Heroes of the Hunley

Article excerpt

Thousands pay tribute to the belated funeral of eight Confederate submariners whose remains were found aboard the recently salvaged Civil War submarine Hunley.

Were it not for the welter of TV antennas and garish billboards poking the sky, the time might have been 1864 rather than today on the streets of Charleston, South Carolina. A strange mood of high drama and mournful solemnity hung over the gathering crowd as the distant sounds of drums and bugles playing melancholy renditions of taps and "Dixie" echoed from the facades of stately ante-bellum-era buildings. Along palm-fronded Main Street long columns of more than 6000 gray-uniformed Civil War re-enactors marched in duteous half-step behind Confederate flag-draped casket carrying caissons slowly clacking over cobble-stoned streets. Nearly 140 years ago this same pavement reverberated to the boots of battle-weary Southern troops. But this was 17 April 2004 - not 1864 - and now more than 23,000 spectators from all over the South arrived in Charleston on this sunny afternoon to pay respectful homage to the remains of eight long-drowned Confederate sailors in what will fittingly be remembered as the last great funeral procession of the Civil War.

Marking an end to one of greatest mysteries of the War Between the States when the all-volunteer crew of the hand-cranked submarine H. L. Hunley vanished in Charleston Harbor on the night of 17 February 1864, the burial brought final closure to one of the most heroic Naval actions of America's Civil War. Built out of a steam boiler so tight the men could barely turn the hand-crank that propelled it, and fitted with a spar torpedo, the nearly fully-submerged Hunley managed to blow a giant hole in and sink the anchored Union Navy steamer Housatonic before the crude submersible mysteriously disappeared along with its eight man crew.

More than ten years ago, a team of dedicated preservationists sought legislation to allow them to recover the bodies and artifacts believed to be aboard the ill-fated submarine after Hunley's wreckage had been miraculously found by sonar buried deep in silt five miles off Charleston, where it had lain over 136 years.

When the rusting wreckage was raised from the sea bottom it brought with it not only much of the Old South's pride but reminders of some of the lingering animosities ofthat period between the slave-holding Southern States and the abolition-minded North. Organizers of the Hunley burial saw it as a reverent pageant honoring one of the South's many historic legacies. However, organizations like the NAACP saw the ceremony as a grim reminder of the days of slavery; a period best forgotten. Rather than risk becoming embroiled in a potentially hot political issue many dignitaries and politicians avoided attending the nostalgic but provocative Hunley event.

To most of those who traveled hundreds of miles to witness the Hunley activities the focus was truly fixed on Southern pride, pageantry and the memory of eight men's simple courage who sacrificed their lives in America's most embittered war.

"As they walked through the night, they must have glanced at each other," said state Sen. Glenn McConnell in a eulogy at Magnolia Cemetery. "They must have studied the faces of their comrades. These were ordinary men... They probably did not imagine that they would leave such a footprint in the sands of time."

At the service, marked by a 50-gun salute delivered by musket and cannon, the coffins were laid in the order in which the crew sat in the submarine. …