Magazine article Newsweek

The Sub Finally Rises: After 136 Years, a Civil War Mystery May Be Solved

Magazine article Newsweek

The Sub Finally Rises: After 136 Years, a Civil War Mystery May Be Solved

Article excerpt

On the night of Feb. 17, 1864, the Confederate Navy introduced the art of stealth technology to naval warfare. As the Union blockade of Charleston suffocated the South Carolina port, the rebels unleashed a "porpoise." At least that's what officers on the USS Housatonic thought they saw rippling toward them in the dark. It was a porpoise with fangs. The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, 39 feet long and hand-powered by eight sailors turning a crank, rammed its harpoonlike torpedo into the side of the 207-foot-long Housatonic, armed with cannon and 150 men. The torpedo detonated as the Hunley reversed, sending the Housatonic to the bottom in three minutes. Later that night the Hunley itself disappeared--for 131 years.

The ghosts of the ancient submariners might have puzzled over the flotilla that escorted the Hunley home last week. Yachts and outboards flew the Stars and Stripes as often as the Confederate battle flag. The barge toting the retrieved sub itself--looking like a giant cucumber covered in mud and barnacles--bore only a white banner. hunley.org, it said, touting the Web site for the sophisticated 10-year conservation effort ahead. "This isn't about Yankees or Confederates," says Robert Neyland, the U.S. Navy's chief underwater archeologist who headed the recovery. "It's about science." And it's hard to know which to marvel at more--the 19th-century engineering that created the world's first submarine to sink an enemy vessel, or the 21st-century skill that lifted it to a state-of-the-art lab on the outskirts of Charleston last week.

Though short-lived, the Hunley--which had air for 150 minutes but usually stayed down for 25--was ahead of its time. The next sub to sink a ship in battle didn't appear until 1914, a Hunley-influenced German design. But despite repeated efforts to find the Confederate craft, the Hunley remained missing until 1995, when a team hired by novelist Clive Cussler ("Raise the Titanic! …

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