The Sub Finally Rises

After 136 years, a Civil War mystery may be solved Back from the bottom: A crane lifted H.L. Hunley after 136 years on the ocean floor

By Daniel Pedersen

August 12 — On the night of Feb. 17, 1864, the Confederate Navy introduced the art of stealth technology to naval warfare. As the Union blockade of Charleston suffocated the South Carolina port, the rebels unleashed a “porpoise.” At least that’s what officers on the USS Housatonic thought they saw rippling toward them in the dark. It was a porpoise with fangs.

THE CONFEDERATE SUBMARINE H.L. Hunley, 39 feet long and hand-powered by eight sailors turning a crank, rammed its harpoonlike torpedo into the side of the 207- foot-long Housatonic, armed with cannon and 150 men. The torpedo detonated as the Hunley reversed, sending the Housatonic to the bottom in three minutes. Later that night the Hunley itself disappeared—for 131 years. “This isn’t about Yankees or Confederates. It’s about science.” — ROBERT NEYLAND The U.S. Navy's chief underwater archeologist The ghosts of the ancient submariners might have puzzled over the flotilla that escorted the Hunley home last week. Yachts and outboards flew the Stars and Stripes as often as the Confederate battle flag. The barge toting the retrieved sub itself—looking like a giant cucumber covered in mud and barnacles—bore only a white banner., it said, touting the Web site for the sophisticated 10-year conservation effort ahead. “This isn’t about Yankees or Confederates,” says Robert Neyland, the U.S. Navy’s chief underwater archeologist who headed the recovery. “It’s about science.” And it’s hard to know which to marvel at more—the 19th-century engineering that created the world’s first submarine to sink an enemy vessel, or the 21st-century skill that lifted it to a state-of-the-art lab on the outskirts of Charleston last week. Though short-lived, the Hunley—which had air for 150 minutes but usually stayed down for 25—was ahead of its time. The next sub to sink a ship in battle didn’t appear until 1914, a Hunley-influenced German design. But despite repeated efforts to find the Confederate craft, the Hunley remained missing until 1995, when a team hired by novelist Clive Cussler (“Raise the Titanic!”) located the sub under three feet of silt and 30 feet of water at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Cussler had poured $130,000 of book-royalty money into four search efforts over 15 years. Then he kicked in an additional $50,000 for the lift. “My wife and my accountant think I belong in a rubber room,” he told NEWSWEEK. The Hunley found other powerful friends. The federal government anted up $2.2 million and South Carolina $4 million to save an icon. The remaining $10 million is being raised privately. As maritime wrecks go, the Hunley looks pristine enough not to be called one. When divers lifted the encrusted torpedo spar from the hull last month, the nut holding it still worked well enough to be removed with a wrench. That’s just one mark of rare preservation by sea and circumstance. Archeologists think the interior will be in even better shape, thanks to a current-induced influx of silt and sand. After more X-rays pinpoint the safest way to open the sub, six months of digging and sifting will begin. Conservation will take longer. The Hunley will need to sit in an electrolysis bath for seven years to prevent corrosion before it’s ready for museum display. Will the state of the Hunley’s crew rival the Danish bog people or the Iceman of the Alps? Probably not. But scientists hope to find much more than the usual shoe sole and bone fragments: letters, instruments, photographs, tools, maybe even hair and skin. Frenchman Paul Mardikian, the project’s chief conservator, thinks the sailors still may be sitting at their posts inside the sub’s confines, their skeletons held intact by heavy winter uniforms. Two abiding mysteries may be solved when the scientists finish—just how the Hunley worked, and why it sank right after its moment of glory. © 2000 Newsweek, Inc.

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