Scientists Move Significant Step Closer to Solving Mystery
Charleston, SC – When the Hunley mysteriously vanished at sea in 1864, after becoming the world’s first successful combat submarine, most students of history assumed the eight man crew must have drowned. That may not be true.
Archaeologists studying the Hunley and its contents at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center have uncovered an important piece of evidence.
A preliminary study of the Hunley’s pump system shows that it was not set to bilge water out of the crew compartment the night the submarine was lost. This discovery opens up the possibility that the crew may not have drowned after all but could have died of some other cause.
“By the process of elimination, we are moving closer and closer to solving the mysteries associated with the Hunley’s disappearance,” Senator Glenn McConnell, Chairman of Hunley Commission, said. “This discovery could prove to be an important piece of a complex puzzle.”
When the Hunley was lifted from the ocean floor off the coast of Charleston, SC in 2000, the pump system was in place holding the same settings it had the night the submarine was lost. Early this year, the pumps were carefully removed, giving scientists the first opportunity to learn what steps—if any—the crew may have taken to save their lives the night the Hunley vanished.
Knowing the crew was not using the bilge function of the pump system is a major discovery scientists must now consider along with the other key pieces of evidence they have assembled.
For years, many have speculated the Hunley was probably damaged by the explosion that sank the USS Housatonic, causing the submarine to take on water and the crew to drown. If that had happened, crew members may have triggered the bilge function in an attempt to save their lives.
Other items of forensic evidence add pieces to the puzzle. For example, there was very little intermingling of the bones of the crew members. Each man apparently died at his assigned station. If water had been rushing in, it seems likely there would have been evidence of panic and the men would have rushed to escape from the hatches—the only points of exit or entry from the claustrophobic vessel.
Instead, the existing evidence could suggest a general calmness may have prevailed within the crew compartment. One of the two hatches was found tightly locked. “It is possible these men either did not realize they were in grave danger or else they calmly accepted their fate,” McConnell said.
One popular theory is that the crew may have been waiting for the tide to shift so they could ride the current to land when their oxygen gradually depleted. That theory could explain why the men were seated at their stations when death took them.
However, head Hunley archaeologist Maria Jacobsen warns people not to jump to conclusions. We are only beginning to scratch the surface in understanding how the complex pump system worked and what it can teach us about that night. “This is certainly an intriguing find, but we have to be careful not to base our conclusions on a single observation. Few boats are watertight. The Hunley’s bilge pipe did not have a high capacity and was most likely designed to remove only the amount of water you typically find when operating a vessel. If water was rushing into the submarine at dangerous levels the night it disappeared, it is very possible the crew would have used both of the pumps rather than rely on the bilge system alone,” Jacobsen said.
The pump system had many functions with nine valves that impacted the operation of the submarine. Most importantly, it was used to direct the flow of water in and out of the ballast tanks, allowing the Hunley to rise and dive as she traveled beneath the water’s surface. If the submarine somehow became stuck on the bottom of the ocean floor, scientists may find the crew was trying to pump water out of the ballast tanks in an effort to come back up and return home. Discovering the purpose and position of each valve will hold critical information.
The Hunley is similar to a crime scene investigation, where the placement and state of every item is critical to discovering exactly what happened. But in this case the detectives are archaeologists, and every piece of evidence brings the team of scientists closer and closer to solving the mystery. “The Hunley does not give up her secrets easily,” McConnell said.
Work to complete a 3-D model of the Hunley and all the evidence it holds is now underway. Once completed, scientists will attempt digitally to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to the Hunley’s disappearance.
What happened? Why did she sink? How did her crew perish? Questions shrouded in darkness for decades may soon be answered as Hunley scientists attempt to learn the secrets of one of the world’s most enduring maritime mysteries.
The Hunley Project
On the evening of February 17th, 1864, the H. L. Hunley became the world’s first successful combat submarine by sinking the USS Housatonic. After signaling to shore that the mission had been accomplished, the submarine and her crew of eight mysteriously vanished. Lost at sea for over a century, the Hunley was located in 1995 by Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). The innovative hand-cranked vessel was raised in 2000 and delivered to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where an international team of scientists are at work to conserve the submarine for future generations and piece together clues to solve the mystery of her disappearance. The Hunley Project is conducted through a partnership with the Clemson University Restoration Institute, South Carolina Hunley Commission, Naval Historical Center, and Friends of the Hunley.