Monday, July 09, 2007

Riddle of a Confederate Submarine

By Joe McClain
July 09, 2007

In its brief career, the H.L. Hunley was a success and a failure. Now, years after its resurrection, the Confederate submarine is a mystery and a research project.

The Hunley was the first submarine in history to sink an enemy vessel. On a quiet February night in 1864--six years before Jules Verne's fictional 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea--the Hunley rammed a spar into the stern area, planting a torpedo into the hull of the USS Housatonic, one of the Union ships blockading Charleston harbor. The Hunley's crew reversed its crank drive, backing away from the Housatonic before detonating the torpedo, sinking the Housatonic. The Hunley surfaced to send a "mission accomplished" signal, but like Verne's Nautilus, the Hunley didn't come back.

William and Mary geology student Jason Lunze is no Captain Nemo, but shipwrecks have always fascinated him. As a kid, he would walk the beach near his grandparents' home on Mobjack Bay and pick up Colonial-era pipe stems and other artifacts. His interest in the Confederate submarine dates back to grade school.

"I was aware of the Hunley probably since I was about six years old," Jason said. "One of my first grade school teachers had noticed my interest in shipwrecks and lent me one of his personal books. At that time they were still looking for the Confederate submarine. I thought it rather fascinating but I never thought they would actually find it; it is rather a small article to find lost in a rather large ocean."

"Where" Becomes "Why"
Not only was the Hunley found, in 1995; it also was recovered. In fact, the Hunley is on public display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, South Carolina. If you want to see the Hunley, you'll have to go on a Saturday, because during the week, archaeologists are working to preserve the Hunley and to solve the remaining mystery-why did it sink?

"The H.L. Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel, but it was lost shortly thereafter," Jason said. "It was somewhat of a technological marvel of its day, and that can be emphasized by the secrecy in which it was moved from Mobile to Charleston. A special train car was constructed to conceal its identity during its entire journey."

Not all the work on the Hunley is being done in Charleston. Jason Lunze is adding pieces to the solution of the mystery from the College of William and Mary. A geology major and marine archaeology buff, Jason got involved through Rowan Lockwood of William and Mary's geology department, who put him in touch with M. Scott Harris of Costal Carolina University, a William and Mary alumnus who has a record of collaborating with faculty at his alma mater. Harris is temporarily reassigned, working on the Hunley team.

Jason thought work involving the sedimentation of the Hunley might make a good geology project, but Harris told him there was no suitable sedimentation work. "But he had a project on the formation of rusticles within the submarine, and I said that I'd love to work on the project," Jason said.

Bacterial Condos
Scientific examination of the bacterial colonies that create rusticles--and the minerals produced by the bacteria--can provide insight into a number of conditions, present and past, in sunken iron vessels. Jason received five rusticles removed from the sub's interior.

"The samples that I collected from the H.L. Hunley are dead colonies," Jason said. "The submarine was in-filled with sediment, which stopped their growth. This gives us a good view of what the inside conditions were like before the sediment in-fill completely killed off the colonies."

He has been using a variety of nondestructive analytical techniques to examine his rusticles. He has worked with Bob Pike of William and Mary's chemistry department, but does the majority of his work in the Surface Characterization Lab in the Applied Research Center. Jason keeps his rusticles wet, to avoid oxidation. In fact, the entire Hunley hull is kept under water in a preservation tank.

"The samples have to be dry in order to run the analytical techniques," Jason explained. "So I have to dry them out first." The drying process involves placing a rusticle sample in a desiccating vacuum chamber, adding argon gas, which helps the process by displacing air.

Jason, who expects to graduate in 2008, will be busy on rusticle tests for the next four to six months. He will write up his findings in a senior thesis and hopes to have a paper accepted into a peer-reviewed journal. He characterizes his work as "a small brick in the wall of knowledge" on the H.L. Hunley that ultimately may solve the mystery of the innovative warship that accomplished its mission, but didn't come back.



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