them that day. It's a treasure for illuminating Civil War history and maritime archaeology."

Hunleytized. Today, that time capsule sits in a tank of near-freezing fresh water. It's not exactly on the beaten path for any of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit Charleston each year. Located on a decommissioned naval base 5 miles north of the city's famed waterfront, the Hunley can be viewed by visitors only on weekends. And yet thousands manage to find it, crowding the walkway above the tank to stare down at its debris-encrusted hull. "When you stand over that tank and look at her, she speaks to you," says Glenn McConnell, a South Carolina state legislator and the head of the Friends of the Hunley nonprofit. "We like to say that's when you've been 'Hunleytized.'"

This isn't the first time the people of Charleston have been Hunleytized. When the sub arrived on a railcar in 1864, rumors of the new secret weapon flew through the besieged city like wildfire. Three years into the war, the Confederacy's situation was dire. Economically reliant on cotton exports and imported manufactured goods, the South depended on its ports. From the war's first days, the Union targeted Southern cities such as Charleston and Savannah with naval blockades dedicated to starving the rebel states out of resistance. With these ports hemmed in by Union warships, trade was impossible. The Southern populace was struggling just to stay alive, let alone wage war.

Into these desperate straits waded Horace Lawson Hunley, a New Orleans inventor and investor. Hunley and his partners saw lifting the blockades as a combination of patriotic duty and business opportunity. With the Confederacy offering bounties for each Union ship sunk, Hunley and his partners decided a submarine could bring in big bucks. A prototype was tested in 1862 near New Orleans; a more advanced machine called the American Diver was launched in January 1863 near Mobile, Ala., but it soon sunk during a storm.

Hunley's team quickly applied the lessons learned from the first two subs-hand-cranked propulsion worked better than a steam engine, for example-to the construction of the Hunley, finishing it in July 1863. After a quick test in Mobile, it was shipped north to Charleston. The city's military commander, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, skeptically referred to it as "the fish torpedo boat." Once thought to be a converted steam boiler, the sub was actually quite sophisticated. Nearly 40 feet long but just 4 feet high, it had 10 sealed portholes, two narrow hatches, and a smooth, flat, streamlined shape that resembles a World War II-era German U-Boat. It used a snorkel system for piping air into the vessel, possibly using bellows for pumping. With seven men cranking a propeller shaft, the Hunley could cruise at 3 knots, or 3.5 miles per hour. The craft's commander sat in front, steering with a primitive joystick. Water tanks at either end could be filled and emptied with hand pumps to move the ship up and down. Even the exterior rivets were ground down to make the sub's skin smooth as a fish's scales. "It represents a quantum leap to the modern 20th-century submarine," McConnell says.