Maritime relic making new waves
New discoveries reignite interest in Civil War's H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy
CHARLESTON, S.C — Only a keen eye would have been able to spot the churning waters as the tiny, cucumber-shaped submarine moved silently under Charleston Harbor the night of Feb. 17, 1864.
Inside the H.L. Hunley, nine Confederate Army soldiers crammed together in the sweaty confine, tirelessly turning hand-cranks to propel the sub at four miles an hour. In its sights: the Union Army's U.S.S. Housatonic.
The Hunley made naval history that day by becoming the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel - though none of its crew survived to celebrate.
Today, the sub lies submerged four miles offshore, covered in barnacles and jellyfish. Though it was discovered four years ago, new evidence and a TV movie airing this weekend are reigniting public interest in the maritime relic, as well as in the Civil War in general.
Indeed, there is something about this war that so stirs the American imagination that, even 134 years after the last battle was fought, it is still hotly debated and written about extensively.
Native Southerners have a quaint way of describing the last full-fledged war fought on American soil. "The Late, Recent Unpleasantness," the "War of Northern Aggression," or the "War of Rebellion" are just a few of the names sometimes heard here to describe the Civil War.
Over the Independence Day weekend, thousands of Civil War reenactors and spectators converged on Gettysburg, Pa., to participate in a simulated battle - one that military strategists say was the turning point in that conflict. Some scholars believe more than 100,000 people regularly participate in such reenactment groups around the nation.
But nowhere is the ongoing impact of the Civil War more evident than here in South Carolina's port city, where the war's first shots were fired on Fort Sumter in 1861. In 1998, almost a quarter of a million people visited the crumbling brick edifice in Charleston's harbor.
"There's a major fascination here with the Civil War ... with Charleston, where it began," says Fran Norton, with the National Park Service on Sullivans Island. "There's such a great sense of history in this area you don't find in many other places."
Not far from Fort Sumter, the Hunley remains under 30 feet of water.
Fashioned from a cylindrical iron boiler, the 40-foot sub was originally designed to attack enemy ships by dragging a torpedo towed on a rope. But loaded with 90 pounds of explosives, the torpedo proved too dangerous and unwieldy on the open sea. So the sub was refitted with a 22-foot wooden harpoon on its bow designed to be driven into the wooden hull of opposing ships, after which the Hunley would back off and detonate the charge from a distance.
On Feb. 17, 1864, an eight-man crew led by Lt. George E. Dixon cranked the Hunley into the harbor, where it rammed the Housatonic with its harpoon torpedo. As the sub backed away, a trip line detonated the warhead - prematurely, some speculate.
Accounts differ about what happened to the Hunley when the torpedo exploded, but it took on water and sank for the final time, killing all nine men aboard.
Like many stories from that era, the adventures of the Hunley's three crews are well known to historians and Civil War aficionados. On his fourth try in 1995, underwater adventurer Clive Cussler found the submarine covered by nearly four feet of silt. Now, a nonprofit organization is trying to raise $20 million to salvage it.
The Hunley story is getting a publicity boost this summer from two unlikely sources.
On Sunday, Turner Network Television will broadcast a historical drama built around the submarine and its last crew. The film stars Donald Sutherland and Armand Assante as Confederate Army officers struggling to break a naval blockade of Charleston's harbor.
Much of the movie was filmed in and around Charleston because of the city's authentic architecture and ambiance, ranging from downtown scenes to some in outlying rural settings where tourists can find restored plantations.
"People want to hear about a war between the states," says Bill McCauley, a horse-drawn carriage driver who gives tours of old Charleston. "Everybody expects to see something out of 'Gone With The Wind.' You can't find what we have in Atlanta or on battlefields like Gettysburg."
The other unlikely publicity boost came several weeks ago when archaeologists, historians, and Civil War reenactors uncovered a mariners' cemetery under a football stadium owned by The Citadel, the military college in Charleston. It is believed to be the location where five members of the Hunley's first crew were buried.
"There seems to be a resurgence in interest in Civil War history, and perhaps the discovery of the Hunley has something to do with that," says Skipper Condon, a Charleston restaurateur and chairman of Charleston's visitors bureau.
"When the restoration of the Hunley is complete, it will prove to be an exciting new attraction for everyone," says Mr. Condon. "And we feel sure that this will have very positive impact on the visitor's experience."
The maritime relic remains underwater as officials consider the best way to raise, preserve, and display it. So, for now, visitors will simply have to enjoy Charleston's history and charm.
Lloyd Benson, a Civil War specialist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., has a theory about America's fascination with the period: "The moonlight-and-magnolia Southern myth still holds a lot of power for people," he says. "They are Rhett and Scarlett, for a brief moment at least."