Friday, February 10, 2017

On February 17th, 153 years ago, A Momentous Piece of Charleston History Disappeared into The Atlantic Ocean

Besieged Charleston
From land, the Union forces, ominously positioned on Morris Island, fired its first shots into the beating heart of downtown Charleston from a huge siege cannon nicknamed "The Swamp Angel." The pride of South Carolina was now under heavy fire. While from sea, the Union's strangle hold on Charleston Harbor was squeezing the oxygen out of the City's economy, allowing less and less blockade runners through. The Confederate forces attempting to protect the city were desperate. Choking and besieged, Charleston turned their hopes to a curious secret submersible weapon from Mobile called the H.L. Hunley. It was February of 1864.

Cove Inlet
On the 17th of February, under the command of Lt. George Dixon, the Hunley's crew of eight made their way across the footbridge on the southern end of Sullivan's Island at Cove Inlet near Fort Moultrie. From there, they hiked 2 1/2 mile's north to Breech Inlet and awaited nightfall. It was cold and it was quiet when the appointed time arrived. The moonlight sparkled on the surface of the chilly inlet waters. Dixon and the crew boarded the cylindrical iron boiler fashioned into a submarine with a 17-foot spar carrying a 135 pound torpedo filled full of explosives mounted on its bow.

Breech Inlet
With barely enough room to accommodate themselves, the eight men poured sweat over hand cranks that powered a spinning propeller while their captain manned the dive planes steering man and iron to a location four miles off Breech Inlet in the north channel of Sullivan's Island where the Federal steam sloop-of-war USS Housatonic, a powerful new vessel, carrying eleven guns of the largest caliber, was prowling the darkened blockaded waters.

A lookout aboard the Union ship, tired, cold and restless, suddenly spotted something moving in the chilly waters. Could it be floating debris? Something about the shadowy object didn't seem right. The alarm was sounded. Shots rang out and bullets ricocheted in all directions. The low profile of the submersible in the water made it impossible to direct the ship's firepower at it. Other Union sailors joined in the frantic firing of revolvers and rifles. The object continued to approach at about three knots.

With bullets bouncing off its hull, the Hunley rammed her long metal spar into the stern area, planting the torpedo into the Housatonic. The men inside the Hunley lunged forward from the impact, then quickly backed their sub out as the 150-foot attached detonation rope played out. Within seconds, the world rocked and every man, above and below, became enveloped in a concussion of destruction.

The explosion caused the Housatonic to burn for three minutes before sending it plunging to the bottom killing five sailors. The Hunley then surfaced long enough for her crew to signal their comrades on the shore of Sullivan's Island with a blue magnesium light, indicating a successful mission. The shore crew stoked their signal fires and anxiously awaited the Hunley's return. It did not. Shortly after her historic achievement, the Hunley, along with its crew, vanished into the dark, salty waters without a trace.

I am from Northeastern Ohio, and in that part of the U.S. you are far removed from the many notable places and events of the Civil War, but here in the South, in Charleston, you are in the heart of it all. It is tightly weaved into the very fabric of Charleston's identity and for visitors it is inescapable, both by land and water. The Spiritline Cruises in Charleston Harbor shuttles people back and forth on a daily basis to the place where it all started, Fort Sumter. The guides on one of the numerous historic carriage rides seen crisscrossing the historic district are dressed in Confederate gray uniforms. You can get up close and personal by physically touching the iron mortars and cannon at Fort Moultrie or White Point Gardens that were used to bombard Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.


My first exposure to the story of the Hunley was by way of a 1999 movie and then in more detail, when I moved to Charleston. Driving down Meeting Street towards the French Quarter, you pass a replica at the entrance of the Charleston Museum.

Most likely, there are quite a few people in this country who don't know the Hunley exists or its story. For those who don't, the Hunley was the first successful combat submarine. Successful, meaning the Confederate submarine accomplished its one and only mission. It didn't successfully return to port. The Hunley disappeared under the waters off of Sullivan's Island and for 136 years its fate remained a mystery.

Buried in three feet of sediment and laying on her starboard side with the bow pointing almost directly toward Sullivan's Island, the Hunley's final resting place was discovered in 1995. It was carefully and meticulously raised in 2000, still in tack, from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. There are theories as to what happened to the Hunley, but no one really knows for sure what caused its demise. Scientists have been puzzling over the remains of the Hunley since its recovery, searching for clues that will assist them with providing a feasible hypothesis.

The bow (image from Friends of the Hunley)
The stern (image from Friends of the Hunley)
You can view the Hunley and the artifacts uncovered with it at its own museum where it is displayed in a 90,000 gallon conservation tank. Museum location is the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, 1250 Supply Street (on the old Charleston Navy Base), North Charleston, South Carolina. A startling discovery was made in 2002 while researching the interior of the sub that confirmed a long held legend. For the complete story of this find and tour information go to Friends of the Hunley.

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