Raising the Hunley
The amazing, unlikely raising of the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley from the muck of Charleston harbor sounds like the plot of an adventure novel — which makes sense considering that the major player is an adventure novelist.
For 15 years, the undersea diver and best-selling author Clive Cussler looked for the final resting place of the Hunley. The sub was mysteriously lost at sea after sinking the USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864, with the high-explosive “torpedo” mounted on a long spar on its bow. It marked the first time a sub ever sank a ship in battle.
For over a century before Cussler, treasure-seekers had searched for the sub, with P. T. Barnum even offering $100,000 to the first person to find it. But on May 3, 1995, a magnetometer operated by Cussler and his group, the National Underwater Marine Agency, discovered the Hunley’s final resting place — in 30 feet of water and under three feet of sediment about four miles off Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of the harbor.
Using a specially designed truss to lift the entire sub, a 19-person dive crew and a team of archaeologists began a process that would result in raising the vessel on August 8, 2000. But before the sub could be brought up, a dilemma had to be solved: For 136 years the saltwater of the Atlantic had permeated its metallic skin. Exposure to air would rapidly disintegrate the entire thing.
So the conservation team, with input from the U.S. Navy, came up with a plan to keep the vessel submerged in a special solution indefinitely at the specially constructed Warren Lasch Conservation Center (1250 Supply St., Building 255, 866/866-9938, www.hunley.org, Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. noon–5 p.m., $12, children 5 and under free) in the old Navy Yard while research and conservation was performed on it piece-by-piece.
And that’s how you see the Hunley today, submerged in its special conservation tank, still largely covered in sediment. Upon seeing the almost unbelievably tiny, cramped vessel — much smaller than most experts imagined it would be — visitors are often visibly moved at the bravery and sacrifice of the nine-man Confederate crew, who no doubt would have known that the Hunley’s two previous crews had drowned at sea in training accidents.
Theirs was, in effect, a suicide mission. That the crew surely realized this only makes the modern visitor’s experience even more poignant and meaningful.
The Warren Lasch Center, operated under the auspices of Clemson University, is only open to the public on weekends. Archaeology continues apace during the week — inch by painstaking inch, muck and tiny artifacts removed millimeter by millimeter. The process is so thorough that archaeologists have even identified an individual eyelash from one of the crew.
Other interesting artifacts include a three-fold wallet with a leather strap, owner unknown; seven canteens; and a wooden cask in one of the ballast tanks, maybe used to hold water or liquor or even used as a chamber pot.
The very first order of business once the sub was brought up, however, was properly burying those brave sailors. In 2004, Charleston came to a stop as a ceremonial funeral procession took the remains of the nine to historic Magnolia Cemetery, where they were buried with full military honors.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition