Sunday, January 01, 2006

Hunley is memorialized in Civil War art

By Bill Bleyer
January 03, 2005

On Feb. 17, 1864, the H.L. Hunley became the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel, but its eight Confederate crewmen paid the ultimate price for setting the precedent.

Since the submarine was raised from the ocean floor off Charleston Harbor, S.C., in the summer of 2000, it has been yielding a treasure trove of artifacts as well as the bones of its crew. Now those discoveries have come together in what historians and other experts describe as the first accurate image depicting the Hunley and its sailors.

That image is "The Final Mission," the latest painting by Cove Neck artist Mort Künstler, who specializes in the Civil War and has been named official artist of the Hunley preservation project in South Carolina.

While there was a remarkably accurate painting made of the sub without its crew by Conrad Wise Chapman, who saw it during the war, and many paintings have been done since then, no one ever got all the details right, historians say, because no artist ever saw all the items carried on the final voyage and there are no known photographs of the crew members.

Künstler included every artifact removed from the silt inside the Hunley - with one exception famous among civil war buffs, a gold coin carried by the captain.

But what really sets the work apart is that the artist has painted the crew based on forensic archaeology of their skeletons and re-creations of their faces by a team led by a Smithsonian Institution scientist.

"I can't think of any other painting where people have actually gone back and used archaeological information to create it," said Robert Neyland, chief underwater archaeologist at the U.S. Naval Historical Center in Washington and the director for the Hunley project.

The painting, showing the submarine with most of its crew on the dock, is expected to be purchased by a South Carolina preservation group at a price to be negotiated and to be displayed with the Hunley.

In the meantime, the artist is making prints available and will sign them in Charleston to help pay for the preservation work during the weekend of April 17-18, when the painting will be officially unveiled and an elaborate funeral will be held for the interment of the crew's remains.

The Hunley's crew made history by hand-cranking its propeller to carry the iron sub out to the Union sloop of war Housatonic. They attached a 135-pound torpedo to the target and sank it along with five of her sailors. The Hunley surfaced long enough for the crew to signal its success with a blue light and then sank without a trace until it was discovered in 1995 by author Clive Cussler, a maritime history buff. To this day, no one knows why the sub sank.

The head of the South Carolina commission overseeing preservation of the Hunley, Glenn McConnell, an art gallery owner and president pro tempore of the State Senate, persuaded Künstler to do the painting by showing him the sub and the site from which it departed.

"It's exciting because I haven't done a reconstruction of a boat from scratch like this before," Künstler said. "It's challenging."

After seeing the finished painting, McConnell said, "I think he has captured both the reality and the feeling of that night."

"No one else has had the information I have," Künstler said. He worked from a model of the Hunley constructed by the conservators in Charleston, drawings and photos, X-rays of artifacts still encased in concreted sediment and on-site examination of artifacts such as Lt. George Dixon's pocket watch.

"Their goal was to get as many of the artifacts coming out of the boat into the painting as possible," Künstler said.

"They discovered a caulking iron and a bucket recently so I put them in the background. I have a compass and compass box in the foreground. So far I've got everything they've taken out of the boat in the painting except the gold coin, which was too small to show and also would have been in Dixon's pocket."

The coin had been given to the sub commander by his girlfriend, and it stopped a bullet at the Battle of Shiloh. So Dixon had "My Life Preserver" engraved on it and always carried it.

But the most unusual part of the project for the artist has been working from the results of the forensic archaeology.

"That's what makes it sort of interesting and mysterious," Künstler said.

While the painting is complete, Doug Owsley, head of the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, said his team is in the final stage of showing what the crew members looked like by blending forensic archaeology and genealogy research.

Using all the information, forensic sculptor Sharon Long has used green clay to represent the missing flesh on casts of the skulls. Eventually, Owsley said, plaster casts of the reconstructed faces will be made for display at the Hunley museum.

All the research should be completed by March, Owsley said. "Then we will be able to settle on who's who."



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