New Hunley discovery may alter interpretation

I’ve been posting much about the low country of late.  So this news item fits in line.  From the Charleston Post and Courier:

Hunley legend altered by new discovery

For nearly 150 years, the story of the Hunley’s attack on the USS Housatonic has been Civil War legend.

And it has been wrong.

Scientists have discovered a piece of the Confederate submarine’s torpedo still attached to its spar, debunking eyewitness accounts that the Hunley was nearly 100 feet away from the explosion that sent a Union blockade ship to the bottom of the sea off Charleston in 1864.

Instead, the Hunley and its eight-man crew were less than 20 feet from the blast. And that changes everything about the story — and possibly even provides a clue as to why it sank.

“I would say this is the single-most important piece of evidence we have found from the attack,” said Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist on the Hunley project.

Basically, Hunley conservators found a piece of the torpedo’s copper shell, peeled back from the blast, when they removed a century of hardened sand and shell from the submarine’s 20-foot spar. The torpedo was bolted to the spar, contradicting the conventional wisdom that the torpedo was planted in the side of the Housatonic with a barb like a fishing hook, slipped off the spar and then detonated by rope trigger when the sub was a safe distance away.

Instead, the Feb. 17, 1864, attack off Charleston was a dangerous, close-quarters assault that risked the sub and crew.

“This changes some things,” said Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, longtime chairman of the state Hunley Commission. “They were much closer to the explosion than we believed, but I don’t believe this was a suicide mission.”

Read full article here.  And take a look at the photo gallery here.

By my count this is the third “interpretation” of how the designers of the Hunley fixed the torpedo for the final mission (and I’m sure there are other interpretations I’ve missed).  Prior to the submarine’s recovery in 2000, the most often depicted arrangement was some form of contact device centered on a spar projecting from the top deck of the vessel.  The replica outside the Charleston Museum has just such a setup.

Charleston 4 May 10 097
Replica of H.L. Hunley

Such positioning would require the submarine to be well submerged in order to contact it’s target below the waterline.  And of course it would place the submarine in close proximity to the resultant explosion.  But this was based on contemporary sketches of the submarine.

Later interpretations had some sort of barb on the torpedo to fix the explosive to the target.  That interpretation held that a release line played and triggered the explosion when the submarine had backed off sufficiently.

Depiction on the Friends of the Hunley Site

This interpretation has the spar fixed to the bottom of the vessel and is backed up with documentary evidence.  Andy has a more detailed discussion on this setup posted.   The documents also indicate the torpedo had three fuses, in order to ensure the detonation.

With this latest discovery, the interpretation leans towards the torpedo arranged to explode under the target ship – the USS Housatonic.  If so, that’s actually more dramatic than my mundane description allows.  From a technical perspective, this means the Confederates had already determined the optimum position to detonate a torpedo in order to sink a ship – directly beneath it.  However, not until after World War II would technical advances produce a weapon to achieve such effects with consistency.

One thing for sure, what we know of the Hunley will continue to evolve as the artifacts reveal their portion of the story.


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