H.L. Hunley Exhibit

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I wasn’t sure when I’d be back in the Charleston area again, and I wanted to see the HL Hunley because... it’s the only place you can see it.  The Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship which it did in 1863 on a blockade ship, USS Housatonic, outside of Charleston harbor.   The Hunley is at times referred to as the CSS Hunley, but although the Confederacy took possession of it, it was never formally commissioned.


The wreck is located in a building at the former Naval base in Charleston, where it is immersed in water to prevent exposure to air and thus corrosion, while researchers continue to assess it.  The exhibit is open only on weekends, for $12 per person.  Tours begin every 20 minutes – the space is ample and it takes no more than an hour to see the ship and take in the related exhibits. 

It was news to me that Clemson University has a Restoration Institute, never mind that they are conducting research on developing new processes for digitally documenting and conserving metal artifacts that have suffered extreme corrosion.  As a graduate, that pleases me.  That said...


It’s widely reported that a dive team led by novelist Clive Cussler discovered the wreckage, and that story is what is provided during the tour.  The subject Wiki provides an alternative history that supports two previous discoveries, the earliest being by E. Lee Spence in 1970.  In that Spence granted his rights to the State, I’ll bow to the legal path that suggests he had the acknowledged rights to do so.  Still, it makes me wonder why I saw no mention of this at the Center.  My guess is that his celebrity helped fund the recover of the ship, and Spence doesn’t have a publisher of note.  Truth matters, folks, most especially in educational matters.

The map provided shows where the Hunley was found, 1000’ seaward of the USS Housatonic (and in 27’ of water).  No one knows why the ship sank, but this positioning works against the notion of “Let’s get back to safety quick!" which would suggest on a path back to shore.  The Hunley is reported to have risen to the surface after its attack to signal its success; it just never returned.  Interestingly, the bow was pointed in the correct direction for a return to Sullivan’s Island.  If you click the picture below, it will enlarge.


The exhibit area is decent, with a clear emphasis on entertaining children.  Signage is simply worded, and there are interactive things for kids (like me) to climb in and poke their heads through.


There are actually two hulls.  The one above was clearly built for kids with “parent observation panels,” while the one below was used in a movie about the Hunley.  The observer should understand that the hull is10% larger than the real thing.


Groups of 20 or so are led up to this observation deck so that they can view the ship within its tank.


There are windows that provide a very distracting view of the ship, not just for photography but for plain viewing.  Still, there it is, a rusted hulk.




Standing next to the life-size display (accurate to oxidation levels, I think) below gives a truer sense of proportion than playing in the toys in the lobby area.


I suppose there is an interest in seeing a historical thing.  But there’s always more to it than that.  For example, a visit to Andersonville (GA) Prison has a view of a very nicely maintained field where Union prisoners were once held.  The exhibits, though, speak to the human condition which weighs on the mind long afterward.  To a lesser extent, some of the same can be found here.

The crew of eight, no surprise, died.  What is interesting is that they did so after 18 had died in very recent test dives, including Horace Hunley, who was involved at the beginning of its design.  The cut-away picture below provides a reliable semblance of their positioning.  The pipes extending upward near the captain are snorkel tubes for fresh air if they were just under the surface, but there would be enough oxygen for up to two hours if submerged.


The manholes and the ship itself had a basis in boiler design, pressurized tanks used for power and heat.  The entry into the submarine is very difficult “square shouldered” except for children or small adults.  It typically requires extending the arms through, after which the head and body follow.  In other words, in the event of an emergency, exiting is not as simple as just standing up.  It’s a very tight fit that requires squeezing through.  It’s hard to imagine climbing inside of this, shuffling for position and commencing in darkness.

Which is why they had a candle.


The attack was not as seemingly simple as running into a ship with an explosive charge held at, relatively speaking, arm’s length.  There was a forcing of the explosive into the ship, but then the Hunley backed away as a 150’ detonation rope played out.  Maybe.  Despite the notation on the successful signal to the shore, one conservator now thinks the torpedo was fully attached to the spar, meaning that the crew was only 20’ from the explosion.  In either case, one can only imagine the men sitting on the bench and the jolt of the collision/explosion then having to re-find their positions to reverse the crank shaft.  In that the spar was recovered and the explosion was large enough to sink a ship after several minutes, I’d have to think the Hunley wasn’t there for a front row seat.

Clearly, there remains much to learn and settle, but it remains a human story of very brave men.

There are other “finds” at the Center, including personal effects of the crew and the steel beam that held the explosive.  Facial reconstructions of the crew have also been done as more research into the crews of the Hunley continue.

If you’re in the Charleston area, it’s well worth planning a visit.

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