for National Geographic News
An unsealed hatch on the U.S. Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley could have been a factor in the Confederate vessel's sinking, says a team of archaeologists in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Hunley was the first submarine to successfully down an enemy ship, during an attack in Charleston Harbor in 1864. But it sank while still in the harbor, a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.
The researchers, working for the Hunley Commission, found that a locking mechanism had been removed, breaking the hatch's watertight seal. They also discovered that glass in a tiny, two-inch-wide (five-centimeter-wide) porthole in the hatch was broken.
But archaeologist Mike Scafuri says the investigators have not yet conclusively determined that this was the reason why the Hunley went down.
"It's a slow process of accumulation of information before we begin to make conclusions," Scafuri said.
Still, the leaky hatch is a possible explanation of why the Hunley took its eight-man crew to a watery grave.
The discovery "could prove to be the most important clue we have uncovered yet," said Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, in a recent prepared statement.
The Hunley Commission was formed to examine, preserve, and display the submarine, which was raised from Charleston Harbor in August 2000.
Soon after the U.S. Civil War erupted in April 1861, the Union Navy imposed a blockade of Southern ports that slowly strangled the Confederate government.
The Hunley was a desperate and ingenious effort by the breakaway states to turn the tide of the war.
The ship was built in Mobile, Alabama, and shipped by rail to Charleston. The small, cramped submarine was powered by its crew, who turned cranks that spun the submarine's propeller shaft.
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