CSS Hunley: Submarine’s Hatch May Have Cost All Their Lives

How often and where in modern America does a television news anchor break into routine programming with a “news bulletin” from the Civil War?

This has happened maybe once this Century: in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 14, 2006!

Marine archeologists and historians investigating the once lost remains of the submarine CSS Hunley in Charleston made a shocking discovery in July 2006: The forward hatch of that vessel was not properly secured and locked into its diving position when the sub was recovered on August 8, 2000.
Css hunley on pier.jpg

Using X-rays and forensic analysis, archaeologists and others working to restore the submarine recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Sullivan’s Island have found evidence the forward hatch may have been opened intentionally on the night the sub sank.

The forward hatch was one of two ways crew members got into and out of the sub. Covered with concretions plus a thick layer of sand and other ocean debris, X-rays revealed that the hatch is open about half an inch, after more than five years of preservation and detailed investigative work.

Historians and archaeologists concluded earlier that rods that could have been part of the hatch’s watertight locking mechanism were found at the feet of the sub’s commander, Lt. George Dixon.

Now that evidence leads investigators working on the Hunley to think that maybe the hatch was opened intentionally.

“The position of the lock could prove to be the most important clue we have uncovered yet and offers important insight into the possibilities surrounding the final moments before the submarine vanished that night,” said Hunley Commission chairman state Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston.

Had the hatch been intentionally unlocked, there are several possible explanations.

Dixon could have opened the hatch to survey his vessel after successfully attacking and sinking the USS Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864. Housatonic exploded after Dixon maneuvered Hunley and rammed a black powder filled drum or “torpedo” into Housatonic’s side. Housatonic became the first ship in history destroyed by a submarine.

Dixon or another crewmember could also have opened the hatch to allow fresh air into the stifling hot submarine.

Finally, an emergency sighting by Yankee boats could have led the Hunley’s crew to open the hatch to abandon ship. Historians know that after the Hunley attacked Housitonic Union seamen searched the nearby waters for the attacker using small boats. But Hunley’s after escape hatch was found in the locked position, so many doubt that a submarine evacuation was attempted by Hunley’s crew on the night of Feb. 17, 1864.

“If the Hunley crew opened the hatch, it must have been for a critical reason,” said archaeologist Michael Scafuri. “Even on a calm day, three-foot swells can occur out of nowhere on the waters off Charleston. Every time the hatch was opened, the crew ran the deadly risk of getting swamped.”
In her brief but historic service with the Confederate Navy, Hunley sank three times, killing a total of 21 crew members.

Although scientists said the new discovery of the open forward hatch could help determine the cause of the sinking, it also is possible that the lock was damaged after the sub sank and the hatch opened while it sat on the ocean floor. Further investigative work is underway.

Hunley has become a huge tourist draw for those interested in the Civil War, the evolution of the submarine and marine archeology. CSS Hunley and her many historic artifacts are open to tourists at the old U.S. Naval Station in Charleston.The crown jewel of Charleston’s Civil War heritage, Fort Sumter, draws approximately 280,000 visitors annually, despite a thirty minute boat ride each way. The fort, which participated in the first artillery duel of the Civil War in April 1861, is accessible only by boat during a trip that also offers breathtaking views of the historic city.

Charleston also has many beautiful surviving antebellum buildings; including the old trading market, the old slave market, several lovely churches including St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (one of dozens of National Historic Landmarks), and many other private homes and public buildings still in use today. Many are open for tours.

Charleston’s many pre-Civil War cobblestone streets and architecture copied from ancient Greek and Roman structures offers a unique historic journey back in time. Charleston even has horse or mule drawn carriage rides complete with tour guides in period Civil War costume. Barns and stables just a block from the old market give the old city the air of Civil War history.

The author of the book “Charleston at War,” Jack Thomson, gives Civil War walking tours daily in old Charleston. He is known for his expertise and is considered a town character in his own right.

The Museum of Charleston has a full-size replica of the Hunley in an outdoor display near the museum entrance. Unfortunately, the museum has been sometimes slow to keep up with Hunley revelations.

“The spar used to position the explosive mine on Yankee ships was actually affixed to Hunley’s keel,” Charleston architect and part-time City historian Gary Boehm said. The museum has yet to update the replica with information discovered by Hunley investigators.

Charleston remains a lovely and unique Civil War tour destination filled with people that cherish her history and culture.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. He recently explored Charleston.

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