The buzzing alarm clock at 3:00 AM on August 8, 2000 began one of the most remarkable days of my life. I had been invited by the Friends of the Hunley organization to ride their dignitary boat, the Spirit of Charleston, to observe the raising of the submarine H.L. Hunley
The Hunley was lost when it sank the Federal ship USS Housatonic on the night of Feb. 17, 1864. The submarine was found by author Clive Cussler in 1995. Today, after 136 years, the submarine was to be raised and brought home.
The boat was scheduled to leave the Charleston Municipal Marina at 5:00 and the raising was to be about 8:00.
In the pre-dawn drive to the Marina, I had time to reflect on my association with the Hunley legend. It had started in 1966 when I helped research and design the Hunley replica now on display at the Charleston Museum. My Mechanical Engineering Technology students at Berkeley Charleston Dorchester Technical Education Center, now Trident Technical College, prepared all of the construction drawings for the replica. Welding and machine shop students at TEC, along with their instructors, actually built it.Click for picture of replica.My own four children were small then and because of their interest I had written a children’s book about the Hunley. Now these children were all adults and two had children of their own. I was supposed to meet them on board the Yorktown later on that day to watch the submarine pass. It struck me that building the replica was done 34 years ago and I had been involved with the story of the Hunley for almost one fourth of the time it had been lost.
With this geriatric thought in mind, I boarded the Spirit of Charleston for the ride out to the recovery site. The term dignitary boat was right. Among the passengers were Governor Hodges, former Governor Edwards, Congressman Sandford, the mayors of Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant and several state legislators.
Our destination was a spot four miles off Sullivans Island. The cruise through the dark harbor was pleasant with calm water and the view of the beautiful city. Once we were out past Fort Sumter the situation changed quickly. The sea began to get much rougher as the land faded out of sight. The light house on Sullivans Island got smaller and smaller. The Spirit of Charleston began to pitch and roll. Almost as a revelation, the circumstances the Hunley crew faced became much clearer. Those nine brave men had cranked their fragile little craft out into this open water. However, they had done it in dark, frigid conditions surrounded by hostile war ships. They were not on a pleasure cruise either, their intent was to destroy a ship and break the blockade.
The shape of the 600 ton capacity crane Karlissa B loomed larger and larger and we moored between it and an anchored barge. Between the barge and the crane, there were two small yellow buoys about the size of beach balls. The closest one was about 30 or 40 feet from where we were. Those were the marker buoys for the Hunley. One, closest to us, was tied to the bow and the other the stern. It was difficult for me to grasp that only about 25 feet down from these buoys, the Hunley, and its crew, were waiting.Click for picture of the crane, Karlissa B.Over the next two hours, it slowly became daylight and we could see that the crane was huge. It was not floating but sitting on its legs which were extended to the bottom. Boats of all sizes were gathering to watch the event. One of the biggest was a huge barge that was being positioned by a tug to help shelter the lifting area from the wind and currents. There were other tugs to help move the barge that would carry the Hunley back to land. There was a large boat for the news media anchored opposite to our boat but much further from the lift site. There were many general pleasure boats but there was also a shrimp boat anchored with its outrigger booms extended to both sides. Finally, in an unusual comparison to the bigger boats, there was a single kayak paddling along followed by three or four jet skis.
Click for picture of wreck site and Hunley marker buoys.
Click for picture of barge in place to carry the Hunley.
The crane lowered divers into the water and then lowered its main cable and hook. Suspended from the hook was the rigging for attaching to the lifting cradle that held the submarine. The divers made the connection and the crane began to slowly reel in its cable. The top of the cradle emerged and then, at about 8:35 AM the Hunley broke the surface. After 136 years it was once again in daylight. Boat whistles and sirens blew, people yelled and clapped and some cried.Click for picture of Hunley breaking the surface.The cradle with its fragile cargo was raised and slowly placed on the pitching barge. The submarine was smaller in diameter than I expected to see. It was also much more streamlined than Civil War era paintings and descriptions had depicted Our replica had not really done justice to the sleek appearance of the vessel. The excitement of actually seeing the submarine was tempered with the reality that it was a very small coffin for nine men.Click for picture of sub, being lifted, looking at bow.The cradle was finally secured and the supporting tugs took the barge. Our boat went back to the Marina. The barge and its parade of boats came after us at a much slower pace. We could see thousands of people at Fort Moultrie and the Battery waiting to catch a glimpse of the resurrected submarine. Flags at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie were at half mast in honor of the event.
Click for side view of sub as it is being lifted.
Click for view of sub being lowered onto barge.
Click for view of sub secured on barge.
I joined my family on board the Yorktown to watch the procession of boats escorting the Hunley up the Cooper River. Civil War re-enactors gave the passing Hunley a cannon and musket salute. Nine women, dressed in black, and representing the crew’s families dropped flowers into the Cooper River.Click for pictures of Women Mourners on USS YorktownI then went on to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on the former Charleston Naval Base, the last stop for the sub. An honor guard of re-enactors escorted the boat, being carried by a crane, from Pier Juliet to the building. The boat was brought into the building and lowered to the floor. The big door was shut and now the Hunley was inside and out of the weather. Seeing the boat, up close, in the confines of the building, made it chillingly real. Inside that small boat, nine brave and determined men had met a violent and almost indescribable death. Now, they were home. Soon, their remains will join the first two Hunley crews in Magnolia Cemetery.
Click for Pictures of Re-enactors on USS YorktownClick for pictures of second Hunley crew members in Magnolia Cemetery.The cradle and the Hunley were lowered into a large tank where the boat will spend up to seven years being preserved and having remains of the crew and other artifacts removed. Four clergymen blessed the vessel and a re-enactor bugler played Taps. Their long ordeal was over.Click for picture of Warren Lasch Conservation Center.(All photographs by the Author)
Click for picture of Hunley inside Conservation Center.
Click for picture as Hunley is being lowered into tank.
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