Scientists slowly unravel mysteries of the Hunley


CHARLESTON, S.C. - It was just an X-ray on a computer screen, but it told a story.

There was a small button, a pocket watch and chain, a folding rule, a pocket knife and a small pair of binoculars. And in the background, the fainter image of a bone.

"You can picture Dixon in his waistcoat, with his watch and chain," Warren Lasch says. "He's got his binoculars, his rule, his pocket watch. He's at his battle station."

Dixon was Lt. George E. Dixon, commander of the CSS Hunley, a 40-foot submarine that was the South's most secret weapon during the Civil War. And the X-ray is of a block of sediment removed from inside the sub, which vanished mysteriously in 1864 and was raised in August 2000 after it was located in 28 feet of water seven years ago.

The sub is now being studied and conserved at a remarkable state-of-the-art facility in Charleston. Inside that block of muck are the remains of Dixon and the items the captain of a ship would have carried with him, encased as if in a time capsule, untouched for nearly 140 years.

'A story of technology'

"The story of the Hunley was not the Civil War, not slavery, not states rights," says Lasch, the chairman of Friends of the Hunley, a nonprofit organization set up by the South Carolina legislature to oversee the recovery and preservation of the sub. "It's a story of courage, the bravery of the crewmen. It's a story of technology. This was a highly tested and developed piece of machinery. These things transcend generations and causes."

Working in a 46,000-square-foot building - Building 255 on the now largely abandoned Charleston Naval Base - a team of scientists has employed underwater archaeology, genealogy, forensic science, metallurgy, textile conservation and historical research to slowly piece together that story, seeking answers to questions more than a century old, including the big one. "We still don't know why it sank, but we will, in a year, maybe two," Lasch says.

Much already known

Much is already known about the Hunley, an engineering marvel that was built from a cast-iron boiler. It was powered by a hand crank that ran its length, with seven cranking stations for crewmen who sat on a bench.

There were two snorkels to bring in air (though they apparently never worked as well as planned), viewing ports to let in light, keel weights that the crew could detach to help bring the ship to the surface, a depth gauge, a compass (even calibrated to take into account the ship's iron hull) and controls for the captain to use to maneuver the dive-plane levers and the rudder. And the sub once stayed submerged for 2 1/2 hours in a test dive.

The Hunley, financed by and named after New Orleans businessman Horace Lawson Hunley, had a troubled history. It sank at dockside in August 1863, killing five crewmen. Refloated and cleaned, it sank again during an October training mission, drowning eight more men, including Hunley himself. It was once again salvaged and refitted, and put under the command of Dixon.

Attacking Housatonic

On the night it disappeared - a cold, clear February night in 1864 - the Hunley was on a mission targeting the Housatonic, a Union frigate that was anchored about 4 miles offshore, part of the blockade of Charleston. Attached to the front of the Hunley was a 17-foot spar, at the end of which was a 90-pound black powder charge.

The strategy was to ram the Housatonic, then back off, leaving the charge, which would be detonated via a long trip line.

The mission went off as planned, the explosion ripping a hole in the hull of the Housatonic and sending the Housatonic to the bottom with a loss of five lives. After delivering the historic fatal blow - the first time a submarine ever sank an enemy ship - the Hunley surfaced and shined a blue light toward shore to signal Confederate troops there that the mission was a success; the men on shore then lit a bonfire to guide the Hunley back.

But the Hunley never returned. And still no one knows why. There are theories - the men opened the hatches for air as they began their return and a wave washed over the sub and swamped it; gunfire from the deck of the Housatonic was somehow responsible; the cursed sub had simply malfunctioned again; the Hunley was struck and fatally damaged by another Union ship that was coming to the rescue of the Housatonic - but they are just guesses.

In the lab

Today the Hunley sits in a tank of water at the high-security center, resting at a 45-degree angle, its bow 17 inches lower than its stern, just as it sat on the ocean floor. The inside of the sub has been excavated, with the remains of seven crewmen removed to a morgue on the premises, and recovered artifacts undergoing examination and conservation. Only Dixon's remains and personal effects - including a lantern thought to be the one he used to signal his comrades ashore - have not been removed from the sediment that filled the ship after it sank and was removed in segments.

Until the Hunley was recovered, not a lot was known about its engineering. No original plans survive. The few sketches and drawings that exist were completed well after the craft had sunk, and were done largely from memory.

"With a secret weapon, which this was, you don't always have good plans," project director Bob Neyland says, while looking over a sketch of the interior of the ship that hangs on a wall at the center. "This diagram shows eight cranking stations. There were really only seven. The diagram shows a wheel. There was nothing like that."

Neyland was the first person Lasch brought aboard the project. A native of Palestine, Texas - his interest in diving goes back to his childhood love of the old Sea Hunt TV series - Neyland is an underwater archaeologist who came to the Friends of the Hunley from the Navy, where he heads the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Naval Historical Center in Washington. Under his direction, the Charleston facility has become the most sophisticated operation of its kind in the United States.

