One hundred thirty-six years after it forever changed the course of naval warfare, the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in combat returned to an enthusiastic heros welcome on Aug. 8. Cradled in a sling especially designed for this purpose, the Confederate submarine, H.L. Hunley, rose to the surface of Charleston Harbor shortly after 8:30 a.m., amid the cheers of thousands who had gathered to celebrate this long overdue homecoming.
A trio of experts from the Naval Historical Center (NHC) in Washington, D.C., which has been involved since H. L. Hunleys discovery in 1995, were on hand for the excitement. Dr. Dave Conlin, archeological field manager and Claire Peachey, assistant archeological field manager and conservator, joined Hunley Project Director Dr. Robert Neyland, in the celebration.
"When Hunley broke the surface, I felt relief, elation and, really, amazement," said Neyland, who has been on loan to the South Carolina Hunley Commission from the Naval Historical Center since 1998. "Also it was very moving to see that this sub was actually very attractive. It was beautiful sleek, gracefully built. Its really a marvel. To think that this was built in 1863! I think its something Americans can be proud of."
Comparing the impact of exploding developments in submarine technology at the time to the impact of the Wright brothers aircraft, Neyland called H. L. Hunley an important part of American Naval tradition.
"I think the story is very appealing to Americans with its technological ingenuity, individual initiative, individual courage and self-sacrifice," he said. "These are all things I think Americans take pride in and like to think of a unique to Americans, especially people in the military."
H.L. Hunley, which sank with its crew of nine on Feb. 17, 1864, shortly after blowing up the Union blockader, USS Housatonic, was a leader in the Civil War arms race. Called the "Souths secret weapon," H. L. Hunley was built by some of the best engineers of their time, but was never commissioned, in the Confederate Navy. Named after its second captain, who perished along with his crew during sea trials, the ill-fated H. L. Hunley sank three times, killing a total of 22 young men.
But for a quirk of fate, things might have gone differently that dark night in Charleston Harbor. According to Neyland, the Union submarine, Alligator, was intended for use in Charleston, but it was lost under tow off Cape Hatteras.
Neyland said he expects to learn a great deal from H.L. Hunley and the ingenuity of its designers during the seven-to-ten year span of the conservation process.
"They were solving problems without having the supporting technologies that people had for submarines in WW I," Neyland said. "They were experimenting with electro-chemical batteries, so they were way ahead of their time! During the Civil War, periscopes were first used on subs, and they attempted diver deployment, especially on some of the Northern submarines. So heres something that I think is a big part of American Naval history that we can really be proud of and learn from."
Under the agreement between the Navy and the State of South Carolina, the Navy will retain title to the vessel and its artifacts, while South Carolina has the right to display them. Naval Historical Center, as the Navys representative, will continue to play a role.
"NHC was at the forefront, and still is, in protecting naval shipwrecks, whether they be U.S. Navy, or Confederate Navy or even foreign navy vessels in our waters, based on the principles of reciprocity," he explained. "If we protect foreign navy vessels in U.S. waters, they will protect U.S. Navy shipwrecks in foreign waters. (The U.S.) has several thousand shipwrecks in foreign waters. In fact, we surveyed wrecks off Normandy at the same time this summer as (the Hunley recovery) was going on."
For now, H. L. Hunley rests in chilled fresh water in Building 255, at the former Charleston Naval Base.
"The state (of South Carolina) put $2.6 million into renovating this building and turning it into a state-of-the-art conservation lab, perhaps the best one in the nation for doing large artifacts, "Neyland said. "One of the ironies of the Hunley is that were using some of the most advanced 20th century technology to investigate the mysteries of one of the most advanced 19th century technologies."
Point of Contact: LT Steven T. Gibson, USN, Public Affairs Officer, Naval Historical Center, 202/433-0412.
H.L. Hunley bow view
H.L. Hunley breaking the surface For a larger image (365kb)
H.L. Hunley propeller view For a larger image (203kb)
18 August 2000