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Raising the Hunley
Summer/Fall 2001, vol. 6(1)

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*  Raising the Hunley

(photo) Underwater archeologist working on the Hunley project.

"The Park Service preserves and interprets our cultural treasures . . . If you have great resources you have great opportunities for interpreting them to the public, and research feeds the dynamic. "

Bill Lipe

by Joseph Flanagan

The old Charleston Navy Base is a sprawl of aging warehouses, storage tanks, and elevated pipelines. Despite its size, and for all the suggestion of activity, it is strangely quiet. The parking lots are all but deserted. Mothballed ships lie still at dockside. The Navy moved out in 1995, and the place has been quiet since. But in a plain white structure set back off the main road, events are unfolding that have captured the world's attention.

Inside, the setting is a cross between industrial functionality and clinical precision. The uninformed visitor might not understand what is happening here. Surrounded by freshly painted steel and blinking computer equipment, an enormous oblong object the color of earth is suspended in a series of padded nylon straps. It is the focus of what has been called one of the greatest underwater archeological projects ever undertaken, the Confederate submarine Hunley.

Since it was raised from 30 feet below the sea four miles off South Carolina's Sullivan's Island, the Hunley has been the subject of international media attention, a sensation to historians, Civil War buffs, and legions of the curious. Almost every aspect of its story, from the vessel itself-one of the most dramatic innovations of its time and the first sub to sink an enemy ship-to its resurrection from the sea, to the investigation now going on, are singularly unique.

The isolated warehouse where the work is taking place has been converted into a 6,000 square foot, 3 million dollar state-of-the-art conservation facility built expressly for the Hunley. It includes not only the tank holding the sub, but a modern lab and a morgue to examine and treat the remains of the men who perished with the vessel in 1864. Much of the technology, such as X-ray equipment and video scopes, has been donated by businesses such as Fuji and 3M. The lab was constructed with flexibility in mind, since nothing quite like this project has ever been attempted. In fact, new techniques are being developed as work proceeds. Much of the equipment is mobile so it can be moved about as conservation unfolds.

At this writing, archeologists have removed four of the Hunley's hull plates as they painstakingly excavate the hard-packed silt that fills the sub, accounting for a good part of its 23 tons. Examining the contents of the vessel-which has been described as a time capsule-is the latest in a remarkable chain of events that began in May of last year, when the salvage team converged on Fort Moultrie National Monument, the staging point for the recovery. The television networks, magazines, and newspapers picked up the story; a made-for-TV movie had already aired about the sub's historic engagement with the Union ship Housatonic, when both vessels went down. The Hunley had everything: the Civil War, a secret weapon, a mysterious sinking, an amazing undersea find.

But remarkable events had been unfolding since the sub was located in 1995. The settings were less dramatic-government offices and conference rooms-but the cooperation has reached a level rarely seen in archeology or preservation. The South Carolina Hunley Commission, the U.S. Navy, the National Park Service, and the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology have all played crucial roles.The recovery has inspired a surprising array of people, organizations, and agencies to contribute the best they have to offer, and to act as one (see sidebar, page 18).

The South Carolina legislature established the Hunley Commission to represent the state's interests in the sub, ensure its protection, and examine the possibility of recovery. The commission assembled a team of archeologists and conservators-most employed by the College of Charlestown and South Carolina Archives and History, working through the not-for-profit Friends of the Hunley-to handle the project.

Bob Neyland, head of the Naval Historical Center's underwater archeology branch, was appointed to lead the team. From the outset, they knew this much: A few miles off shore lay an archeological Holy Grail, and though the Hunley team stood at the exhilarating juncture of fact and unprecedented possibility, the void between the two appeared unbreachable.

Out of the Deep

In the summer of 1999, Steve Wright of Oceaneering International Advanced Technologies stood before an audience of archeologists, curators, and historians at the Naval Historical Center in Washington D.C. His firm, a prospective subcontractor, had a plan for raising the Hunley. Oceaneering's portfolio included projects you don't typically see from engineering firms, among them recovering the Liberty Bell 7 space capsule and the propeller of the Civil War ironclad Monitor.

There were many concerns about the Hunley, most borne of the paradox that it is a delicate 23-ton artifact. How to raise the sub without disturbing what it holds? How to excavate the silt without its slumping or moving? Would the Hunley, whose skin is a series of riveted plates, hold together if moved? To help his audience visualize the plan, Wright conjured up the image of "a camera case with a custom, foam-fitted support."

Oceaneering proposed lowering two massive, 18-by-12 foot suction piles at either end of the sub. Since they would be anchored to the sea floor by suction, rather than driven in like conventional piles, disturbance to the site would be minimized. The piles would serve as the platform for a large steel box, or truss, that would be lowered over the Hunley. Divers would then excavate the sediment in small sections around the vessel. Custom-made slings would be passed beneath the underside of the sub, attached to the truss by chains. Each sling, made of nylon and surrounded by a sleeve filled with sprayed-in styrofoam, would be connected to a "load cell," or sensor, that would inform a computer at the surface how much weight the sling held, and detect any movement.

