Hunley Findings Put Faces on Civil War Submarine

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
Updated April 12, 2004

The identities of the crew of the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley are coming to light just days before the men's remains are to be buried. The first submarine to sink an enemy ship, the Hunley itself sank off South Carolina in 1864, was found in 1995, and was raised in 2000.

On a cold February night in 1864, eight men squeezed through the tiny hatches of the H.L. Hunley, a strange new warship tied up at a dock in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. They crawled or duckwalked through the 4-foot-tall (1.2-meter-tall) passageway to their places on a long, low bench. Each of them sat down at a hand crank attached to the Hunley's propeller shaft.

These eight men were the living power plant for a revolutionary machine—a submarine that could attack an enemy ship from underwater. Led by Confederate Lt. George Dixon, these men would literally dive into the pages of history when the submerged Hunley attached a torpedo to the U.S.S. Housatonic and blew it up. The Union warship was helping to enforce the maritime blockade of Charleston that was slowly strangling the rebellious Confederate States of America's ability to fight the Civil War.

But the cantankerous Hunley was as dangerous to its crew as it was to the Housatonic, and not long after the Union warship sank, the submarine slipped to the bottom of the bay and never came up.

The name of the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel became the stuff of legend. With the exception of Dixon, however, the names of most of the crewmen who propelled the Hunley to glory were obscured by the mists of time.

That's now changed. After years of painstaking work, a team of archaeologists, forensic experts, and researchers at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston has dug up some interesting information—and more than a few surprises—about the submarine and the crewmen who had rested 30 feet (10 meters) below the surface of the ocean since 1864. These details were revealed on April 11 in a National Geographic Ultimate Explorer documentary produced by Simon Boyce.

Friends of the Hunley

The Hunley was found in 1995 by underwater archaeologists working for author Clive Cussler. South Carolina officials created the Hunley Commission to recover, preserve, and display the historic warship, and a private group, Friends of the Hunley, was formed to help with the project.

The submarine was raised in August 2000, and in January 2001 the investigators went to work. The team included forensic experts Doug Owsley and Sharon Long, archaeologist Maria Jacobsen, genealogist Linda Abrams, and underwater archaeologist Harry Pecorelli III.

They carefully removed the silt that had filled—and helped preserve—the Hunley, and recovered the remains of the crew. The forensic experts examined the bones and teeth for clues about the crew's identity. Long, a forensic sculptor, used the skulls to recreate faces of the men who had been lost to time.

One of the striking facts revealed by the research is that the men who went down with the Hunley reflected the complex loyalties, divisive politics, and slavery disputes that pulled the United States apart in the middle of the 19th century.

Most of the men aboard the submarine weren't from any of the 11 southern slaveholding states that made up the short-lived Confederate States of America. Four were probably from northern Europe. One was from Maryland, a slaveholding state that didn't secede from the United States when the Civil War erupted in 1861.

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