Disappearance of the Hunley Remains a Mystery 158 Years Later
In February 1864, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in combat, in Charleston Harbor.
The ocean holds many mysteries. In South Carolina, one of the biggest is the disappearance of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in combat. After its historic sinking of the USS Housatonic Feb. 17, 1864, the submersible ship never returned to port, and its fate remained an enigma – for more than a century.
The Hunley was built in 1863 in Mobile, Alabama and shipped by rail to Charleston to try to break the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor. Two crews were killed in training for its attack, and the dead included the sub’s namesake, builder Horace L. Hunley.
After eluding discovery for more than 130 years, the actual submarine was found in Charleston Harbor in 1995 by writer and shipwreck explorer Clive Cussler. It was raised in 2000 and is undergoing conservation at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, where it can be seen by visitors on weekends.
Mike Scafuri, senior archeologist at the Lasch Center, said that after the second accident, the Hunley was ordered to run only on the surface to avoid losing a third crew when it went out against the Housatonic. “The attack took place at night according to the U.S. Navy, around 8:45 or 9 p.m. They were seen approaching when they got close, but Housatonic didn’t have enough time to respond. So Hunley was able to sail in and detonate its torpedo, sinking Housatonic in less than 10 minutes. Hunley disappeared and was lost for 136 years.” The Lasch Center has worked on the craft’s preservation since its raising.
Scafuri said while Civil War-era surface ships could be propelled by steam engines, the Hunley, confined to running in water, even at the surface, did not have that luxury. The power to drive its propeller was provided by the muscles of the crew with a hand crank that ran the length of the craft’s interior.
“The big limitation of the H.L. Hunley submarine was that it was hand-powered,” the archeologist reiterated. “They had steam engines, but those required air. So it had to be hand powered. That means it was very slow. So they really had to work with the available currents and tides in the area to get to where they wanted to go.”
Ideas on why the sub never returned range from becoming tangled in the Housatonic’s wreckage to a broken pipe letting in water and drowning the crew. One factor that may have contributed to its loss was suggested by University of South Carolina geography professor and climatologist Cary Mock, who studied the weather logs of every ship in the harbor that night (with the notable and obvious exception of the Housatonic), in addition to other records. According to these records, “earlier that day a big cold wave came through,” he said. “What happens with these cold fronts is you get these northwest winds. And my little theory about the Confederate Navy, when they had raiders that went out, they wanted to be aided by the wind in their back.”
However, following the attack, “it got colder and it got windier,” said Mock, meaning higher waves would have been whipped up, “and the winds definitely got stronger. And even a healthy Hunley submarine would have a hard time cranking back to shore in ideal conditions,” much less the cold, windy, choppy wave-filled harbor that it had to navigate.
Scafuri explained the process of generating ideas on what may have happened to the submarine that night. “We make meaningful theories based on the evidence,” he said. “We come up with a lot of ideas, lot of hypotheses, test it against the evidence, come up with theories, and then we’ll have a number of theories on the table. And as we get more evidence, we start to pull some of those theories off the table. ‘Okay, we found this information, so this theory is less and less likely. Let’s take it off the table.’ Try and narrow down our explanation of what happened.
“What we usually tend to do is figure out what didn’t happen.”
State underwater archeologist Jim Spirek of USC’s Institute of Archeology and Anthropology also has examined the evidence, and cited a leading hypothesis. “Obviously it was lack of oxygen,” he said, explaining why that is a common conclusion. “The crew died at their spots, unlike the other previous two crews, who, as soon as the vessel sank, immediately panicked and tried to get to the hatches. So that was different.
“The last crew died peacefully, at their station. So maybe they just overestimated how much oxygen they had, and then just sort of fell asleep and then all died,” Spirek theorized, before adding the scientist’s universal caution: “At this point there’s still open for speculation on what happened.”
Spirek recently dived in Charleston Harbor to examine the wreck of the Housatonic, but sediment made the water too dark to search. On his next dive, he hopes to find more evidence of the Hunley’s fate.
“We hope we’ll find exactly where the explosion took place…perhaps even the powder room, so maybe that helps explain why it sank so quick, because maybe some of the powder went off as well. Are there any pieces of the torpedo still there as well? That would be a real spectacular find, I think, to find the actual torpedo. Or are there any missing pieces from the submarine that may help explain what happened to the crew, as well?”
Scafuri said chlorides are still being extracted from the Hunley’s hull by a chemical solution the vessel is being bathed in, and that the submarine will tell scientists when their work is finished - likely in a few more years.
But as to the question of why it never returned from the battle – that solution could take far longer to find.