by J. A. Hitchcock
She’s smaller than originally thought, and her bow is curved, not square. These are among the first mysteries solved by the raising of the Civil War submarine H. L. Hunley after 136 years on the bottom of Charleston Harbor. To commemorate the occasion, maritime artist Marek Sarba depicts her final departure, with Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard among the observers. Sarba has produced a limited-edition print of this spectacular painting, the sales of which will benefit the efforts to preserve the Hunley.
Dateline: 17 February 1864, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, 2000-The USS Housatonic rests at anchor, her bow facing west by northwest toward Fort Sumter. Those on deck keep watch for a newfangled contraption that could travel underwater. The night is clear and moonlit, the seas calm. Suddenly, at 2045, Officer of the Deck John Crosby spots an anomaly in the water, “what looked to be a porpoise coming to the surface to blow.”
But it is not a porpoise, it is the H. L. Hunley. Even as bullets ricochet off the hull of this iron fish, she moves forward quickly-straight for the Housatonic.
Minutes later, an explosion rocks the Housatonic, and she begins to sink fast. Men clamber over the side, into the water and into launches that have been cleared from the ship. One is sent to the nearby Canandaigua to summon assistance.
Later, Federal Seaman Robert Fleming testifies: “When the Canandaigua got astern, and was lying athwart of the Housatonic, about four ship lengths off, while I was in the fore rigging, I saw a blue light on the water just ahead of the Canandaigua, and on the starboard quarter of the Housatonic.” This was the pre-arranged signal the submarine’s crewmen were to give to let those on shore know she was safe.
But the Hunley never made it back to port.
6 August 2000, Conservation Laboratory, Charleston, South Carolina
Underwater explorer and best-selling author Clive Cussler and his companions stand in front of what looks like just another nondescript warehouse at the old Charleston Naval Shipyard. They are met outside by Paul Mardikian, Senior Conservator, and Dr. Robert Neyland, Project Manager. This is the lab where the Hunley will be brought for conservation and restoration.
As they are led inside and up a flight of metal stairs painted yellow, they face a large, green holding tank-the future home of the Hunley, possibly for the next ten years.
Mardikian patiently explains what will happen after the Hunley arrives at the lab:
The first step is to fill the tank with chilly water, once the submarine is put in. When everything inside the submarine has been excavated [estimated time 6-12 months], remains and artifacts will be properly stored, then conservation of the sub itself begins. As it’s made entirely out of iron, we have concretions on the outside to deal with, possibly some rust, maybe some organic creatures, which makes it a very complex project, and can take anywhere from five to ten years, and that’s a general timeline. You cannot reverse 136 years of corrosion quickly.I’ve worked on the Titanic, the Alabama, and ancient shipwrecks, and I can tell you it is very rare to have a complete shipwreck with no oxygen, like the Hunley. Once we get inside the submarine, we will be able to tell how much, if any, oxygen has been in there and if it affected any of the artifacts. So we need to be ready for every option. There is no room for guessing at this point if there are any significant remains of the crew, if there is any organic material, like textiles. Some people will say everything will be gone, but we just don’t know.
The group is led to a computer work station, waterproofed because of its proximity to the tank. A program on the computer allows the scientists and archaeologists to monitor everything involved with the tank, including the rate of oxygen, conductivity of the water, and Ph levels. Each of the three water tanks outside the building can be opened or closed, or the computer can regulate water moving in and out of the inside tank.
A refrigerated morgue on the ground level has nine steel trays, each the length of a human body, waiting for whatever is found inside the submarine. Another computer is set up just outside the morgue, connected to a large X-ray machine that will be used not only for any human remains found, but also on various parts of the submarine. The spar, which held the explosive that destroyed the Housatonic, still was attached to the bottom of the bow of the Hunley. It had to be removed for proper recovery of the submarine and was one of the first artifacts brought to the lab. Mardikian shows the group an X-ray of the spar, pointing out the layer of concretion on the outside and how the computer software can show the spar without the concretion, which will help them during restoration. “We’ve found in ancient shipwrecks that iron disappears, but the concretions become like molds. So some parts of the spar might be completely empty, even though the corrosion rate is not very high,” Mardikian explains.
The group walks upstairs to the offices and stops in front of a model of the Hunley, strapped into a metal truss and covered with what looks like yellow pillows. Neyland steps forward and points at the model.
