- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

Love dies, ships sink. What would literature be without these verities? Take Raising the Hunley:
The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine by Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf (Ballantine, $25, 322 pages) for a vivid example. Had the 40-foot iron rebel submarine NOT sunk off Charleston Harbor in February of 1864, it would no doubt have held its place as a fascinating footnote to Civil War history.
The Hunley, after all, was an astounding innovation for its time a midget submarine with a deadly warhead that could blow up any size of Union ship unseen. It was a weapon such as Adolf Hitler dreamed of in 1944; it was the secret weapon which could have broken the Union blockade of Southern ports and prolonged or even altered the outcome of the Civil War.
But like Hitler's jet fighter and his pilotless rockets, the Hunley came just too late to make a difference. And besides, she sank mysteriously after making one epic attack and sinking the Union warship Housatonic. That failed mission seems to have taken the energy out of the South's daring submarine program, and the war ended a year and three months later, unaffected by a weapon that didn't work well enough. Even if she had not sunk, it's doubtful whether the dozens of Hunleys needed to make an impact on the blockade could have been built and deployed, considering the desperate state of economics and manufacturing in 1864 Charleston, S.C.
Yet with the sinking and with the subsequent discovery and elaborate recovery of the hull of the doomed sub 130 years later an entire new category of U.S. Naval history is enlarged and enlightened. The Hunley is a shining chapter in sea archaeology as well as fresh naval history. There is nothing like a sunken ship to keep the pages turning.
Forget that this was a minor episode, an unreliable ship, and unlike the famous ironclad Monitor, not really a turning point in the history of warfare. The sinking and recovery of the South's secret weapon in the hands of two capable, if slightly overwrought journalists, Mr. Hicks and Mr. Kropf, becomes a fascinating Southern story. Ably reported, smoothly written, the story is carefully and well told, as veil after veil is removed from the core mystery of the Hunley.
Like the recovery of the Monitor from her grave off the Hatteras Cape (where she ingloriously sank during a tow), the discovery of the Hunley captured the imagination of the South and of Charleston. It combined beloved history of "the lost cause," vivid proof of Southern genius and courage, and a healthy dose of up-to-date forensic science.
For Charleston, the whole drama played out at the doorstep, not far from the stone jetties which direct the muddy waters of the Cooper and the Ashley Rivers into the Atlantic. For the two reporters it was the story of a lifetime. It all began, or at least was firmly kicked along, by a famous American painting: In 1863 realist painter Conrad Wise Chapman, a wounded Confederate soldier reassigned to easy duty by the high command, painted a detailed realistic portrait of a metal submarine in dry dock, loosely guarded by two men, one of whom is the painter himself.
The painting, thought by many to be a fanciful elaboration of a crude tub made of a disused ship's boiler, was a vivid reminder of the episode and the miraculous hopes it represented. But it also kept alive the mystery. The Hunley's last mission sank a large Yankee ship. Then the self-propelled submarine vanished. Somewhere nearby on the tide swept sands, there just had to be a trace of the wreck.
Sure enough there was. The authors take us through the drama of competing search teams, one of which is led by millionaire treasure hunter, deep sea diver and pretty good thriller writer Clive Cussler. Mr. Cussler had been searching for the Hunley since 1980 with on-and-off frustrating misadventures when on May 3, 2000, he hit the sunken sub where no one expected to seaward of the wreck of the Housatonic, the Union ship the Hunley had destroyed.
It's at this point that the book begins to spin almost out of control. Possession, politics, greed, all play their parts as governments and people spar over the relic. But all the passion that the wreck generates, plus the fact that the remains of eight Confederate sailors are entombed within it, allows the authors to give full rein to silly vaporizing about Confederate heroes and bowdlerized Southern war history in the "forget- Hell" vein.
Luckily science brings the story back to reality, as patient experts explore the wreck in the lab, after it has been lifted from the ocean floor, with infinite care and a great deal of publicity. Amazingly, the crew members' skeletons are still at their assigned posts within the sub; the little undersea ship's, design is remarkably graceful and precisely as Chapman depicted it; archaeologists evolve theories of how the fatal mission ended and discover a mass of details about the men and their ship.
What's the upshot? Ships will always fascinate; the ocean will always remain impenetrable to some degree; shipwreck holds the same lure today as a century and a half ago.

The Last Voyage of the SS Henry Bacon by Donald R. Foxvog and Robert I. Alotta (Paragon House, $24.95, 288 pages), a remarkably simple and guileless tale, tells the story of one of the 2,710 "Liberty" class freight ships built to win World War II but no mere Myrmidon of the sea was the Bacon. Assigned to rescue Norwegians stranded by retreating Nazi forces in 1945, this gallant, unknown ship, which could not steam faster than 9 knots not only completed her mission on the dreaded Murmansk run, but then saved an Allied convoy by becoming a target for German torpedo bombers. Though her captain and senior officers either went down with the ship or died on the frozen seas, most of the refugees were saved. Mr. Foxvog and Mr. Alotta tell a heroic, deadpan tale of hardship and terror.

In Midnight to the North:The Untold story of the Inuit Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition (Penguin/Putnam, $24.95 208 pp.) Sheila Nickerson, former poet laureate of Alaska (such a wonderful title) is determined to spotlight the key role of an Inuit (Eskimo) woman in the strange story of the doomed "Polaris" expedition, the first official U.S. expedition to the North Pole in 1871-1873. The heroine, Tookoolito, proves difficult to mould into the feminist leader the author longs for. Yet this dreamy, poetic telling of an almost forgotten misadventure, one which was replete with northern horrors of starvation, crime and even murder, is remarkable for the beauty of its prose.

The Floating Brothel By Sian Rees (Hyperion Books, $23.95, 256 pages) is at turns hilarious and heart-rending. In it, Mr. Rees, a first-time author, skillfully spins out the tale of the first women to be imported "to parts beyond the seas" the convict settlement of Australia, where 18th-century British justice sent thousands of unfortunates. The book vividly portrays the scarcely credible laws that would condemn, for instance, a woman to burning at the stake for counterfeiting a shilling coin, or transportation for life for shoplifting a square of cloth.
But the centerpiece is the ship Lady Julian on which 237 female prisoners were sent to Port Jackson, Australia, in 1789, a voyage of one month less than a year. Using contemporary records, logs, letters, diaries etc. Mr. Rees artfully brings to life this bizarre voyage, on which each sailor of the crew (and officers as well) were encouraged to choose a "wife" for the duration. Is it any wonder Lady Julian arrived looking like a nursery? Yet some of these often courageous and ill-treated women were to become the honored matriarchs of distinguished Australian families.

Duncan Spencer is a writer in Washington.



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