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Emmanuel Dabney
03-31-2007, 10:08 AM
Book review: "The Hunley"
March 31, 2007 12:35 am

THE MYSTERY of why the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley never returned from its final mission has baffled Civil War scholars, naval historians and ordinary people alike--all captivated by its remarkable story. Mark K. Ragan's newest book, "The Hunley," does not solve the mystery, but provides many fascinating new details about the elusive submarine, those who built it and those who discovered it 131 years after it disappeared.

The author's qualifications are straightforward: Ragan knows submarines. A certified diver, he owns a small two-man submersible and teaches submarine piloting for the Chesapeake Submarine Service. With a bachelor's degree in archaeology/anthropology and information systems management, he is also the official historian for the project that discovered the Hunley in 1995 and recovered it in 2000 from its watery grave outside of the harbor at Charleston, S.C.

Extensive research
This book is a good read. The presence of more than 300 reference notes does not detract from this, but reminds the reader that solid research underlies the fascinating story that Ragan tells. If you check the references, you'll see that most of them cite primary sources--letters and other documents found in government and academic archives; reports, logbook entries and messages from the government's official history of the war; and letters and interviews contained in newspaper articles a hundred years or more old.

Ragan is not rehashing what other Civil War historians say about the Hunley. In fact, it's the other way around: People writing books about the Hunley invariably cite Ragan as a source for various facts about the 40-foot vessel.

The book of his that they usually cite is "The Hunley: Submarines, Sacrifice and Courage in the Civil War," published in 1995. Ragan's 2006 "The Hunley" amounts to a revised, expanded and improved edition of the 1995 work.

Hard-core readers of his first Hunley book will be very pleased to know that in the 2006 edition Ragan introduces the complete text of (by my count) at least 15 letters, five newspaper articles and three miscellaneous documents related to the Hunley that are not found in the 1995 book. In the section where the subsequent lives and careers of Hunley-related people are listed, Ragan adds four new entries.

Lastly, he identifies a modern descendant of Queenie Bennett who lives in the Richmond area today. Bennett was the sweetheart of the Hunley's final skipper and the supposed source of the special gold coin found with his body.

Examining the evidence
The author does not hang his hat on any one theory of why the Hunley never returned after sinking the USS Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864. He does, however, clarify what we know from the evidence; first, the Hunley survived its attack on the Housatonic (more than one witness saw the blue lantern signal from the submarine that its attack was successful and now needed a beacon fire lit to help it steer back to base); second, something happened on the Hunley's return trip that prevented it from reaching its base at Breach Inlet.

Ragan discusses a grappling hook found near the Hunley, speculating that it may have been an anchor for the sub and may have been a factor in its loss. Invoking his submarine experience, the author describes what happened to him once when he tried using an anchor with his two-man sub, and how after that experience he never did it again.

Following the Hunley's attack, why would the submariners want to surface, open a hatch and drop anchor in view of the enemy ships coming to the rescue of the Housatonic? It seems more plausible to me that they would have stayed underwater and either hand-cranked their way back to base or lain low and waited for the commotion to subside before going home. (A 1902 newspaper article from an engineer, cited by Ragan, mentions an experiment by the crew that showed they could survive motionless underwater in the Hunley for some 2 hours without fresh air.)

How crewmen died
I was disappointed that Ragan didn't mention the intriguing discovery of stalactites inside the Hunley when it was excavated, and the implications for how the crew died. The key is that stalactites form from a slow, steady drip of water. Therefore the crew did not drown inside the doomed sub from water rushing in through a punctured hull--they died from lack of oxygen.

This decrease in oxygen can have an insidious effect, leaving the victims unconscious (and then dead) before they realize what's happening. It's a peaceful death as compared with the panic conscious men would feel if they knew their sub was filling with water and they were trapped inside. Each crewman's remains were found at his station in the sub--they were not clustered around the two hatches as if trying to get out.

The fine silt that completely filled the vessel's interior accumulated over time, coming in at first through very small gaps between hull plates or something similar. A big hole in the Hunley's hull after the attack on the Housatonic would have left the sub in a very different condition than that in which it was found. The bodies would not have been so well-preserved, for instance.

When discussing the discovery, recovery and excavation of the sealed time capsule the Hunley represents, Ragan speaks from firsthand knowledge. He was there, in the muck and cold water with the divers and underwater archaeologists. The little details he recounts make for vivid reading, for example an archaeologist lifting the trouser leg of a crewman and finding his shin bone resting in his shoe.

A drawback of this firsthand approach is that some aspects of the discovery and recovery in which Ragan wasn't involved are not well covered, such as the politics and legalities behind the questions of who found and who owned the Hunley, as well as some of the great technical challenges involved in pulling the entire sub intact out of 30-plus feet of water. (For these aspects of the Hunley saga, I like "Raising the Hunley" by Charleston reporters Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf.)

A minor point: As a Fredericksburg-area resident for many years, I am rankled by Ragan's referring to our hometown Hunley crewman as "Frank J. Collins." Seaman Frank G. Collins, CSN, would surely object if he could! The Hunley project's genealogist uncovered his correct name, and that is the name used on his headstone.

This book provides the best account today of the design pedigree and operational history of the Hunley. If you want the most complete information about the Hunley, its 19th-century designers and crews and its 20th- and 21st-century discoverers and preservationists, this is your book. Detailed enough for scholars who want to check the referenced sources for themselves, yet fast-paced enough for the casual reader who wants to know more about this strange Civil War sub, this book sets the standard for books on the Hunley.

SCOTT BOYD is a freelance writer living in Spotsylvania County. E-mail him in care of
Email: gwoolf@freelancestar.com.
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Copyright 2007 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.

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