[an error occurred while processing this directive]


Online Extra
July 2002

<< Back to Feature Page

Secret Weapon of the Confederacy

By Jeffrey Tayler
IT WAS A HUNGRY TIME in Charleston, South Carolina, those early months of 1864. Bombarded by land and blockaded by sea, the city that cheered the opening shots of the American Civil War remained proudly defiant, but its Rebel defenders were looking mighty pinched. Salt pork, corn, boots, blankets, lead for musket balls, and most everything else the army needed was in critically short supply. The Union Navy's chokehold on the city's harbor would have to be broken soon, and the best hope for doing that lay with a strange and secret new weapon–a "diving torpedo-boat" christened the H. L. Hunley.

Shortly after sunset on the night of February 17, at a dock on nearby Sullivans Island, eight audacious Confederates squeezed inside the claustrophobic iron vessel and set out on a quixotic mission. Affixed to the boat's bow was a spar tipped with a deadly charge of black powder. At the helm was Lt. George Dixon, a bold-hearted, battle-scarred army officer. Behind him, wedged shoulder to shoulder on a wooden bench, sat seven crewmen whose muscles powered the sub's hand-cranked propeller. As the crew began turning the heavy iron crankshaft, Dixon consulted a compass and set course for a daunting target—the steam sloop U.S.S. Housatonic, stationed four miles offshore. The Rebels' plan was to run about six feet below the surface until they neared the blockader. But in order for Dixon to take final aim, he would have to resurface just enough to peer through the sub's tiny forward viewport.

At 8:45 p.m. John Crosby, acting master aboard the Housatonic, spotted something off the starboard beam that looked at first like a "porpoise, coming to the surface to blow." There had been warnings of a possible attack by a Confederate "infernal machine," and Crosby was swift to sound the alarm. Sailors rushed to quarters and let loose a barrage of small arms fire at the alien object barely breaking the surface, but the attacker was unstoppable.

Two minutes later the Hunley rammed her spar into the Housatonic's starboard side, well below the waterline. As the sub backed away, a trigger cord detonated the torpedo, blowing off the entire aft quarter of the ship. It was an epic moment.

"This was the first time in history that a submarine succeeded in sinking an enemy warship," says Robert Neyland, head of underwater archaeology for the U.S. Navy and the Hunley project director. "The Hunley is to submarine warfare what the Wright brothers' airplane is to aviation. It changed the course of naval history."

But while the Wright Flyer would become a famous icon, the Hunley was fated to become an obscure footnote. Though she accomplished her historic mission, she never returned to shore. Her fate, and that of her crew, became one of the Civil War's great mysteries.

AT PRECISELY 2 a.m. on the morning of August 8, 2000, at another dock on Sullivans Island, photographer Ira Block and I boarded a boat bound for sea. Along with the pungent smell of the surrounding salt marsh, the night air carried a kind of Christmas Eve excitement. Or maybe it was more like Easter, for when morning dawned the H. L. Hunley would rise from her grave.

Anticipation of "recovery day" had been building since May 1995, when a group of shipwreck hunters led by adventure novelist Clive Cussler discovered the long-lost sub outside Charleston Harbor, buried under three feet of silt only a thousand feet from the spot where she ambushed the Housatonic. During the five years since the discovery, a team of archaeologists and engineers had been laying plans for the sub's recovery and preservation. In recent weeks crews had been working around the clock, making ready for the moment when a crane barge named the Karlissa B would lift the Civil War submarine into another century.

The night crew looked sleep deprived and stubble faced as they welcomed us aboard the Karlissa. Among them was Mark Ragan, a diver, submarine devotee, and the Hunley's foremost historian. Standing at the barge's railing, peering out at an ocean as black as an inkwell, he talked about the effort and ingenuity that produced the granddaddy of the modern submarine.

"The Hunley was cutting-edge technology in the 1860s, as advanced for that period as our spacecraft are today," he said. "Remember that this was seven years before Jules Verne published Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. That's how far ahead of their time these guys were."

