Civil War Sub May Have Been Downed by Unsealed Hatch

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
July 25, 2006
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.

Desperate Attack

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.

On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Hunley slipped beneath the surface of Charleston Harbor. The crew jammed an underwater torpedo into the hull of the blockade ship U.S.S. Housatonic. The torpedo exploded, and the Housatonic sank within minutes.

It was the first time a submarine had successfully downed an enemy ship.

(See photos in the National Geographic magazine feature "Secret Weapon of the Confederacy." )

But something went terribly wrong aboard the Hunley, and the submarine never emerged from the harbor.

Soon after the sinking of the Housatonic, Scafuri says, the Union Navy tried to find the Hunley by dragging ships' anchors along the bottom of the harbor.

The effort failed, but an anchor may have struck the submarine, which could explain the broken glass in the tiny hatch's porthole.

The Hunley was found in 1995 by underwater archaeologists working for author Clive Cussler.

The crew's remains were removed and buried in an elaborate ceremony in Charleston in 2004. (Read "'Last Funeral of the Civil War' to Put Hunley Crew to Rest" [April 16, 2004].)

More Mysteries

The discovery of the unsealed hatch is the first substantial clue in the 142-year-old mystery of the Hunley's sinking.

The warship had two small hatches, one at the bow and one at the stern. The rear hatch's locking mechanism was still in place, Scafuri says.

But pieces of the forward lock were found on the floor beneath the hatch, where Lt. George Dixon, the Hunley's commander, would have been stationed.

Dixon could not navigate the submarine with the lock in place, so he had to remove it at some point, Scafuri says.

"It was necessary if he wanted to look out the porthole or open the hatch and look around," Scafuri said.

Why Dixon or another crewmember didn't replace the lock is still puzzling, Scafuri adds.

It probably will be years before that riddle is solved, however. The investigators are conducting a meticulous examination of the Hunley.

"It'll be finished when it's finished," Scafuri said.

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.

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