Sunday, January 01, 2006

Scientist shares insights about Hunley

By Travis Tritten
January 16,2005

Archaeologist tells of findings
James Hunter never met Arnold Becker in life but felt a personal connection when he finally gave the Confederate sailor a burial after 139 years.

Becker was one of eight crewmen entombed in the Civil War-era H.L. Hunley submarine, which sank in 1864 and was recently discovered in waters off Charleston.

Hunter, an underwater archaeologist, was part of the team that found the H.L. Hunley, and was a pallbearer for Becker during a Charleston funeral for the crew in 2004. He spoke about the mystery surrounding the submarine and answered questions Saturday at the H.L. Hunley exhibit in Myrtle Beach.

"For me, [the funeral] was a personal experience," Hunter said "I was the one who took [Becker] out of the sub, and I was the one who put him in the ground."

The 40-foot submersible was the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship in battle, though American submarine technology dates back to the Revolutionary War.

The H.L. Hunley is famous for scuttling the USS Housatonic, a Union war ship that held the North's blockade around Charleston harbor. It was the submarine's only mission and a desperate attempt to break a blockade that was strangling the port city.

The H.L. Hunley successfully sank the Housatonic with a torpedo attached to a long lance but mysteriously never returned to port.

The Hunley may have been lost because of fractures in the hull due to the torpedo blast, tidal currents that drove it to the bottom or it may have been scuttled by a ship coming to the Housatonic's aid, Hunter said.

Hunter and other researchers are dissecting the submarine and its contents, preserved in the iron hull like a time capsule, to learn more about the crew and possibly solve the sub's mysterious fate.

"It is a snapshot of one day in 1864," Hunter said. "We found buttons that obviously came off a Union navy peacoat."

It was winter when the submarine sank, and the Union coat may have been all a Confederate crewman could find to keep warm because of the blockade, he said.

Also, the submarine might have run out of oxygen. The air locked in the hull when the hatches sealed was all the crew had to breath. A single candle measured the amount of remaining oxygen.

The crew sat side by side and cranked a long shaft to propel the submarine through the dark nighttime waters.

Kim Saxon of Washington, D.C., and his two sons spoke with Hunter about the sinking and the H.L. Hunley crew.

"At the time, it would have taken some brave men," Saxon said. "It was pretty much a suicide mission."



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