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Still many mysteries left of the tale of the sub Hunley
Betty Renfro holds up the plaque for the Old Effingham Jail to signify its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Why the Confederate submarine Hunley settled to the bottom of the water near Charleston, S.C., remains a mystery to researchers.

They have found out a lot about the ship and its crew since it was raised from 28 feet of water and nearly 3 feet of sediment off the coast of Sullivan’s Island, Hunley historian and Hunley Commission member Randall Burbage told the Historic Effingham Society on Saturday night.

“There is no smoking gun,” he said. “We haven’t figured out exactly what happened.”

The researchers have found a piece of the right hatch was broken off, and that may be a clue, Burbage said.

“There is a good possibility they could have been swept out to sea. There was a thunderstorm later that night. I believe they tried to anchor and the anchor rope broke. That with the hatch going out pulled them under water. They simply ran out of oxygen and couldn’t surface again.

“We don’t know that for sure. The scientists are real careful not to voice their opinion if they don’t know exactly what happened. I tell them I’m not a scientist. I don’t have to go by their rules. But that’s what I think happened.”

The Hunley was the first submersible ship to sink another ship in combat, having sent the USS Housatonic to the bottom as the Confederates tried to break the Union blockade around Charleston harbor that was slowly strangling the Confederacy. The crew that pulled off the feat, led by George Dixon, was the third crew to have manned the Hunley.

The Hunley had sunk twice before, once killing five sailors on its first crew and claiming all eight hands, including its builder, the second time.

The Hunley arrived from Mobile, Ala., where it had successful trial runs, by train in August 1863. The sub had been designed by H.L. Hunley, who had built two previous subs.

The sub and its volunteer crew would practice, about three or four times a week, Burbage said, sometimes going as far as seven miles offshore.

“They would come up for air so close to the blockade ships that they could hear the deckhands talking,” he said.

Most of the sentries on the Housatonic were on the left side of the ship, facing Sullivan’s Island.

“The sentries on the right side of the ship saw something approaching and as it got closer, they realized they were under attack,” Burbage said.

On Feb. 17, 1864, the Hunley slipped through the cold waters of Charleston harbor, stuck its long spar into the hull of Housatonic and left behind a 90-pound charge of block powder. As it retreated, the cord it pulled behind would ignite the torpedo and give the Hunley enough room to escape the detonation.

The charge exploded at 8:45 that night. The Housatonic sank in less than five minutes, her masts protruding from the water and her crew clinging to them. Five Union sailors drowned.

But the Hunley, though it lit its blue light to signal it was returning, never made it back to the safety of the Confederate harbor.

Finding the Hunley was no easy feat either. It wasn’t until an expedition backed by author Clive Cussler discovered the sub’s final resting place in 1996.

The Hunley was encased in concretion, organic material that had hardened around its hull. That actually helped preserve the sub from the effects of erosion.

The sub was pulled from the silt and the water on Aug. 8, 2000, but Burbage wasn’t sure it could be done as he got up that day.

“That happened to be a Monday morning. It had been an awful night,” he said. “It had poured down all night. I thought, ‘what a rotten day for such an historic event.’”

But the sun broke through that morning, and the recovery operation was on.

The other thing I realized when the sun came up that morning over Charleston harbor was no one else was at work that day. There were boats everywhere.”

When the Hunley was lifted from the water, “it was the first time it had seen sunlight in 136 years,” Burbage said.
The Hunley’s final crew consisted of an army officer — George Dixon — in command, two German light artillery soldiers and five sailors. Half the crew was not from the North American continent.

“The crew varied in ages and from various parts of the country and from all walks of life,” Burbage said.

Forensic anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution examined the remains, determining the age and size of the men. One crew member was 6-foot-2 — the Hunley’s crew compartment was 4 feet tall by 3.5 feet wide. There was no insulation either, so the cold water off Charleston — about 52 degrees this time of year, according to Burbage, was felt right through the hull.

“The ventilation was so poor and it was so damp inside, it virtually rained on the crew the whole time,” he said. “It was dark inside and with the machinery turning, it was noisy as well. “You’ve got a submarine that’s cold, they’re in the dark, they’re wet and they’re under the water. There’s a lot to fear as human beings.”

Eventually, the crew was laid to rest in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery with great fanfare on April 17, 2004. The caissons bearing the wooden caskets were part of a procession that traveled four miles to the cemetery.

“From their barracks, they could see Charleston being bombarded every night, the civilian part of town. They wanted to do something about it,” Burbage said. “They wanted to make a difference. And they made history that day.”

The Hunley Museum, with the ship ready for display, will be ready by 2013 in North Charleston at the old Charleston naval shipyard.

“The story of the Hunley is so incredible. If you had to sit down and write it, you’d be hard-pressed to do it,” Burbage said.