By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
In a cold night off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 17, 1864, the Sailors manning federal sloop of war USS Housatonic continued their duties, much as Sailors of today do while underway. They maintained the engine, ate chow and stood watch – though at the time it was a watch against Confederate blockade runners during the Civil War. The monotonous duties had been going on for months and the ship had not seen any action in the war since a few months before when they were part of a failed attack on Fort Sumter.
One of the Sailors on watch saw something drifting slowly through the water. In the night it would be hard to tell exactly what it was – a porpoise? A log?
By the time the Housatonic crew realized it was a vessel, operating mostly below the waterline, it was a hundred feet away, too close — too late — to bring their guns to bear. Reacting with desperation, the crew let slip the ship’s anchor chain and reversed the engine to evade the vessel.
Then the crash of something hitting the ship. Seconds later an explosion sounded, coming from Housatonic’s starboard side. Within five minutes the bulk of the 1,240 ton vessel lay beneath the waters in the shallows of South Carolina, five Sailors dead and the rest awaiting rescue in the ship’s rigging or lifeboats – victims of the first submarine attack. It was the only real success any submarine had during the American Civil War.
That successful sinking of Housatonic actually came at a greater cost to the vessel that sank her. CSS H.L. Hunley and her 8-person crew never returned to base, disappearing that night. She would not be found for more than a century.
L. Hunley was fashioned from a boiler iron and expressly built for hand-power. The vessel, named for one of her designers and financer, Horace Lawson Hunley, was designed for a 8-person crew, seven to turn the hand-cranked propeller and one to steer and direct the boat. A true submarine, it was equipped with ballast tanks to be flooded by valves and pumped dry by hand pumps. Iron weights were bolted as extra ballast to the underside of her hull. H. L. Hunley was equipped with a mercury depth gauge, steered by a compass when submerged and light was provided by a candle whose dying flame would also warn of dwindling air supply. When near the surface, two hollow pipes could be raised above the surface to admit air. Glass portholes were used to sight when operating near the surface.
It was not surprising the vessel went down. The pioneering submarine had failed twice before, the first time killing five sailors inside and the second time killing designer Hunley and a crew of seven. By the time it attacked Housatonic, Confederate Gen. Pierre Beauregard, in charge of South Carolina’s defenses, refused to let the vessel dive anymore, insisting the crew keep it awash (at water level).
Originally the ship was supposed to drag a torpedo 200 feet behind her. She would dive beneath a target ship and come up on the other side, continuing on her way until the torpedo struck the vessel behind her. By the time of the attack on Housatonic, the vessel was outfitted it with a Spar Torpedo, much like the Confederate torpedo boat CSS David, to try and sink vessels.
The Confederate submarine was found in 1995 about 1,000 feet from the where the action took place against Housatonic, more than a century before. Five years later, the little sub was raised and transported to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston where it undergoes conservation to this day.
Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) acts as the administrator for the curation and ultimate disposition of the submarine.
“We are the federal manager of the submarine,” said Robert Neyland, Ph.D., director of NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB). “We have a programmatic agreement with the state of South Carolina regarding the recovery, preservation, and final exhibit of the Hunley. We are currently working on a loan agreement between the South Carolina Hunley Commission and Navy.”
Neyland has played a part in the story since the vessel was found in 1995.
“From the fall of 1998 to 2001, I was loaned under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act to the state of South Carolina to oversee the submarine’s recovery and then I continued working there part time until the excavation of the interior and recovery of the crew’s remains was complete.” Neyland said. “Naval History and Heritage Command and Underwater Archaeology has been heavily involved in the project since that time and we are now finishing up a report on the recovery of Hunley.”
And other commands have helped out too.
“Naval Research Laboratory did some materials science research related to the Hunley,” Neyland said, “and during the recovery we needed some security on site and the special boat unit detachment came down and handled security.”
The conservation center submitted a conservation plan to the U.S. Navy in 2006. After peer-review by conservationists around the world, it was finalized incorporating their suggestions.
Now other commands have come to use the Hunley as a research and teaching tool.
“Naval Surface Warfare Center-Carderock Division and Office of Naval Research has been doing a whole series of simulations and studies related to the explosion that sunk the Housatonic and what it would have done to the men inside the Hunley and the Hunley itself,” Neyland said. “They are using some of the same science and technology they use to analyze explosions and the impacts on Navy ships.”
“They can present their findings to people without the classified sticker,” added UA archaeologist Heather Brown. “They can discuss the specifics of the incident and discuss how their models work.”
Though there are many views of what might have caused the vessel to sink with all hands, the reason for its sinking may remain a mystery for some time. There’s no hurry, however, as it is scheduled to take another 8-to-10 years for the vessel to be fully conserved. Concreted materials are slowly being removed from both the inside and outside of the submarine. Now more than 70 percent of the concretion on the outside hull has been removed, leaving more delicate work to be done on the brittle cast iron pieces.
“A lot of the artifacts have been conserved, but the vessel itself is the biggest artifact – completing the deconcretion is now underway,” Neyland said. “Once that is done Clemson University conservators will be able to put it in a caustic solution to remove the corrosive chlorides and the salts. When it comes out of treatment, the solution will be removed with a series of washes and then the submarine will get a protective coating.”
Then there is a question of reassembly.
“If you put everything back together, you can’t see the interior,” Neyland said. “So do you reassemble everything, and use a camera for the inside?”
A place for its ultimate disposition is still being considered.
“The state and city of North Charleston are considering a site for a new museum – probably on land of the former Charleston Navy shipyard,” Neyland said.
He’s looking forward to a road trip sometime in April, in order to see the deconcretion in process and to meet at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center with the Clemson University Restoration Institute’s Hunley scientists and seeing NSWC and ONR scientists’ analysis of the Hunley torpedo explosion.
For more information on USS Housatonic and CSS H. L. Hunley, visit the Naval History and Heritage Command website at www.history.navy.mil, www.hunley.org and for information on the submarine restoration visit www.clemson.edu/restoration/wlcc/project/hunley.html .