Submarine Sinks Myths About the Confederacy

Patrik Jonsson
The Christian Science Monitor
July 30, 2001

Lying in a tub of water on North Charleston's gritty waterfront, the CSS HL Hunley has given up treasure after treasure: a gold coin scratched with the words "My life preserver." A gash in the hull that indicates the Hunley became the first sub to sink a ship on February 18, 1864—only to be plowed under itself by a Union prow.

But to archaeologists, the greatest find is the Confederate submarine itself, which was lost for more than 100 years, until novelist Clive Cussler discovered its resting place in the Atlantic in 1995. It took another five years, until last August, to raise the sub.

In addition to confirming a number of historical legends, archaeologists say the Hunley's graceful form is also an affirmation—not just of the South's fighting spirit—but of an engineering prowess not generally credited to the Rebs. As the conservation work on the Hunley continues, even hard-nosed academics accept that her sleek craftmanship is new confirmation of Confederate skill.

"For the first time, you can argue that the South is not as limited as people say it was," says Stephen Wise, the Marine Corps historian at Parris Island, S.C. "The Hunley didn't prove to be a viable weapon, but that does not take away from her technical advancements."

Based on recollections and drawings, archaeologists thought its shape was going to be as clunky and uninspiring as the boiler plate from which it was hewn.

They were wrong. Instead of a wobbly goldfish, the Hunley is more deadly barracuda.

"We found the infamous lantern that was the blue light that the Housatonic [the Union ship the Hunley sunk] could see before the blast, and we found the gold coin that was the one everybody was hoping they'd find," says Cussler. "But the other real surprise was that the submarine was far more technically advanced than anybody had ever thought."

Historians acknowledge that a long tradition of regional put-downs aimed at the Confederacy's busted muskets and faulty cannons now seem misplaced, as researchers pore over the remains of the Hunley's advanced bellows, propeller, and planing systems. The secrets that sunk with the Hunley weren't devised again until nearly 50 years later by the Germans.

In the end, of course, the gambit failed: The Hunley sank only one boat. What's more, in the process of getting it mission-ready, it lost all or parts of three crews.

Even today, some say the design of the ship may not have been Southern at all, since it contained no original patents. In contrast, an iron-clad Union ship, the Monitor, was full of patents—including parts of the 60-ton steam engine that divers pulled out of 230 feet (70 meters) of water off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, recently.

For his part, chief archaeologist Robert Nyeland likes to call the sub an "American" treasure, pointing to the 9,000 people from all over the world who come to see it every month. When the Hunley's ten-year conservation is over, Nyeland hopes to turn the lab into a conservation site.

Continued on Next Page >>


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