"These guys" would be Baxter Watson and James McClintock, partners in a New Orleans machine shop, and Horace Lawson Hunley, a Louisiana lawyer with deep pockets and even deeper devotion to the cause of southern independence. Their collaboration eventually produced three pioneering submersibles, each one more sophisticated than its predecessor. The first had to be scuttled to prevent its falling into Union hands, and the second was lost in heavy seas. Though the disasters cost no lives, the financial loss was severe enough that Hunley and his companions had to look for additional backers to make a third try. They found them in a band of mechanical-minded adventurers known as the Singer Secret Service Corps, a kind of Rebel underground.

"This group was involved in mining harbors and railroad sabotage," Ragan said. "They had a contract with the Confederate government that entitled them to 50 percent of the value of any Union property destroyed by one of their inventions."

In addition to the Singer operatives, two Confederate military engineers also lent their expertise to the project: Lt. William Alexander, a mechanical engineer, and Lt. George Dixon, who had worked as a steamboat engineer. The pooled brainpower of this coterie produced a formidable engine of war.

Larger yet sleeker and faster than the earlier prototypes, the Hunley was built during the spring of 1863 in Mobile, Alabama, then sent by train to Charleston, accompanied by her owners and designers. Charleston's vital harbor was under heavy siege, its fortifications being reduced to rubble by Union ironclads and shore batteries. With the blessing of Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, the dashing Creole in charge of the city's defense, the Hunley's builders began making nighttime forays into the harbor, but after two weeks they had failed to score a hit. Meanwhile, Charleston's defenses continued to crumble. Impatient for bold action, the city's military authorities commandeered the submarine and manned her with Confederate sailors, whose inexperience soon proved fatal.

By one account the new skipper, Lt. John Payne, unfamiliar with the sub's operation, caused her to dive before the hatches were secured. Another version has it that the sub was swamped by the wake of a passing steamer. Whatever the cause, five of the nine crewmen drowned.

Two weeks elapsed before divers in heavy copper helmets managed to raise the submarine from the bottom and get her ashore, by which time her occupants were so bloated that they had to be dismembered and removed in pieces. Their severed limb bones, unearthed in 1999 when archaeologists excavated their graves, still bore the marks of the saw.

Horace Hunley, undeterred by the grisly fate of the five sailors, persuaded Beauregard to turn the submarine back over to him and his comrades from Mobile. But apparently Hunley either overestimated his own captaining skill or underestimated how unforgiving the sub was of pilot error. During a training mission just six weeks after the first accident, Hunley himself was at the helm when the boat again went to the bottom, killing all eight men inside. Evidently Hunley had failed to close a flood valve, causing a ballast tank to overflow into the crew compartment.

Once more divers rigged chains to the sub, hauled her ashore, and opened the hatches. "The spectacle was indescribably ghastly," wrote General Beauregard years later. "The unfortunate men were contorted into all kinds of horrible attitudes . . . and the blackened faces of all presented the expression of their despair and agony."

Along the Charleston waterfront sailors began referring to the submarine as the "murdering machine" and joking that it "would sink at a moment's notice and at times without it." For his part, George Dixon would hear none of it. His confidence in the boat that he had helped build was unassailable. With Horace Hunley dead, Dixon appealed to Beauregard to let him take command.

"I can have nothing more to do with that submarine boat," came the exasperated gen-eral's written reply. "'Tis more dangerous to those who use it than to enemy."

But Dixon persisted, his coolheaded determination eventually winning Beauregard over. With the submarine refitted for action, Dixon and his new first officer, William Alexander, went aboard the C.S.S. Indian Chief seeking volunteers to recrew the boat. Beauregard had issued a strict order that all recruits were to be made fully aware of the "desperately hazardous nature of the service required." If the submarine didn't kill them, the Yankees would be happy to oblige. And Admiral John Dahlgren, commander of the Union blockade, had declared that captured submariners deserved to be hanged "for using an engine of war not recognized by civilized nations."

Despite all the disincentives, so many sailors stepped forward that Dixon could take the cream and leave the dregs. Why? According to William Alexander, "I don't believe a man considered the danger which awaited him. The honor of being the first to engage the enemy in this novel way overshadowed all else."

