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  Field Notes From
Secret Weapon of the Confederacy



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On Assignment
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From Author

Glenn Oeland



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From Photographer

Ira Block



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Ira Block
 

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Secret Weapon of the Confederacy

Field Notes From Author
Glenn Oeland
Best Worst Quirkiest
It’s not every day that you get the chance to see a Civil War submarine plucked like an oyster from the ocean floor. Which is why I was glad . . . well, willing anyway . . . to roust at 2 a.m. to get a front-row seat on the raising of the Hunley. I wasn’t alone. People in every kind of watercraft—from kayaks to schooners to shrimp boats—started arriving at the recovery site well before dawn. We waited. When the Hunley finally broke the surface at 8:39 a.m., euphoria erupted. It continued for much of the day as the sub was towed into Charleston, where thousands of well wishers lined the shore. People cheered. Reenactors fired salvos in salute. Women cried. So did some men. Traffic on the towering Cooper River Bridge, a major artery, came to a halt as motorists left their cars to stare through the guardrails as the Hunley passed below, returning to its homeport after 136 years.

I was never afraid of heights until I went for a ride aboard a Billy Pugh. “A Billy what?” That was my reaction when I first saw the “personnel transfer net” that’s widely used in the offshore oil industry to lift workers on and off drilling rigs. I needed to get aboard the Karlissa B, the giant six-legged crane barge that would lift the Hunley from her grave. So with three other men I climbed aboard the bird-cage-shaped Billy Pugh and clung like a fly to a spiderweb as the crane operator hoisted us 60 feet (20 meters) above the ocean before gently setting us down on the deck of the Karlissa. According to the manufacturer’s website, “Many a new hand remembers his or her first ride on a personnel transfer net; it is almost a rite of passage.” I will certainly never forget my inaugural ride.

When news of the Hunley’s discovery first broke back in 1995, I went charging down to Charleston, South Carolina, to get the story, never suspecting that it would take years for the story to unfold. Recovery efforts got mired early on when a legal battle broke out between the state of South Carolina and the federal government over ownership of the submarine. “It was the Civil War all over again,” a state official later confided. The impasse was broken, so the story goes, by the state’s legendary senator Strom Thurmond, then chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. A group of admirals came to Thurmond seeking many billions for the new Sea Wolf submarine program. Thurmond, in his gravy-thick accent, reportedly replied, “Gentleman, I just can’t think about your big SeaWolf while I’m worried about my little Hunley.” In no time Navy lawyers were on the phone to South Carolina, eager to work out a deal. In the end it was agreed that the Navy would retain title to the Hunley, but South Carolina would get permanent custody.



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