February 2, 2013

Was The Hunley A Victim Of Its Own Torpedo?

While the H.L. Hunley played only a small role in the American Civil War, the boat offered a portent of the role submarines would play in future conflicts. But it also demonstrated the dangers of submersible vehicles as well, as it sank and killed its crew not once, but a total of three times.

The boat was the first combat submarine to sink an enemy warship, but was lost at sea soon after this successful attack. Named after her inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley, the boat actually sank twice during training exercises — during which inventor Hunely was killed — and then after her successful attack on the USS Housatonic failed to return home, taking a total of 21 crewmen to their deaths.

After the attack on the Union naval blockade, the H.L. Hunley simply failed to return to base, and even after the wreck was recovered in August of 2000, it was unclear what caused the boat to sink. Now researchers believe perhaps the very torpedo that sank the Housatonic may have also contributed to the boat’s loss at sea.

Scientists studying the boat discovered new evidence that suggests the submarine was just 20 feet away from the torpedo when it exploded. For years, historians had thought the Hunley to be much farther away, and had speculated that the crew simply ran out of air before they made it to shore.

But according to the new research released on Monday, the torpedo that sank the Housatonic may have been bolted to a 16-foot long spar and not separated from the boat. Remnants of the 2-foot-long torpedo were found bolted to the spar.

According to the researches the torpedo may have held up to 135 pounds of gunpowder and when this exploded may have caused a concussion that damaged the submarine and injured the crew, who may have may been knocked unconscious long enough that they may have died before awakening.

Conservator Paul Mardikian believes, based on the evidence, this could have been the case.

“The sleeve is an indication the torpedo was attached to the end of the spar,” Mardikian told the Chicago Tribune.

Now Mardikian and the researchers will look closer at the final engagement and whether the single torpedo could be, in fact, credited with taking down two vessels.

“I think the focus now goes down to the seconds and minutes around the attack on the Housatonic,” he added.

But it isn’t believed the Hunley engaged in a suicide mission.

“There is overwhelming evidence to indicate this was not a suicide mission,” South Carolina Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a Hunley commissioner, said in a statement “They must have believed this was a safe enough distance to escape any harm. If so, they were at least partially right. Thus far, no damage has been found on the actual submarine caused by the explosion.”

The H.L. Hunley was discovered off South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor in 1995 and was returned to the surface in 2000 after 136 years. The wreck was found in water 27 feet deep and, after being raised, was brought to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at the former Charleston Navy Yard in North Charleston and placed in a specially designed fresh water tank.

Image Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer and has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and the fitness sports industry for more than 15 years. In that time his work has appeared in more than three dozen publications including Newsweek, PC Magazine and Wired. His work has also appeared on Forbes.com, Inc.com, Cnet.com, and Fortune.com. Peter is a regular writer for redOrbit.com.

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