In theory, there would not be a moment when the vessel was unsupported. With enough sediment cleared away, the truss, with the Hunley suspended within, could be lifted from the sea by a crane on a barge above.

A 1996 investigation by the Park Service, the Navy, and the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology indicated the idea was feasible. Non-invasive tests of the Hunley's hull suggested the vessel was stable enough to be lifted. Amid all the discussion of physics and heavy objects, Wright observed that "there is no point where it switches from an archeology effort to a recovery effort. This whole thing, from beginning to end, is archeology."

As the plan took shape, interest grew. "Every day someone came into my office to get on the Hunley project," said Wright. "I was turning people away."

When the team set out from its staging area at Fort Moultrie, it included underwater archeologists from the NPS Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, known for its groundbreaking work on wrecks around the world. The unit had done detailed surveys of the battleships Arizona and Utah at Pearl Harbor, worked with French archeologists on the Confederate raider Alabama, and stabilized the Monitor in its undersea grave. SCRU divers were involved with the Hunley early on, and with the expedition poised to raise the sub, they again figured prominently. The dive crew, which numbered 19, was supervised by Dave Conlin of the Park Service (on detail to the Naval Historical Center) who served as field director. It also included archeologists and divers from SCIAA, the Navy, and Oceaneering International.

For the next four months, two teams did 12-hour shifts in the water, with a National Geographic film crew on hand. Live images from the bottom revealed a monochromatic world of swirling brown, with bits of shell and debris giving witness to what archeologists called the "dynamic environment" of swift currents and shifting sand. "Pitch black" is how Conlin described it. "You couldn't even see your hand in front of your face."

Divers on the night crew claimed to have an easier time of it. With their eyes adjusted to the dark, the roiling sediment was not as impenetrable. The suits they wore seemed more designed for space travel than diving; still, what one archeologist described as "a slurry of jellyfish" stung exposed body parts.

Debate arose over what to do with the Hunley's spar-a length of iron used to deliver the sub's explosive charge-which was still attached to the bow with a large nut. There was concern it could be damaged during the lift. The assumption was it had to be cut off after so many years of rust. Brett Seymour of the Park Service descended with a wrench and, to everyone's surprise, simply did the reverse of what the sub's builders did: backed the nut off and freed the spar.

On August 8, 2000, the Hunley was hoisted to the surface intact, canted in its slings at the same 45-degree angle in which it came to rest on the ocean floor more than a hundred years ago. Accompanied by media boats and an armada of onlookers, it began its four-hour journey to the conservation center.

Under the Eye of Science

Bracing himself within the framework of the Hunley's truss, a photographer from National Geographic prepares to capture one of the most anticipated events of the submarine's recovery. The rivets securing a plate in the vessel's midsection have been drilled out; archeologists are preparing for their first look inside. A camera crew films from a rolling platform overhead. Flashes go off around the work area, which, but for the archeologists' voices and the occasional sound of metal on metal, is surprisingly quiet.

The importance of each step is conveyed by impromptu conferences at one end of the tank. Arrayed around the submarine are a handful of high tech work stations, clusters of computer equipment, screens, and other hardware where technicians tap keyboards, watch monitors, and take notes with a quiet sense of purpose.

All this is visible from an elevated viewing area, where a large window offers a view of the tank, the sub, and the work platform. Access is highly restricted, evidenced by the constant presence of South Carolina state troopers. For the most part, visitors observe on large screens in an adjacent room, which houses a gift shop selling memorabilia and props from the TV movie. Proceeds go directly to the project.

In its 136 years on the sea floor, the Hunley established a delicate equilibrium of preservation. As its iron hull oxidized in the salt water, a hardened layer formed around it. The process, known as concretion, is the result of complex microbial and electrochemical reactions. It actually serves as the best protection for the sub and its contents, preventing exposure to oxygen. The vessel's near-total burial in silt-virtually oxygen-free-provided another safeguard.

Disturbing the concretion could be disastrous. Chlorides from the seawater, reacting with oxygen, would start rapid oxidization. If not properly stabilized, the Hunley could suffer more corrosion in six months than it had in well over a century. Keeping the concretion intact was one of the things that made the recovery so complex. When the sub was raised, archeologists noted "not a single crack" in its protective shell.

Though chemical inhibitors can stem corrosion, this was not an option due to the vessel's fragile contents and concern for the researchers' safety. As soon as the Hunley arrived, it was placed in a custom tank filled with fresh water, then refrigerated for several days to inhibit algae and fungi. Ensuring the delicate stabilization is the task of the Friends of the Hunley conservators, who monitor the water's pH, temperature, chlorides, oxygen levels, and conductivity. It is a computerized process, accomplished with custom technology provided by private industry. A cathodic protection system-a series of wires running along the tank's interior-emits a current that inhibits corrosion.The Hunley is submerged over the weekend when no work is done. The rest of the time, it's kept wet overnight with lawn sprinklers.