But if test-pilot status was what they bargained for, they got the shaft—literally. Soon they were sweating for hours at the propeller crank, straining to reach the Yankee fleet that had been tipped off to the sub's existence by Rebel deserters from the Indian Chief. In response, the ironclads operating inside the harbor deployed an elaborate shield of chains. With these close-in vessels no longer viable targets, Dixon and his crew shifted their aim to the more vulnerable wooden ships now anchored ten or twelve miles from shore.

"They'd crank for hours and get maybe six or eight miles offshore," Ragan said. "Then they'd have to turn around and crank all the way back before dawn. And they did this three and four nights a week for over a month."

Every mission was an endurance test, sunrise sometimes catching the exhausted Confederates still within range of Union guns. Small picketboats that patrolled the waters closer to shore added to their peril. On several occasions the crew surfaced for air so near one of these launches that they could hear the bored Union sailors talking and singing.

Leashed to shore by the limits of their man-powered craft, the submariners were like chained dogs straining to bite a tormentor just beyond their reach. Then one night their taunter unwittingly came close enough to bite when the U.S.S. Housatonic took up position just four miles from shore. The moment had come for the Hunley to make history.

Now, 136 years later, the engineers and archaeologists aboard the Karlissa B were about to get their chance to do the same. An assessment of the submarine in 1996 showed that her iron hull was surprisingly sound, a fortunate result of having been buried within about 20 years of sinking. But scrutiny of the rivets holding it together wasn't so reassuring.

"The nightmare we had from the very beginning was the sub breaking apart as we tried to lift it," said Robert Neyland, who invited experts from around the world to put forward proposals for lifting the 24-ton artifact in one piece. Perry Smith and Steve Wright of Oceaneering International, Inc., came up with the winning scheme: Slings passed beneath the sub and attached to a supporting truss would cradle the entire vessel like a hammock. Bags on each sling would then be filled with expanding polyurethane foam—similar to the stuff you can buy at the hardware store for insulating around drafty doors and windows. The foam-filled bags would conform to the hull's shape, ensuring that every inch was supported during the lift.

As simple as the plan sounds, it took heroic effort—and 2.7 million dollars—to pull it off. Nineteen divers toiled for three months in water so turbid that they had to work more by touch than sight. Claire Peachey, an underwater archaeologist with the National Park Service and the Navy, recalls, "I dove every day, two times a day for two weeks, and did not see the submarine once."

Using handheld suction dredges, divers carefully vacuumed away 25,000 cubic feet of sand and mud—the equivalent of 115 dump truck loads—to expose the submarine and any artifacts nearby. Two giant pilings were then sunk into the seafloor at either end of the sub to provide footings for the truss.

In planning for the lift, engineers worked up a mathematical model of the hull and the stresses it would be subjected to. "The moment of truth will come as the submarine breaks the surface," said David Conlin, a Navy and National Park Service archaeologist and the project's field director. "The instant it breaks that water-air interface, its weight will double, because it will no longer be supported by the water."

As the long-anticipated moment neared, divers made a final inspection and gave the all-clear signal. Without fanfare or countdown the crane operator throttled up the diesel engine and pulled a lever. Less than six minutes later the Hunley, snug in the padded sling, broke through the slight swell. She was intact, a time capsule unopened since the night she was lost. The mystery now: What was inside her?

IT IS OCTOBER 31—Halloween 2001—and I am standing in a room surrounded by skeletons. There is nothing ghoulish here, however, no rattling bones or bloodcurdling screams. Instead what I hear sounds like a curious cross between an anatomy exam and a bingo game.

"What do we know about this bone?" questions Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution and one of the world's top forensic scientists.

"Lumbar vertebra, L-1, from grid seven, stored in box 52," replies archaeologist Harry Pecorelli, reading from a laptop computer.

"OK. Next question: Where did vertebra 1408 come from?"

"It was articulated to 1373."

"So we need to find 1373."

An assistant searches through a box of bones labeled "Unsorted," then disappears into a morgue cooler to track down the missing vertebra.

