More than one hundred and fifty years ago, when the U.S. was using Naval ships that looked more like the USS Constitution than the mammoth super carriers of today and the Civil War was still raging, a glimpse of the future crept along beneath the surface of Charleston Harbor.
Above the surface, the USS Housatonic set about on its usual patrol. Its responsibility was to enforce the Union blockade along the coast of South Carolina, helping to strangle the Confederacy of the supplies it required to prolong the war effort.
From his vantage point on the deck, John Crosby, the ship’s acting master, spotted something in the distance off the starboard bow. The dark silhouette first appeared to be a “porpoise, coming to the surface to blow,” but Crosby had been warned of the possibility of an attack from what he knew as the Confederate’s “infernal machine.” He quickly sounded the alert, bringing the ship’s crew to the deck and unleashing an onslaught of small arms fire on the mysterious body approaching from beneath the surface.
Beneath the havoc and the gunfire, eight men huddled together in a new invention, the submarine, and continued their approach. Four weeks earlier, the USS New Ironsides had been attacked and damaged by a semi-submersible confederate vessel, but their ship, the H.L. Hunley, was a full-fledged submarine. It was dangerous merely to operate, as thirteen men, including the ship’s inventor, had already died in training exercises, but the small ship’s captain, Confederate Lieutenant George Dixon, was undeterred. Unbeknownst to him, he and his crew were destined to join that figure of sailors lost to the depths that night, but not before changing the course of naval history.
The Housatonic’s cannons were useless as the Hunley approached almost completely below the waterline, and the rifle and shotguns being fired at it from above proved no match for the Hunley’s armor. A sixteen-foot rod protruded from the nose of the submarine with a spar torpedo mounted at its tip. It struck the Housatonic in its starboard quarter, right near its powder magazine and the ensuing explosion would send the Housatonic into the depths of the harbor: the first warship ever to be sunk by a submarine.
Most of the Housatonic’s crew managed to escape via lifeboats that night, but the fate of the Confederate sailors that set into motion an appreciation for combat submersibles that extends to the advanced global-strike nuclear submarines of today remained a mystery until its wreckage was discovered in 1995 when novelist Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency found it buried beneath the sands of the harbor.
Five years later, the wreckage was removed from the harbor and placed in a 90,000 gallon fresh water conservation tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, and four years later, the crew were exhumed from their battle stations and given a proper burial. On Wednesday, researchers from a North Charleston, South Carolina laboratory unveiled the crew compartment to the public for the first time since the Hunley set off on that historic voyage 153 years ago.
“It’s that ‘wow’ moment when you step back and realize what you’re doing,” Johanna Rivera, one of the conservators, told CNN.
Inside, the team found remnants of textiles and a thin metal wrap placed around the hand crank seven of the ship’s crew members would turn to propel the vessel beneath the waves.
“When you’re turning an iron bar in front of you, or below you, you’re going to need something to keep your hands from chafing or rubbing them raw,” archaeologist Michael Scafuri told reporters.
Although their work is shedding light into how the crew members lived as they worked inside the submarine, the mystery of why they died persists. Any number of things could have caused them to fail to make the return trip: they could have taken damage in the attack, the vessel could have malfunctioned and sank, or a mistake could have doomed the eight-man crew. A latch on the forward conning tower of the Hunley was found open upon its discovery in 1995, which could have caused the ship to sink, but it remains unclear if the latch may have come open in the century it sat on the seabed.
Work on the Hunley is expected to continue for at least another five to seven years, and the researchers involved continue to hope for a conclusive answer to the mystery of what sank the Hunely – but even if the mystery remains, the Hunley’s spot in the history books cannot be questioned: the first submarine to claim a victory in a Naval battle.
Images courtesy of the Friends of Hunley, Emerging Civil War