Besides the remains of the crew, archeologists expect to encounter artifacts of glass, tin, leather, wood, ceramics, and cloth. Stabilizing them will pose a host of challenges, and it could take years before they can be handed over to a museum.

The Hunley in 3-D

For days before the rivets are extracted, technicians from Pacific Survey, Inc., have been moving along the scaffold that surrounds the Hunley, carefully positioning a gray box at various places along the sub's length. Through an aperture at the box's center, laser impulses are constructing, bit by bit, a three-dimensional picture of the vessel, rendered as a ghostly red image on a computer screen about 20 feet away. Recording interconnected reference points on the Hunley, technicians create a "point cloud" conforming to the sub's shape. Modeling software "shrink wraps" the vessel in cyberspace, says one technician-to an accuracy of one millimeter. It is slow and tedious work, but critical to determining how the Hunley is responding to the removal of the rivets. Gamma ray technology is used to see how the plates were assembled and structural members attached.

Virtually everything is photographed, recorded, and entered into a database designed by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center. It is a precise, exhaustive record down to the smallest detail. Every bucket of silt is numbered and dated. Any artifact can be traced back to its bucket and from there to a part of the vessel. Daily work summaries can be generated, and rolls of film-even individual photos-can be precisely tracked. Even drilled-out iron shavings are bagged and identified, traceable to a specific rivet and where it was removed. It is the first tracking system of its kind used on an archeological project, the technicians say.

First Look Inside

News that the first plate is about to be removed has gotten out. From Web cameras positioned around the work area, Internet users can observe the work in progress. Soon, there are so many hits the site can no longer be called up.

Though the place is crowded with some of the most sophisticated equipment ever used on an archeological project, the team must resort to its indispensable low-tech instruments: flat bars and prying tools. They coax the plate loose, revealing the compacted, claylike fill, the "matrix" in which the remains of the crew and their effects are suspended.

The following weeks reveal the secrets-at times mundane, on occasion stunning-that have been hidden within the submarine for over a century. Textiles (possibly the crew's clothing) are removed in blocks of sediment. Archeologists find buttons, a sewing kit, a tobacco pipe, a glass bottle. There was also the somber and inevitable discovery of the eight crew members, and the baffling fact that a Union soldier's identification tag was found among them. Had Ezra Chamberlain, a Connecticut volunteer, defected from the Union to the Confederacy? Had his tag been taken by a crew member of the sub as a souvenir from an earlier battle?

Finally, there was the sensational discovery of the gold coin that the Hunley's skipper, Lieutenant George Dixon, carried with him. A keepsake from his girlfriend, the coin was dented by a bullet during the battle of Shiloh, saving him from injury. As the work continues, more surprises will undoubtedly be discovered. "The excavation will be comparable to reading a good mystery book," says South Carolina Senator Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, "with each day being a new page revealing more about the characters and uncovering more of the clues to solving the mystery of what happened on the final voyage."

Plumbing History's Depths

Beyond the human drama and technological achievement, other aspects of the story bear witness to the Civil War era. Several southern states contributed to the Hunley's design, construction, and operation, ultimately to deliver the vessel into the hands of a centralized government-in a time when their sense of independence was acute. The Hunley also bears witness to socioeconomic change. Though the project was financed by the plantation elite, the technology was developed by southern industries run by an emerging middle class.

The remains of the crew will be analyzed by scientists from the Smithsonian, their facial features reconstructed with the aid of computer software. Ultimately the crew will be buried in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery, alongside those who died during trial runs. Once the restoration of the vessel is complete-expected to take anywhere from seven to ten years-it will go on display at the Charleston Museum.

Far from ending on a February night in 1864, the story of the Hunley has become a continuing saga, one in which the vessel continues to exceed its reputation as an artifact. The project has served as a blueprint for federal-state partnerships, while realizing the rich potential for private involvement in preservation. Though stilled now in its steel cradle, the Hunley exerts a far-reaching influence on how we embrace the past. In the words of Warren Lasch, chairman of Friends of the Hunley, "[It] is becoming more and more a human story and less a war story." In recovering the vessel, administrative barriers dissolved, the line between interests blurred. Undoubtedly many things united the parties. But hovering above it all, in one way or another, was the idea that this was owed to the men of the Hunley. Words like "respect" and "dignity" are just as much a part of the project's vocabulary as technical jargon. Hanging from a steel column in the conservation center is a small, framed list of the crews' names under the words, "In Memoriam." It lacks formality, in fact it seems intentionally discrete and personal. Yet it speaks volumes about the transcendent thing that lies at the heart of preservation: our enduring desire to embrace the human experience.

For more information on the project, go to the Friends of the Hunley website at www.hunley.org.