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Utah scientific: Excavated Civil War sub is wonder

Confederate weapon had sophisticated design, engineering

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 4:51 a.m. MDT

The Hunley rests in a tank of cold water to keep it from deteriorating. (Friends of the Hunley) The Hunley rests in a tank of cold water to keep it from deteriorating. (Friends of the Hunley)
History, archaeology, genealogy, romance and courage are all part of the lore of the Civil War submarine, H.L. Hunley, as recounted last week in the Salt Lake Main Library.
The raising of the sunken Confederate sub from waters off Charleston, S.C., and its excavation are one of greatest archaeological feats in many years.
The hand-cranked Hunley was the world's first successful attack submarine, sinking a Union blockading ship, the USS Housatonic, on the night of Feb. 17, 1864. Although the Hunley signaled that it had carried out the attack, it never returned to Charleston.
Its location was a mystery until it was discovered in 1995 near the remains of the Housatonic, by a team of divers led by author Clive Cussler. After years of study, it was raised and returned to Charleston, where it is has been fully excavated. It and the many artifacts are undergoing conservation.
Conservator Philippe de Vivies works in the excavated submarine. (Friends of the Hunley) Conservator Philippe de Vivies works in the excavated submarine. (Friends of the Hunley)
All eight crewmen were buried in a Charleston cemetery with military honors earlier this year. But researchers are still working to learn why it sank.
Robert Neyland, director of the Charleston, S.C.-based Hunley Project, brought the story of the submarine's recovery and excavation to Salt Lake City with a lecture in the Main Library, 210 E. 400 South.
The talk was hosted by the Utah Museum of Natural History, which scheduled several nautical archaeology lectures in conjunction with its sponsorship of the Titanic exhibit in the ZCMI Center. The last lecture in the series is slated for Dec. 7, when the topic will be the recovery of a fishing boat from the Sea of Galilee that dates from the time of Christ.
Almost a dozen Civil War re-enactors were on hand for the Hunley lecture, representing soldiers from both sides and women participants in the war.
The Hunley had sunk twice before during trial runs, killing some of one crew and all of the second. The third crew also died, vanishing without a trace — until the sub's recent discovery.
Asked to comment on the crew, Neyland said, "I think they were incredibly brave, to go out in the submarine after two other crews had died."
Conditions inside the small vessel must have been uncomfortable, he added. it was "a tight, claustrophobic submarine. It was probably very clammy, with moisture condensing, coming out of their breaths and running and dripping down the side of the sub. Not to mention the movement of the submarine."
The Hunley was a secret weapon, Neyland said, so many of the details of its construction were lost when the Confederate secret service archives were burned at the end of the Civil War. Until the ship was raised, nobody realized it had such sophisticated engineering and a sleek, knife-bow design.
Painstaking removal of silt that had accumulated inside exposed the plank that the men sat on, running along the port side of the ship.
The skeleton of Lt. George E. Dixon, the commander, was found beneath the forward conning tower, where he had controlled the ship's movements. Other men's bones were beneath the bench. One man had carved the bench so there was more room for the hand crank to turn without slamming his knuckles on the wood as they worked.
"It still remains a mystery why the sub was lost," Neyland said.
Earlier theories were that a shot fired from the Housatonic as the Hunley attacked had blown out a porthole, with the bullet hitting Dixon in the head and the hole in the conning tower allowing water to flood in. But that has been discounted, and scientists now believe the hole may have happened later, perhaps decades after the Civil War, maybe when an anchor smashed into the wreck.
The bones showed no sign of panic among the crew, he said. They were not piled on top of each other trying to open the conning tower — they were basically at their stations.
"These were all very hardened men," he said. They were able to control feelings of panic.
The most amazing artifact was a dented coin. In the years before the Hunley was discovered, descendants of a woman named Queenie Bennett passed down the story that she had given a $20 gold piece to Dixon when he left for the war.
During the Battle of Shiloh, a Yankee bullet smashed into his leg and would have severed an artery and killed him, except that it had hit the gold piece in his pocket, the story went.
When Dixon's remains were excavated, archaeologist Maria Jacobsen found the gold coin. It was dented where the bullet had hit it and traces of lead remained on it. On one side this was engraved: "Shiloh. April 6, 1862. My Life Preserver. G.E.D."
Besides old injuries that had healed and Dixon's wounded thigh bone, no injuries were found among the skeletons. That showed the theory about a bullet striking Dixon through the porthole was false.
Another mystery concerned a Union dog tag that one of the Hunley's crewmen wore. Genealogists were able to find the grave of a relative of the man thought to be on the Confederate submarine. The woman's body was exhumed, DNA was taken, and scientists matched the crewman's DNA with that of his relative.
That showed the Union soldier whose name was on the dog tag was not among the Hunley's crew. The crewman probably picked the dog tag up from a nearby battlefield as a souvenir.
The Hunley's compass, signal lantern, crewmen's canteens, a pencil stub, a candle, 16 shoes, Dixon's gold watch (stopped at the time of the attack on the Housatonic), bits of clothing fabric, buttons, all were excavated inside the sub.
Archaeologists also recovered a diamond-encrusted woman's ring, found with Dixon's remains. Without much doubt, 140 years ago it was intended for the finger of Dixon's beloved Queenie Bennett.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com

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