The night of February 17, 1864. It is cold. Rumors of a secret Confederate weapon circulate among crew members of an enemy ship in Charleston Harbor, in South Carolina. The ship is the Union warship USS Housatonic. It is one of a number of ships blockading Charleston Harbor to choke off supplies to the Confederacy.
A lookout on deck scans the dark water. Perhaps he sees porpoises and notes their movement. (The Friends of the Hunley website notes there may have been porpoises in the water that night.) No problems there.
Suddenly he sees movement that just doesn't look right.
Meanwhile, below the surface of Charleston Harbor, a crew of eight labors at a hand crank that powers one of the first submarines ever built. The state of the art craft will be a total surprise to the Yankees!
Candles barely light the dim, crowded space. (I've been in a reproduction which was 10% larger than the actual ship and - it was unbelievably tiny.) It must have stank of sweat and anticipation, maybe even a little fear.
Look at the faces of the crew and note them well.
The submarine was the H. L. Hunley, the "secret weapon". And what a weapon it was.
The eight brave men on the ship directed the Hunley into the Housatanic, planting a 135 pound torpedo in the Federal ship. (Note at that time the word "torpedo" did not have the modern day meaning of an explosive shot from a submarine but meant, rather, a tethered mine.) The Hunley, we are told, then backed up.
There was an explosion.
The Housatonic sank.
Meanwhile, the story continues, the Hunley crew flashed a blue magnesium signal that told their fellow rebels that they had completed their mission. The Confederates on land lit fires to guide the Hunley home.
They never returned.
They were lost for over 130 years. What had happened?
The Hunley was found buried in the silt of Charleston Harbor in 1995, the eight crew members still at their stations. There was no evidence that they had tried to escape. Their deaths apparently were peaceful. What had happened in those last few minutes or hours before they embarked on their Eternal Patrol?
The ship was raised in 2000 and is being restored in a hanger in North Charleston, South Carolina. When I took the public tour in 2012 (highly recommended, by the way) of the facility, the cause of crew member death was still not known, and we were told the best theory probably was that they had to flee to the bottom of the harbor for some unknown reason. The sub was designed to do just that, and could be submerged for some two hours. But, perhaps, the candles had eaten up the oxygen and the crew fell asleep, never to wake.
Now, though, we may have an answer. Just a few weeks ago this news was released:
The latest evidence is that the Hunley was less than 20 feet away from the Housatonic when the torpedo exploded. If you look at an artist's rendition of the Hunley on the Friends of the Hunley website, you see a spar sticking out from the vessel. What if the torpedo had exploded at the end of that spar, as the forensic evidence now seems to indicate? The concussion may have knocked out the crew, never to awaken. (But then, what about the blue flare?)
The last minutes of the historic Confederate submarine continue to fascinate, and one day perhaps we may know the truth.