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Scientists Prepare to Open Civil War Sub

Scientists began excavating the inside of the U.S. Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley Monday. A team led by Robert Neyland raised the submarine from 27 feet (8 meters) of water off the coast of Sullivans Island, South Carolina in August.

Experts believe the remains of the nine-man crew may be inside the submarine. They also hope that the excavation of the submarine will resolve the mystery of what caused it to sink.

The Hunley

After raising the Civil War sub Hunley, more delicate work faces scientists as they seek for a way to open and excavate the submarine treasure.

According to Hunley project coordinators, the excavation process will be broken down into three stages. Through an existing hole in the upper starboard side of the sub, scientists will peer into the interior of the submarine to study the condition of the hull plates, ballast tank, backing plates, and rivets. They will also search for the location of ship machinery such as propeller shaft and steering controls.

The removal of the sub’s plates and the sediment inside will be the next stage as planned by excavation project scientists. Scientists hope this excavation and review may reveal how the Hunley’s iron plates are fastened and how the sediment entered the sub.


Ahead of its time in design, the Hunley’s hull was made from a cylindrical iron boiler. Eight men powered it manually by cranking a direct-drive shaft extending along the length of the vessel.

“The Hunley is the largest, most complex [iron composite] artifact ever recovered,” said Neyland, Hunley recovery project manager, when the sub was recovered.

“This is one great step for underwater archaeology.” Neyland calls the revolutionary vessel “a national treasure” comparable to the Wright brothers’ flying machine. Archaeologist and conservators hail the recovery of the Hunley as an innovative and impressive archaeological endeavor.

Experts are learning more about how cramped the sub was the night of February 17, 1864, when it attacked and sank the Union blockader, the U.S.S. Housatonic, with a harpoon armed with a blackpowder charge. But there was no celebration. The Hunley promptly turned around, signaled its success to shore, and then disappeared.

The sub lay in its watery grave, undetected, until May, 1995, when a team funded by author Clive Cussler discovered the 40-foot-long (12-meter) hull intact. The Hunley was buried at a 45-degree angle under a layer of silt.


Divers, archaeologists, and engineers worked double shifts during the home stretch of the project, which is a culmination of a five-year mission driven by Cussler.

Divers placed 32 slings around the Hunley, stretching from bow to stern, which supported the sub’s 65,000 pounds (29,484 kilograms) of sand-and-water-filled weight. The loop straps attached to a steel frame cradled the sub while a crane lifted the unit to the surface. As added protection, divers cushioned the hull with a bed of inflated foam pillows.

A water tank in a lab in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, in old Charleston Naval Shipyard, houses the Hunley, and is specially designed to slow the deterioration of the submarine. In addition, to prevent further corrosion, artifacts from the submarine will be placed in an electrolysis tank for several years.

Conservators plan to remove the encrustation that covers all but the sub’s glass view ports. Experts say that sifting through the silt, artifacts, and debris inside will be a lengthy and meticulous process, expected to take seven to ten years. After the painstaking conservation and preservation process, archaeologists hope to learn more clues as to how the Civil War treasure sank.


Experts believe that the nine crew members and their possessions may still remain inside the vessel in a semi-preserved state.

The names of the crew of the Confederate submariners who died in the Hunley are known. If their remains are found, they will be interred at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston with Confederate military honors.

Tremendous care is being taken by the project team to ensure proper burial of the crew. “We will treat the remains with utmost respect, dignity, and honor,” Neyland said.


The Hunley recovery project, which started in August “has been a great success,” said Neyland.

The National Park Service, the state of South Carolina, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, Naval Historic Center, Friends of the Hunley, the National Underwater Marine Agency, and the National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council supported the raising of the Hunley. Under agreement between state and federal agencies, the Hunley will remain in South Carolina.

“The National Geographic Society is tremendously excited to be a part of this historic project,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s senior vice president for Mission Programs, who was present at the recovery. “A major grant from our Expeditions Council will help the world finally learn the secrets that have rested within the Hunley for 137 years. We expect National Geographic to bring that story to the world as soon as possible.”

More Information
Submarine Development Timeline:
  • The idea of a submarine was first proposed by English scientist William Bourne in 1578.
  • In 1776, during the American Revolution, the Turtle, built by American inventor David Bushnell, became the first sub used in combat.
  • The Hunley became the first sub to sink an enemy warship, the U.S.S. Housatonic, in 1864.
  • In 1898, Irish-American inventor John Holland developed the first modern submarine with an efficient power source.


  • The Civil War was fought between the southern Confederacy and the northern Union from April 1861 to April 1865.
  • The Hunley is the first submarine to have been used successfully in warfare. It sank the Housatonic on February 17, 1864. It was not until World War I that a submarine was to sink another warship.
  • The Hunley’s 22-foot (6.7-meter) spar that rammed the Housatonic held 135 pounds (61 kilograms) of explosives.
  • The 12-gun Housatonic was 207 feet (63 meters) long and 38 feet (12 meters) wide. It carried 155 crewmen, five of whom died when the Hunley rammed its blackpowder charge home.
  • The Hunley has a legacy of sinking. Twenty-two men died aboard the sub in a series of sinkings during the U.S. Civil War. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard concluded: “It is more dangerous to those who use it than to the enemy.”
  • The fate of the Hunley and its nine volunteer crewmen remained a mystery for more than 131 years until author Clive Cussler and his divers discovered the sub in May 1995.