The Mysterious Sinking
The mysterious sinking of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley has confounded historians for decades. Sinking on February 17, 1864, after a successful mission, no one can figure out why the crew of eight lost their lives in the darkest depths of the ocean.
One of the few submarines in commission by the Confederate States of America, the H.L. Hunley played a small part in the American Civil War. Nearly 40 feet in length, the submarine was built in Mobile, Alabama, in 1863 and sank a total of three times during its testing phase. On the second sinking, all eight of the crew were killed, including the designer of the submarine, Horace Hunley.
Despite its rocky start, the submarine was recovered after each sinking and placed back into commission. Designed to attack with a spark torpedo, the H.L. Hunley would dive six feet below the surface and jam a torpedo into the hull of its target. Then, after moving away, the torpedo would detonate by a mechanical trigger.
Civil War Success
The H.L. Hunley became the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship when it launched an attack on the USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864. Unfortunately, on this fateful day, the Hunley would signal that it had completed the mission successfully and it was never seen again.
The Top Secret Plan
According to records, the plan for after the attack was for the submarine to dive underwater and return to Sullivan’s Island. The commander back at the base reported he received a signal up to an hour after the successful attack, which was two “blue lights.” This was collaborated by the captain of the U.S.S. Housatonic, who stated he saw lights in the water after his ship sank.
150 Years of Questions
The crew and the sub sank to the ocean floor in a mystery that has continued to confuse people for 150 years. So what killed the crew of H.L. Hunley? For years, no one really knew for sure. The only things that could be determined were that the crew was killed swiftly and no physical injuries were ever accounted for.
There have been many theories as to why the Hunley sank. Some believe that the submarine had been unintentionally hit by another vessel that has come to the crew of the Housatonic’s rescue. Another claim is that the submarine had not moved far enough away before the torpedo detonated. This would have killed the crew instantly since they would have been in the blast radius.
First Wreckage Sighting
The wreckage of the Hunley was first discovered by Dr. William Dudley, the Director of Naval History at the Naval Historical Center. At the time, the submarine and its contents were valued at over $40 million. However, it wouldn’t be until 1995 that a dive crew would physically lay eyes on the submarine, which had been covered in layers of silt, keeping it protected for over 100 years.
The Resurface of the Hunley
The moment many had been waiting for came on August 8, 2000, when a recovery crew brought the submarine to the surface. Maybe now, after all these years, the truth about why the Hunley sank would finally be revealed!
The Preservation Process
The submarine was swiftly placed in a freshwater tank where it would await preservation. During this time researchers began to examine the hull and found no signs of any damage. They even unsealed the crew compartment and couldn’t find any evidence that would point to a cause of death.
As researchers continued to examine the submarine, more theories began to evolve. Some believe that the submarine miscalculated their diving depth and oxygen levels, which caused the crew to asphyxiate. Another popular theory was that a bullet was fired through the porthole, which killed the captain. This would have left the crew with no ability to make it back home.
A Prominent Theory
However, one previous theory has continued to be researched by biomechanist Rachel Lance—she believes that the explosion, caused by the torpedo, is what ended the crew’s lives and sank the submarine. In order to expand on her theory, Lance built a miniature model of the H.L. Hunley and replicated the explosion in a pond. Inside the model was a pressure gauge that showed the shockwave created by the blast.
The Deadly Shockwave
According to her findings, Lance believes that such a shockwave hit all of the crewmembers and when it reached their lungs, it triggered all of their blood vessels to rupture in a pulmonary hemorrhage. Lance stated that the wave would have been lethal and the injuries immediate—there would have been no way anyone on the submarine could have survived.
Still Not Conclusive Evidence
While the research and models are not conclusive evidence, it is the closest anyone has come to determine what actually happened to the H.L. Hunley. The theory also compliments the findings over the years that there was no physical damage to the hull or the crew’s compartment.
The Mystery Continues
Despite the new evidence and research, scientists still haven’t been able to find an official cause of the submarine’s sinking and it’s crew’s deaths, although theories continue to shed new light on the fateful sinking. What do you think happened to the H.L. Hunley?