Monday, December 12, 2011

Courage, Claustrophobia And The Confederate Sub Hunley

Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared.                          — Edward V. Rickenbacker, American WWI Fighting Ace*

A cutaway of a life-size model
of the Confederate sub Hunley
at the  S.C. State Museum shows
the claustrophobic conditions
 under which the vessel's eight-man
crew worked in 1864. 
When I saw the sailor bent over the crankshaft in the CSS Hunley model, I thought drums were beating in some far reach of the museum. Then I realized my heart was pounding in my ears. A wave of claustrophobia crashed over me. 

I edged closer to a cutaway in the iron skin of a replica of the Confederate sub to inspect the life-size mannequin. He sat on a narrow bench inside the sub’s cramped belly, bent over a long crankshaft. When the sub's crewmen, elbow to elbow, turned the crankshaft on a winter's night in 1864, a single rear propeller pushed the lethal “torpedo fish” through the black waters of Charleston Harbor.

By candlelight they toiled, a crude arrangement of pipes and bellows periodically substituting fresh air for stale air when the sub neared the surface. A line of silver dollar-sized portholes marked the sub's stealthy progress toward the Federal blockader Housatonic. 

The famous oil painting of the
Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley
by Conrad Wise Chapman, 1863.
Photo, National Underwater
and Marine Agency.
The Hunley's crew, no doubt, fought fear. Already, 22 men had perished while testing the 40-foot-long, 4.5-foot-tall, arms-length-wide Confederate submarine, a fact that compelled the Confederacy to demand that only volunteers could board the Hunley for its deadly assignment nearly 150 years ago. Yet, eight men went down the hatch and entombed themselves in the iron fish’s bowels for something they believed in, right or wrong.

Stonewall Hilton of Friends of the
shows the size of portholes
on the Confederate submarine,
depicted in a recent drawing.
For more, see PHOTOS page.
I revisited the life-sized model of the Hunley recently at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, where Stonewall "Stoney" Hilton was lecturing to mark the Civil War sesquicentennial. Hilton, a former Navy petty officer, volunteers with the organization Friends of the Hunley.  The group supports scientists, archaeologists and historians who work to unravel the iron sub’s mystery at a laboratory and museum in Charleston.

Hilton told the group gathered one Saturday that the museum's Hunley model, a bit shorter and wider than the real artifact now being studied, reflected a famous oil painting by Conrad Wise Chapman rendered in 1863. The resurrection of the real thing in August 2000, five years after its discovery on the ocean floor in 1995, set a few things straight.  Hilton said that in addition to the model size being incorrect, the sub's "spar torpedo" actually was attached to the bottom of the vessel's nose (see drawing at left) instead of the top. 
Hilton said that when a team of marine archeologists raised the Hunley from the ocean floor and the crewmembers’ remains were discovered still at their posts, we learned that the men’s heights ranged from 5 feet 6 inches to 6 feet even. That means the tallest sailor probably had no choice but continually to hunch over the crankshaft when the sub departed the shores of the first state to secede from the Union.    

The resurrected H.L. Hunley
 gets kid-glove treatment at the
specially built Warren Lasch
Conservation Center in Charleston.
Hours later, the Hunley blasted 300 years of submarine history by becoming the first manned submersible combat vessel to sink an “enemy” ship. Never mind “the enemy” was the United States of America.  

It happened on the night of Feb. 17, 1864. The Hunley swam through moonlit waters off Sullivan’s Island to its target, 4 miles off shore. The crew rammed the sub's bow into the wooden hull of the Housatonic, depositing the spar torpedo loaded with 130 pounds of gunpowder.  The crew quickly reversed the crankshaft, unfurling 100 feet of cord attached to the bomb. As the cord stretched taut, the torpedo exploded, blowing away the Housatonic’s stern.

Within three minutes, the 16-gun sloop-of-war sank. No one, Union or Confederate, died in the explosion. The Hunley dove deep, awash in victory. Yet, the sub's crew never made it back to shore. The heroes’ welcome awaiting them never took place. For more than 140 years, the submarine rested on its starboard side at a 45-degree angle, beneath 30 feet of water. As years passed, three feet of silt and ever-growing myths engulfed the Civil War sub.

View of the propeller
on the Hunley model.
Since its 2000 resurrection, Hunley researchers ensured the sub remained at the same angle as it rested on the ocean floor in a specially designed tank of freshwater at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, built largely with public funds.  Last summer, scientists completed a slow rotation to expose the Hunley’s underbelly in their search to answer the question, “How did the crew die?”  
“We’d love to know that,” Hilton said.

Studies of crew members' remains have confirmed they did not perish in the torpedo explosion. At rescue, their bodies still sat at their posts, indicating they died without panic. Leading theories suggest suffocation.

What if the Hunley had returned to shore? I asked Hilton after his presentation.

“The Confederacy would have ordered 10 more subs,” Hilton said with a shrug and a smile. “And people in Boston might be whistling ‘Dixie’ today.”

In 2004, the Hunley crew finally received its heroes' welcome. Thousands of people attended a memorial service and burial for them in Charleston. In the last Confederate burial, horse-drawn caissons accompanied by a procession in period dress took the eight men to a final resting place in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery, next to the others who lost their lives testing the submarine.

Like many attending the Charleston ceremonies, I see the Hunley as an icon to the abundance of courage, inventiveness, and strength of Americans during the Civil War. But I wish Southerners would stop posing the question, “What if?" This prolongs the historical claustrophobia already surrounding The Lost Cause and keeps old wounds from healing. We should honor courage, but we need to take a hard look at the cultural claustrophobia worshiping fallen heroes can keep alive.

REST IN PEACE: Lt. George E. Dixon, Hunley commander; Arnold Becker; Corp. J. F. Carlsen; Frank Collins; _ Lumpkin; _ Miller; James A. Wicks and Joseph Ridgaway. Hunley designer and namesake, Horace L. Hunley, died in a test run of the submarine.

* Edward Vernon Rickenbacker (Oct. 8, 1890 – July 27, 1973), an American fighter ace in World War I, was awarded the Medal of Honor and numerous other citations for courage. He also won fame as a race car driver, automotive designer, military consultant, pioneer in air transportation and as the longtime chief of Eastern Air Lines. 

COMING SOON: More on my Confederate ancestors. See PREVIEWS page.