The City Magazine Since 1975

Raising the Hunley

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Photographs courtesy of Friends of the Hunley

July 29, 2015

Raising the Hunley
A local journalist recounts the recovery of the Civil War submarine C.S.S.
Hunley 15 years ago this Saturday

written by Suzannah Smith Miles

One of my life-topping experiences was witnessing the recovery of the C.S.S. Hunley. Fifteen years ago on August 8, I was on the press boat with journalists from all over the world who’d come to cover the event. I’d lucked out—a space opened up at the last minute—and when I got the call the night before asking if I could be at Shem Creek to board at 4 a.m., I think my “YES!” was heard in Columbia. It isn’t often that you get a ringside seat to history.

For 126 years, the Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel in warfare, had lain on the ocean bottom in the waters off Sullivan’s Island. She was the most formidable naval weapon of the time, a radical invention known as a “fish boat” for her ability to move completely under water. On the night of February 16, 1864, armed with an eight-man crew and a torpedo topping the spar jutting from her bow, she crept out of Breach Inlet and silently made her way toward the Federal blockading fleet a mile offshore. Her target was the 23-gun sloop U.S.S. Housatonic.

Within three minutes of her approach, the Hunley had found her mark. The Housatonic sank immediately, taking five crew members with her. The Hunley and her men were never seen again. She went down carrying myriad mysteries, including the exact cause of her own demise. That is until that clear, hot August morning at the start of the new millennium. Those of us on the press boat were watching a different engineering marvel as a synchronized complex of divers and derricks, harnesses and hoists worked in harmony to raise the Hunley from the deep. For weeks, dive crews had been carefully wrapping the submarine in foam-insulated slings to keep her from breaking apart when she was brought up. Now, with the actual raising about to take place, the atmosphere was electric, emotions high as we waited for Hunley to surface. We had been at anchor for hours, and the boat’s steady rocking had resulted in no small amount of seasickness. Yet the boat echoed with a polyglot of languages as cameras filmed journalists speaking in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese.

Finally the signal came: the moment was upon us. Slowly, cautiously, and momentously, the cranes brought the Hunley, cloaked in her protective slings, to the top of the water’s surface. She was so incredibly small. So impossibly narrow. She looked like a wounded porpoise, seawater pouring off her as the hoists lifted her up and onto the barge that would take her back to land. Yet even encrusted in seaweed and barnacles, I could see her sleek, smooth aerodynamics. I was surprised by the similarity of her hull design to the modern submarine. Here was the prototype for every submarine navigating the oceans today.

I knew that inside were the remains of her crew—all volunteers, the test pilots of their time, in this long and narrow sub—and I hoped they could somehow hear the exhilaration heralding their resurrection. The air now resounded in a cacophony of jubilation, with cheering, clapping, whoops, and hurrahs coming from the hundreds, if not thousands, of boats encircling us. Horns blew. Flags waved. Strangers hugged. This celebration continued as the Hunley, now fitted snugly onto the barge and surrounded by this joyous flotilla, made her final ride into the harbor. Crowds lined the beaches, the battery, Waterfront Park, and the U.S.S. Yorktown; each group erupted in cheers and cannons boomed as the Hunley passed by. Traffic on the Cooper River bridges halted. The Hunley was given one of the largest celebrations ever seen in Charleston Harbor.

As the press boat took us back to Shem Creek, I realized what we had just witnessed was not merely the retrieval of an historic Civil War relic. This was no North versus South, no Civil War. This was a victory celebrating the human capability for invention, of making the impossible possible. “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free. They were the first that ever burst into the silent sea.” So wrote Coleridge. So was the Hunley.

For details on visiting the Hunley and its museum, click here.