We went through a number of ideas to raise the submarine when we began planning this three years ago. We looked at a coffer dam, which would have been very expensive. We looked at going down and scooping up the whole wreck in a great big clamshell, but found the soil around the Hunley wouldn’t support that. Finally, we looked at a space frame, what we call a truss. Then we figured that the Hunley, filled with sand, weighs about 30 tons. So if we just put the truss down, then transferred the weight of the Hunley to the truss, it would have sunk into the mud. So we came up with a method that was used in the Gulf of Mexico, these great big suction piles, which are essentially inverted cans that go in the bottom, then pump out the water so they suck down. These acted as an excellent stable foundation, 18 feet in diameter, 12 feet high and weigh about 45 tons.We originally thought we could put a couple of slings here and there [on each end of the sub], but last year we looked at the rivets on the sub and found they were highly corroded. In fact, one of the rivets just punched right through. If we took the sediment away, the sub could basically unzip and come apart. So we found we had to leave it in the sediment, then replace the sediment gradually, one sling at a time, until we had all the slings on board.
“You didn’t take my suggestion to wrap it all in duct tape,” Cussler says dryly, and everyone laughs. Neyland continues:
We found three holes in the hull, the first in the conning tower, which may have been from gun shots or small arms’ fire. We found the second on the starboard side, up by the bow and a hole back in the stern area. So we attached bags to the slings and injected them with hard foam around the hull to protect it. We looked at using hard rubber, but some folks at a division of Dow Chemical said they had this foam, although they’d never used it under water. We took it to a facility in Louisiana that has a 30-foot tank and tested it. It’s incredible stuff. After this is over, it’s possible the Navy will begin using it-they’ve been looking for something like this for years for salvage. As the foam was injected in, the water in the bags ejected through the seams.
Later, Cussler relates, “I think what I like best about the lab is that they’re going to make it a world-class lab, not just for the Hunley. So many times you bring up artifacts and there’s no way to conserve them, so you throw them back. Now they can have all sorts of artifacts coming in from all over the United States to be conserved.”
8 August 2000, Charleston Harbor, 0430
The Land Rover speeds into a dirt parking lot and Clive Cussler climbs out. It is still pitch dark. Cheerfully, he walks toward the dock, where a charter boat waits for him and the media. He is to spend the day on the press boat. Wearing a NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) t-shirt and hat, Cussler and his companions climb to the second deck and settle in. None of the media takes notice. This amuses Cussler to a degree; he could go just about anywhere unnoticed, but today of all days, surely someone will know who he is and why he is there.
A little bit after 0500, the boat heads out, passing the aircraft carrier Yorktown (CVS-10) and Fort Sumter. Lights twinkle in the distance and as the boat gets closer, the platform of the Karlissa-B comes into view. A 51.7-meter by 24.4-meter, six-leg barge, equipped with DeLong jacks and a 318-metric-ton Manitowoc platform ringer crane, the Karlissa-B will be bringing up the Hunley later in the morning.
As the press boat floats into place near the Karlissa-B, Cussler watches the scene with tired but excited eyes. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would see the Hunley raised in his lifetime. Yet in five short years, after his NUMA team discovered the submarine on 3 May 1995, the dream was now becoming a reality.
8 August 2000, Charleston Harbor, 0830
The water around the Karlissa-B, the recovery barge, and the press boat swarm with vessels of all descriptions, hundreds of them, some circling the area, others waiting patiently. The Hunley should have been raised a half-hour earlier, but strong winds forced the recovery team to bring in a large barge to settle the area.
At 0839, the Hunley breaks the surface of the water. It is still silent. As the Hunley is lowered gently to the recovery barge, boat horns toot and blast. People cheer wildly. Cannon are fired from shore in celebration.
“I’m numb-just numb,” says Cussler, as his eyes watch the Hunley. “Everybody assured me this would go like clockwork, and it did!”
At that moment, it seems the media finally realize who Cussler is. He is surrounded with microphones. Says the well-known novelist:
It’s much smaller than I thought it was. Everyone thought it would be much larger. And there were so many misconceptions about what we thought the sub looked like. We thought it had a big, square bow, and it doesn’t. It actually curves. We thought it was 36-feet long, and 3 by 5 feet. It’s only 32-feet long and 3 by 4 feet. Now they’re saying the guys in it couldn’t have been more than five-foot-two. The technology at that time was incredibly advanced. This set the foundation for all future submarines. What made me keep looking for it? I was convinced it was here, and by God, it was here!
The press boat keeps pace with the recovery barge as it is towed to the conservation lab by two tugboats. Hundreds of other boats follow, horns blasting every once in a while. As they pass Fort Sumter, the fort’s flag is at half mast and cannon are fired. They pass Fort Moultrie, and men in Civil War uniform render a 21-gun salute. They pass the Yorktown, and military men and women stand at attention. Church bells begin ringing on shore, one after another.
After 136 years, the Hunley and her crew of nine finally have come home.