Hunley’s mystery continues…the more clues, the more questions

The H.L. Hunley submarine drama continues to fascinate us centuries after its tragic Civil War combat disappearance.

June 2011 update: Hunley comes to life!
Almost 150 years after its sinking the beloved sub is finally sitting in an upright position.

“It’s as if you are looking at the submarine for the first time,” said conservator Paul Mardikian. “Before it was more like a mass of inert metal. Now it looks like something that had a life.”

Since it was raised in 2000, the Hunley has been kept at a 45 degree angle for conservation purposes. After years of preparation and two days of small incremental rotations the sub is now sitting upright (video courtesy of The Post and Courier).

So close yet so far away…
According to Hunley archaeologist Maria Jacobsen “we are seeing some tantalizing clues on that side,”. However no breakthrough emmerged from a first look at the hidden hull. More info and new Hunley photos here.

Research shows the Hunley’s pumps were not set to bilge, suggesting the crew was not frantically pumping water out of the 40-foot sub’s crew compartment as previously believed. “There doesn’t appear to be a lot of movement,” said Maria Jacobsen, lead Hunley archaeologist. “That’s either because they were unable to move, or whatever happened, happened so fast they didn’t have time to react.”

Fascinating Hunley Facts

Operating the Hunley - State Museum replica

Operating the Hunley - State Museum replica


• World’s first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship…only to perish hours later!

• Found in 1995 it took 5 years to raise it safely for studying…“What we found was that these fellows were drowned, the bodies floated, they decomposed and slowly sank.” – Maria Jacobsen.

• Despite being submerged under water for ~150 years it had an almost intact interior including the eight crewmen remains. More than 3,000 artifacts were collected, most valuable being people’s fingerprints and soft brain tissue still present inside the skulls!

• 3-D laser mapping technologies were used for the first time in an archaeological project to reconstruct the interior at the time of the sinking.

• Hunley had 2 pumps, one forward the other aft. Normally the forward pump drained the forward ballast tank and the aft the back tank. But the men who built the Hunley “rigged the system” so either pump could control the water level in the other tank. A neat safety net that makes understanding the sub all the more difficult…

The Sinking Theories…

• The crew sat the sub down on the ocean floor waiting for a favorable tide and ran out of air.
• The explosion from the charge carried on Housatonic also damaged the sub, flooding and settling the Hunley to the bottom.
• The Canandaigua, another Union war ship that came to aid Housatonic, swamped the Hunley because its hatches were open to allow fresh air into the hull.
• Mother Nature did it…

So where do we go from here?

H.L. Hunley Submarine

H.L. Hunley Submarine


For one, take the pumps apart to figure out what was going on in the submarine. Scientists have already tried peeking with microscopic video cameras, but both pumps are filled with mud.

Some day, with the help of better technology, put the crewmen fingerprints to use. “What we can do with them we don’t know” said Paul Mardikian, senior conservator at the Hunley project.

Meanwhile you can visit this fascinating submarine at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at 1250 Supply Street (on the old Charleston Navy Base) in North Charleston. Tours are offered Saturday from 10 AM – 5 PM and Sunday Noon – 5 PM. Tickets are $12, seniors, military and members pay $10, and kids under 5 get in for FREE. Check the website for details and live Hunley photos.

You can also “play around” at its full size replica on display at the SC State Museum downtown Columbia. Admission to the museum is only $7.

In 2010, I finally got to visit the Hunley. Here are the pictures and the stories of the most amazing artifacts discovered inside the submarine.

Help solve the H.L. Hunley submarine mystery!

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