- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

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, S.C.

Marine archaeologists and historians in Charleston investigating the once-lost remains of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley made a shocking discovery on July 14: The forward hatch of that vessel was not properly secured and locked into its diving position when the sub was recovered on Aug. 8, 2000.

Using X-rays and forensic analysis, archaeologists and others working to restore the submarine, which was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, have found evidence that 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. The hatch is covered with concretions plus a thick layer of sand and other ocean debris, but after more than five years of preservation and detailed investigative work, X-rays revealed that the hatch is open about half an inch.

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,” says the chairman of South Carolina’s Hunley Commission, state Sen. Glenn McConnell, Charleston Republican.

Had the hatch been unlocked intentionally, 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. The Housatonic exploded after Dixon maneuvered the Hunley and rammed a black-powder-filled drum or “torpedo” into the Housatonic’s side. The Housatonic became the first ship in history to be destroyed by a submarine.

Dixon or another crew member also could 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 the Housatonic, Union seamen using small boats searched the nearby waters for the attacker. However, the Hunley’s aft escape hatch was found in the locked position, so many doubt that the crew attempted an evacuation.

“If the Hunley crew opened the hatch, it must have been for a critical reason,” says 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, the Hunley sank three times, killing a total of 21 crew members.

Although scientists say the 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 that the hatch opened while the submarine sat on the ocean floor. Further investigation is under way.

The Hunley has become a huge tourist draw for those interested in the Civil War, the evolution of the submarine and marine archaeology. The Hunley and its 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 about 280,000 visitors annually despite a 30-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, such as the old trading market and the old slave market, as well as several lovely churches, including St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (a National Historic Landmark) and many private homes and public buildings still in use. Many are open for tours.

Charleston’s many pre-Civil War cobblestone streets and architecture copied from ancient Greek and Roman structures offer a unique historic journey back in time.

Jack Thomson, author of the book “Charleston at War,” 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 sometimes has been 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 says. 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 who cherish its history and culture.

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

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