History and Science Combine at the the H.L. Hunley, a Civil War Submarine in Charleston

By:Kerry Egan


Imagine this: A lawyer who has no experience in engineering or naval warfare designs a submarine. It’s little more than a metal tube, 39 feet long, with a harpoon strapped to the front. The contraption is so dangerous that its first two crews drowned, including the inventor of the sub himself.

The commander of the Navy doubts that the sub should ever be used again. He announces that he will only allow volunteers aware of the grave risk to man the sub. Eight men do volunteer as the crew for what seems to be a fool’s errand, a third attempt, in a desperate plot to break a blockade that’s slowly crippling the city.

The submarine has no engine. Instead, the men, hunched over in a space so small that they could not stand up all the way, curl their backs into the curve of the tube and throw all their weight into cranking the propeller by hand. The only light comes from a candle. It has no fresh air supply. Its top speed is three knots. Unfortunately, the tide moving in and out of the harbor is even faster. The crew planned to sink a ship.

It sounds so unlikely, so preposterous, so foolhardy, you might not believe it if you saw it in a movie.

And yet this is exactly what happened in Charleston Harbor on February 17, 1864. The submarine, the very first submarine to sink an enemy ship, was the C Hunley.

So what happened on their mission? Well, it brought both good news and bad. The sub launched a torpedo into the USS Housatonic, which sank the Union ship, but the Hunley was lost in the process. Just how so remains a mystery.

The Hunley was finally discovered in 2000, brought up from the muddy harbor floor and is now on view in the lab where it is being cleaned and stabilized. The story of how the Hunley was discovered, recovered and now is being conserved is almost as fascinating as the story of how it ended up lost underwater for decades.

Visiting the Hunley at the laboratory where it is being painstakingly restored after spending more than a century on the bottom of Charleston Harbor is incredibly interesting, especially if you’re a history, military, archaeology or conservation buff.

The lab, in an industrial/naval area of North Charleston, combines museum and cutting-edge archaeological science in one facility. The fascinating history is told and interpreted in the museum, complete with a life-size replica of the Hunley, where you can get a sense of just what the conditions inside the sub would have been like. The lab, where the sub sits submerged in a huge tank, is visited with a knowledgeable and entertaining guide, who makes both the history and science come to life.

Depending on what stage of restoration is going on, the sub might be very clearly seen in its tank, or the fluid surrounding it might be a bit murky. Because it’s a working lab, conditions change continually. The chance to see this unlikely, quirky piece of history, combined with the chance to walk through a working archaeology lab, is like nothing else in the world.

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