It is stocked with computers, video scopes, lab facilities and high-tech equipment (such as the X-ray machine that can give a clear image of something encased in sediment), much of it donated by various companies.

Technology at work

Perhaps more impressive, new technology has often been developed to facilitate the work.

For example, before X-raying the contents of the sub, the team debated whether the gamma rays would damage the DNA of the crew members. No studies ever had been done on the subject. Dr. Jamie Downs, chief medical examiner of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, then undertook a study seeking the answer. Downs found that the DNA would not be damaged, and the X-raying went ahead.

In another example, to get the Hunley ready for display, chlorides, or salts, need to be removed from the iron. Current methods would take seven or eight years, Neyland says, and would involve heating the sub to a very high temperature that could damage it. But an experimental new method has been devised that involves passing electrically charged hydrogen over the sub in a sealed container. It's quicker and would seem to be safer for the sub (it's being tested in France on some of the Hunley's rivets).

"We raised the bar on underwater archaeology technology, mapping, conservation," Neyland says. "We've continuously had to answer questions no one has looked at before."

Some surprises

Neyland and his team were surprised at the some of things they've found. The Hunley was not as boxy as often pictured. It was incredibly cramped (about 3 1/2 feet tall). The spar to which the explosive charge was attached was near the bottom of the bow, not the top as thought (and it was still solidly bolted to the ship after 136 years). There's a counter-weighted wheel apparently designed to assist the crew while cranking; and when the team removed the ship's outer metal plates, they found supporting frames inside for added hull support.

"It makes perfect sense," Neyland says, "because if you go down to any depth you'll get hull compression. And these hoops will help the sub keep its shape."

Other surprises found in the sub included a medallion stamped with the name of a Union soldier (after extensive research, it is now believed that one of the Hunley crew kept it as a battlefield souvenir, rather than there being a Yankee aboard) and a small sealed bottle that NASA wants to test, hoping for a sample of uncontaminated air from the 1860s.

Then there was the gold coin.

According to legend, Dixon carried a good luck charm, a dented $20 gold piece given to him by his fiancM-ie for luck and which stopped a bullet from tearing into his left leg at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. It was just a story until last year, when senior archaeologist and excavation manager Maria Jacobsen was working in the sub, trying to lift out the block containing Dixon's torso by sliding a thin metal plate under it; her hand was in front of the plate, making sure it didn't damage any of Dixon's pelvic bones.

Finding the coin

"The tip of my fingers grazed [something in] his left pelvic region and I knew what I had hit was not a bone," she says. "And you know in the back of your mind there's the possibility he might have carried this coin. But the minute my finger felt the rigid surface of the edge, I thought, 'No, this can't be.' I ran my gloved finger over it, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is the coin.'

"Archaeologists, they're fairly blase when it comes to gold artifacts. They're pretty, but they rarely tell you much. So I hadn't expected to feel very much, but I pulled this coin out, and that's when it struck me for the first time: It's not a legend, it's true. I'm holding the coin that saved this man's life."

The coin itself contained another surprise: an inscription. It read: "Shiloh, April 6, 1862, My Life Preserver, G.E.D."

"Archaeologists are interested in some aspect of the human story," Jacobsen says. "We're really ultimately interested in the humans. A name, an artifact, maybe even a note. But what are the chances of finding something like that in an inundated water-logged site? Virtually nil.

"Here you find not only the gold coin, but you find an inscription," Jacobsen says. "A name. It's a historical document inscribed on a gold coin. It's too much."

It's items such as the gold coin that are making the Hunley crew more human to the researchers.

"At one point during the diving, you'd put your hands on the sub and think, there are eight or nine guys in here," Neyland says. "It was still sealed, but you knew they were in there. Since then, we've seen the excavation of the remains and the bones. The things that make it most personal are the artifacts. The gold coin. A little pencil nub. You can picture a guy writing letters home with this pencil."

"One of the first artifacts was a Confederate artillery button. It had this little A [designating a member of the artillery] on it. And one of the gentlemen, [C.F.] Carlson, was in the artillery. So we could put this button to a name, to a person."

Lasch, walking through the area where the sub sits, nods toward an apparatus that washed the sediment through three stacked screens, each progressively finer.

Much has been learned about the crew so far. "There were two guys in their 40s, two of them were over 200 pounds," Lasch says. "And one liked to fight.

"We found one skull had a mark, and we wondered was that from the concussion [of the explosion], or if there was a collision, did he hit the side?

"And Doug [Owsley, the Smithsonian's division head for physical anthropology] said, 'No, that was left over from a bar fight when he was in his teens.'"

Sometime next year, the crew members will be buried with full military honors in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery, near the graves of the first two Hunley crews. "The Hunley means many things to many people," Lasch says. "It's a historic relic, but it's a war grave. These men are war heroes, and their remains will be treated with the utmost respect."

William Hagman is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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