H.L. Hunley conservation scientists are preparing to finish the job started by Clive Cussler’s National Marine and Underwater Agency (NUMA) team in 1995 when years of search efforts finally rewarded them with finding the Confederate submarine off the North Carolina shore. After years of preparatory conservation work since the sub was raised in the year 2000, conservators are slowly piecing together the mysteries and secrets of what really happened one historic night in 1864, during the Civil War. Senior conservation specialist at the lab in North Charleston, S.C., Paul Mardikian said their team will eagerly seek out and painstakingly analyze every possible clue to unravel the riddle of the history making submarine’s sinking.
Most people in the general populace do not necessarily associate the Civil War era with underwater military technology. However, submarine technology goes back as far as the late 1500s. Nonetheless, the H.L. Hunley was the first submarine to be successfully deployed in war and sink an enemy ship. The 40-foot hand-cranked submersible carried an eight-man crew but neither the sub nor the men made it back to shore alive. Their mission was to break through the Union blockade that was slowly suffocating the Confederate war efforts. The Hunley went down shortly after sinking the USS Housatonic near Charleston in February 1864. The sub and its secrets disappeared that night without a trace until the NUMA crew’s diligent efforts uncovered its location in May 1995.
Although raised to the surface in 2000 and brought to a conservation lab in North Charleston specially dedicated to its preservation, it has taken 15 years to remove the silt, sand and stabilize the remnant of the Hunley so that the “concretion” or the solid mass of sediment, sand and rust encrusted around the hull can be removed and give conservators their first look at the actual surface of the submarine and the clues it can reveal about its fate. The crew remains were given a proper burial by a bipartisan contingent of Confederate and Union uniformed men who carried the coffin’s in a funeral procession from the Battery to Magnolia Cemetery. Mardikian is clearly excited about the next phase of the project comparing it to waiting for 15 years to open a Christmas present and the team is as eager to unwrap their gift as a child is on Christmas morning.
In May 2014, conservation scientists applied a sodium hydroxide solution to loosen the concretion. Once it had a chance to do its work, the team began slowly chipping away the encrustation with dental tools and miniature air-powered chisels. They have uncovered approximately 70 percent of the Hunley’s hull at this point with high hopes for important clues to come in the next several weeks in the remaining areas that they consider “forensic hot spots.”
Clemson University conservators have already discovered a possible foundry mark, a stamped metal surface reading, “C N.” Investigators are looking to confirm the stamp’s meaning. Mardikian said the sub is like an encrypted message and although they have found some interesting hints that point to solutions about the Hunley’s mysterious past, it is too early to release any details. He did, however, reveal that an examination of the 16-foot black powder-tipped spar indicates that its explosion is likely what sunk the Housatonic but that the shockwave of the explosion may have knocked the Confederate crew unconscious, leaving no one to crank the sub back to shore. Other theories include the submarine’s crew running out of air or that an open hatch spelled their doom. As the rediscovery of the H.L. Hunley proceeds, conservators intend to keep at it until the famed submarine divulges all its secrets.
By Tamara Christine Van Hooser