Handling the Hunley – A Exploration of History in Charleston
It’s no secret that Charleston is extremely well known for its American history, but what many residents and visitors tend to forget as they cross over the Cooper River bridges is that history is still being made here every day…
Let me begin by taking you back to Charleston for the Civil War: The debate between the North and the South on slavery is heated and not looking as if it can be resolved with discussion. The North wants the South to give up their plantations, the rights to slave ownership, and build factories. The South however, refuses to release their slaves and conflict continues. So after Lincoln’s political election victory, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina becomes the first to secede from the Union. Charleston rejoices the secession with fireworks, cannon fire, and ringing bells.
A few short weeks later on January 9, 1861 Citadel cadets open fire on the Union ship Star of the West in Charleston’s harbor. Star of the West was used to bring military supplies and reinforcements to Fort Sumter. The official start of the war comes yet another couple of months later on April 12, 1861 when General Pierre G.T. Beauregard opens fire on the Union-held Fort Sumter. After 34 hours of bombardment, Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort for what would be known as the first Confederate victory in the Civil War. This victory lead President Lincoln to order Union forces to begin a blockade of all Southern ports.
Entrance of the Hunley to the Civil War: Years after the first victory for the Confederacy, the Yankee Union has moved South and has destroyed much of the land and cities, bringing despair with them. Confederate soldiers are starving and low on ammunition but refuse to give up even though they are basically surrounded by land and sea. The South attempts to win in water warfare and keep Charleston Harbor open from the North’s war ships with the Hunley.
In August 1863, after news of successful trial runs, the Hunley was moved to Charleston, SC from Mobile, AL, where it was built, for her first and only attack against a live target, the USS Housatonic. The Hunley readied itself for the attack but sadly disappeared off the end of the Fort Johnson wharf on August 29, 1863. General Beauregard ordered it to be raised immediately after the first sinking. Sadly 5 of the 9 crew members had drowned since they were not prepared for the submersion of the sub.
For the second attempt to attack the Union blockade, the Hunley was outfitted with a crew from Mobile who were familiar with her, including inventor Horace L. Hunley himself, to man the ship. Once more, the Hunley sank during a routine diving exercise, this time leaving no survivors. Several days of bad weather prevented another immediate excavation, but when divers submerged, they were shocked to discover her bow stuck in the mud with the hull at a 30 degree angle. It appeared she sank nose first very quickly.
Months of repair, refurbishing, and practice runs lay ahead of the Hunley before she was ready for her third and last attempt to stop the blockage. General Beauregard had become suspicious of the twice-fatal sub but at the urging of Lieutenant George Dixon he agreed to let it run one more time.
On the night of February 17, 1864, the Hunley made her way out to the open water of sea just outside the Charleston Harbor about four miles from Breach Inlet in between Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms. Approaching the USS Housatonic, the Hunley was kept safe since the ships cannons couldn’t aim so low. The Hunley punctured the ship with its metal spar, lodged a torpedo inside and quickly backed away. Moving far enough from the ship to rise and signal the shore of Sullivan’s Island with a blue light showing a successful mission, both the sub and ship were then rocked with destruction. Once more, the sub and her crew of 8 were lost.
The Hunley became the first ever submarine to sink an enemy war ship. Questions were immediately raised as to why the sub sank and if she could ever be recovered. 137 years after she sank, the Hunley was discovered just outside the Charleston Harbor by author and adventurer Clive Cussler in 1995 and raised in 2000. Since its recovery the Hunley had been kept in a salt-water tank at the former Charleston Navy Base in North Charleston while crews worked to preserve it and figure out the riddle of the sinking.
This past summer the Hunley was righted for the first time in over a century and a little more than two weeks ago, the outer truss that held the sub in place and protected its iron shell since its raising has been removed. Visitors to the museum can now completely see the entirety of the sub for the first time since 1864. Also new to the Hunley is the chemical bath the archeologists have exchanged for salt water as they hope to preserve the iron by slowly drawing the salt out.
Though the Hunley will never again be seen in battle, an organization named “Friends of the Hunley” plans to open Hunley Museum in a few years once preservation is complete so visitors and residents alike can view the historic sub responsible for the first enemy war ship sinking.
If you’d like to explore Charleston further, Charleston Harbor Tours is doing free tours for Tri-County residents this Sunday, January 29, 2012, onboard the Carolina Belle at 11:30, 1:30, and 3:30. Just show up 30 minutes before the tour at the Charleston Maritime Center to be instructed on where to go.
- Amanda Graham