We are at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, a state-of-the-art archaeology lab on the old Charleston Navy Base. The lab has been outfitted to accommodate the Hunley and the skeletonized remains of her crew, which Owsley is helping piece back together. All eight men were found inside the submarine, their bones remarkably well preserved in the mud that filled their iron coffin from stem to stern. Even their brains, though shrunken, remain, and will help reveal the cause of death. As archaeologists excavated the interior, carefully mapping the location of each bone and artifact, a freeze-frame of the Hunley's final moments emerged. It was an eerie picture.

"Every man was still at his post, or very near it," said Warren Lasch, chairman of the nonprofit Friends of the Hunley. "We half expected them to be piled up under the hatches trying to get out, but there they were, still at their stations."

The apparent absence of panic inside the submarine led to speculation in the local press and among Hunleyphiles on the Internet that the crew died quietly from anoxia, or oxygen deprivation. Some theorists saw a modern analogy in the bizarre death of pro golfer Payne Stewart aboard a chartered jet in 1999. (The jet's two pilots and four passengers evidently died in their seats after a sudden loss of cabin pressure deprived them of oxygen.) Others cited William Alexander's writings on the Hunley, that Dixon and his men had an understanding that if ever they became hopelessly trapped inside the submarine, they would open the flood valves and end their suffering quickly rather than slowly asphyxiate.

Whether the crew starved for air like guttering candles or sat bravely as cold seawater rose above their heads is not yet possible to say. But months of digging inside the cramped confines of the sub's hull yielded a lode of solid clues—including a lantern that shed light on events following the attack. Confederates on Sullivans Island reported seeing a signal from sea—a blue light that meant the Hunley was headed home—some 40 minutes after the attack. Discovering a lantern aboard the submarine supports the report, which in turn rules out an old theory that the crew was killed by the concussion of the sub's torpedo.

One of the project's most poignant moments came as Maria Jacobsen, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation, was probing Lieutenant Dixon's skeleton in preparation for lifting it out of the submarine. Jacobsen knew of the romantic old tale about a $20 gold piece reportedly given to Dixon by his Alabama belle, Queenie Bennett. During the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, so the story went, the big coin in Dixon's trouser pocket stopped a Yankee minié ball, saving his leg and probably his life. Wherever the war took him after that day, Dixon always carried the bullet-bent gold piece on his person.

That improbable story was in the back of Jacobsen's mind when her fingers touched a ridged surface. "I knew instantly that it was the edge of a coin," she recalls. The gleaming gold piece was warped, and a portion of one side had been buffed smooth and engraved. Jacobsen's hand was trembling as she read the inscription: "Shiloh. April 6th, 1862. My life Preserver. G.E.D."

So the tale was true. But finding the coin did more than authenticate a story; it also removed all doubt as to which skeleton was Dixon's. As for the seven others, their identities for now remain sketchy.

"The youngest looks to be about 19 or 20, the oldest maybe 45," said Owsley, basing his estimates on dental wear, signs of arthritis, and other effects of aging. Red stains on the upper arm bones of two sets of remains may have come from stripes on the sleeves of their uniforms, now rotted away. Records indicate that two members of the crew were recruited from an artillery unit, the uniforms of which were trimmed in red. By connecting such strands of evidence, Owsley hopes to positively identify each individual.

But the haunting question remains, how and why did they die? For now, at least, the answer is as unknowable as their last words.

"There was no black box inside this submarine," says Paul Mardikian, the Hunley's senior conservator. A Frenchman who has cared for priceless artifacts from the Titanic, Mardikian will devote the next eight years or so to overseeing the painstaking conservation of the submarine. Once he finishes, plans call for the Hunley to become the centerpiece of a new maritime museum in Charleston.

In the meantime, a suite of forensic studies will yield more clues about the submariners and their mysterious end. When all the tests are completed sometime next year, Civil War reenactors will bear the remains of Dixon and his comrades through the streets of Charleston to a moss-hung cemetery named Magnolia. There they will be laid to rest alongside Horace Hunley and his crew.

Three days after the Hunley disappeared, General Beauregard issued his final order regarding the submarine: "As soon as its fate shall have been ascertained, pay a proper tribute to the gallantry and patriotism of its crew and officers." That long-standing order will at last be fulfilled.


E-mail this page to a friend.

© 1996-2006 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe