A submarine sinks myths about the Confederacy

Lying in a tub of water on North Charleston's gritty waterfront, the CSS Hunley has given up treasure after treasure: a gold coin scratched with the words "My life preserver." A gash in the hull that indicates the Hunley became the first sub to sink a ship on Feb. 18, 1864 - only to be plowed under itself by a Union prow.

But to archaeologists, the greatest find is the Confederate submarine itself, which was lost for more than 100 years, until novelist Clive Cussler discovered its resting place in the Atlantic in 1995. It took another five years, until last August, to raise the sub.

In addition to confirming a number of historical legends, archaeologists here say the Hunley's graceful form is also an affirmation - not just of the South's fighting spirit - but of an engineering prowess not generally credited to the Rebs. As the conservation work on the Hunley continues, even hard-nosed academics accept that her sleek craftmanship is new confirmation of Confederate skill.

"For the first time, you can argue that the South is not as limited as people say it was," says Stephen Wise, the Marine Corps historian at Parris Island, S.C.. "The Hunley didn't prove to be a viable weapon, but that does not take away from her technical advancements."

Based on recollections and drawings, archaeologists thought its shape was going to be as clunky and uninspiring as the boiler plate from which it was hewn. They were wrong. Instead of a wobbly goldfish, the Hunley is more deadly barracuda.

"We found the infamous lantern that was the blue light that the Housatonic [the Union ship the Hunley sunk] could see before the blast, and we found the gold coin that was the one everybody was hoping they'd find," says Mr. Cussler. "But the other real surprise was that the submarine was far more technically advanced than anybody had ever thought."

Historians acknowledge that a long tradition of regional put-downs aimed at the Confederacy's busted muskets and faulty cannons now seem misplaced, as researchers pore over the remains of the Hunley's advanced bellows, propeller, and planing systems. The secrets that sunk with the Hunley weren't devised again until nearly 50 years later by the Germans.

In the end, of course, the gambit failed: The Hunley sank only one boat. What's more, in the process of getting it mission-ready, it lost all or parts of three crews.

Even today, some say the design of the ship may not have been Southern at all, since it contained no original patents. In contrast, an iron-clad Union ship, the Monitor, was full of patents - including parts of the 60-ton steam engine that divers pulled out of 230 feet of water off Cape Hatteras, N.C., last week.

For his part, chief archaeologist Robert Nyeland likes to call the sub an "American" treasure, pointing to the 9,000 people from all over the world who come to see it every month. When the Hunley's 10-year-conservation is over, Mr. Nyeland hopes to turn the lab into a conservation site.

Perhaps partly driven by a wish for such affirmation of their embattled heritage, Southerners are searching the hardest for sunken Civil War relics. The only college program aimed at locating and raising old wrecks is at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. Duke University researchers found the Monitor in 1973.

In addition to being more streamlined, the Hunley is also smaller than imagined. The nine crew members were forced to crouch, praying and sweating in the lanternlight, up to 50 feet below the water's surface.

After losing all or parts of two crews, a third set of volunteers, led by Lt. George Dixon, slipped away from their moorings at Sullivans Island and cranked out to the Housatonic. Under fire from above, the Hunley's men were able to stab a torpedo into the ship's plated hull - and detonate it.

After sinking the Union vessel and signaling briefly to comrades, the Hunley was lost. In the sub's belly, senior archaeologist Maria Jacobsen sifted out an object that confirms a historical legend: The buckled coin that had taken a bullet for Lieutenant Dixon two years earlier at the Battle of Shiloh.

But no uncovered amulets have excited Southerners more than the Hunley's graceful and deadly shape. "Dixie has been given a shot of confidence with the raising of the Hunley," says Jerry Baxley, a founder of the nascent Southern Party in Richmond, Va. "This boat has laid to rest an awful lot of ugly comments about the South."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A submarine sinks myths about the Confederacy
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today