Confederate sub at 150: Still mystery why Hunley sank along with her prey

One theory that emerged recently is that the Confederates' hand-cranked Hunley, the first sub to sink an enemy ship, got too close to the Union's Housatonic when the blast occurred.

By , Staff Writer

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    The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sits in a conservation tank in North Charleston, S.C., Jan. 12, 2012. Monday, Feb. 17 marks the 150th anniversary of the attack in which the Hunley sank the Union blockade ship Housatonic off Charleston, S.C., during the Civil War, making the Hunley the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship.
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One-hundred-fifty years after the Hunley made the South proud, the Confederate submarine remains a graceful and formidable machine, its rusted shell continuing to tell tales worthy of the greatest Southern yarn-spinners.

Desperation, military stakes, engineering knowhow, and sheer bravery all played a role in the historic moment on Feb. 17, 1864, when eight Confederate navy men cranked the Hunley up to a Union ship called the Housatonic and jammed an explosive into her side in an effort to break the chokehold Union blockade of the critical Southern port of Charleston, S.C.

Hunley’s explosive stab was the first time a military submarine ever sank an enemy ship, and it had an immediate and tragic coda: The Hunley and her eight crew also retired to the bottom of Charleston Harbor, from where it was excavated and returned to harbor in 2000 after being found in 1995.

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The return of the Hunley to land was marked with the pride of cannon fire and cheering crowds, and her treasure was immediate and fulfilling – including the discovery of a bullet-bent coin embossed with the phrase “My life preserver,” as well as buttons, bones and other belongings from the eight-man crew.

But it’s taken the ensuing fifteen years for researchers to get close to solving the mystery of why the Hunley sank after dispatching her torpedo with a long spar mounted on its prow.

The Hunley was built in Mobile, Alabama, and hauled by train to Charleston. In test runs, it had already killed several crews by the time it struck the Housatonic, but had each time been raised out of the water to try again. Crew members, lit by lantern-light, sat in a tight row – assuredly praying and sweating – as they hand-cranked a propeller while diving as deep as 50 feet.

From discovered drawings most experts thought the Hunley was a rude and rudimentary machine, so researchers were shocked at its graceful lines and the ingenuity of its engineering.

“A real surprise was that the submarine was far more technically advanced than anybody had ever thought,” the novelist Clive Cussler, who helped find the ship, told the Monitor in 2001.

Scientists say they’re still not 100 percent sure why the Hunley sank, but last year researchers announced a new theory. While the torpedo sat at the tip of a 200-foot spar, evidence shows that the Hunley may have been as few as 20 feet from the Housatonic’s hull when the blast went off. Judging by damage to the spar, researchers suggest the explosion may have knocked the crew unconscious and the boat to the bottom.

Previous theories had suggested that the Hunley’s crew ran out of air before they could return to harbor. Put to rest in 2004, the eight crew members were the last Confederates to be buried from the war.

On Monday night, military reenactors will gather at the Hunley’s launching spot, to commemorate the achievement of the pioneering sub and her brave crew.

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