Audio Story People In Perspective

Under Pressure: Making History with the H.L. Hunley

Painting showing the H.L. Hunley, and its inventor, on a dock in against a background of water and a blue sky.

On the night of February 17, 1864, a Confederate submarine called the H.L. Hunley made world history when it destroyed the USS Housatonic in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. It was the first ever submarine to sink an enemy vessel.

But the Hunley was missing, along with its eight-person crew. The submarine remained lost until over a century later, when it was discovered in 1995. Observers around the world thought they’d found the key to knowing what had happened to the Hunley and its crew. But what researchers found inside raised more questions than it answered.

Dr. Rachel Lance, a biomedical engineer at Duke University and author of “In The Waves: My Quest to Solve the Mystery of a Civil War Submarine,” helps tell this story of a Civil War legend turned modern-day mystery.


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Rachel Lance is the author of “In The Waves: My Quest to Solve the Mystery of a Civil War Submarine.” She is Assistant Consulting Professor at Duke University, where she conducts research out of their Hyperbaric Medicine facility.


Gabriel Hunter-Chang, Host

On the night of February 17, 1864, a U.S. warship called the USS Housatonic sat guarding the port of Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederate city was under siege. Its deep harbor was moonlit and calm.  

Somewhere beneath the waves, eight Confederate sailors were crammed inside the H.L. Hunley. The crew of this submarine sat shoulder to shoulder in front of a massive crankshaft that ran the length of their narrow iron tube. At a signal from the captain, Lieutenant George Dixon, they began to crank in unison. 

Gears sprang to life, and the propeller of the Confederate submarine plowed slowly through the freezing Atlantic toward the USS Housatonic. A long iron spar protruded from the front of the vessel. On its tip was a bomb packed with 90 pounds of gunpowder. 

At 8:45 pm, the USS Housatonic was struck by an explosion. By 9:00, the stern of the U.S. warship had disappeared into the Charleston harbor. The H.L. Hunley had just made world history by becoming the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel. But it was nowhere to be found. 

Weeks went by. Where was the Hunley? What had become of its eight man crew? The people of Charleston gradually accepted that something had gone terribly wrong on the night of the explosion. The war ended in 1865. But the disappearance of the Hunley would haunt the American imagination for decades and decades to come.

Then, in 1995, the Hunley was discovered and resurfaced. It was remarkably intact. Observers around the world anticipated the resolution of a legendary mystery. But what they found inside raised more questions than it answered.

Rachel Lance:

Normally, when you have bones, when you have human remains, there’s some kind of story you can glean from at least the way they’re positioned or the way they’ve been damaged, that tells you a bit about what those people went through in the final moments of their lives. But in the case of the Hunley, the more they investigated this recovered artifact, the more that mystery deepened. 

Hunter-Chang: That’s Dr. Rachel Lance, a biomedical engineer who specializes in injury biomechanics. She is especially interested in the types of trauma that occur after explosions. 

In her book, “In the Waves,” Rachel Lance takes on the Civil War mystery of what happened to the crew of the Hunley. She answers it using 21st century science… 

Lance: One of the theories that was really plausible was that the blast that the crew set off that night of February 17th damaged the hull of the Hunley itself, and the Hunley was sort of sunk by her own explosion. But when they bring this up, they can, they’re easily able to prove very quickly that that’s just not true. And even further, as they start examining the layers of sediment inside the submarine, they start noticing that the sediment indicates that not only was the hull intact when the submarine went down, but it didn’t even start immediately filling with sediment until sometime later.

And then as they start chipping their way down to the bottom of the boat itself, they finally find the remains of the crew. Now it’s been about 150 years in ocean water. So obviously there’s not a lot of soft tissue left, but the bones were still there. And not only were the bones completely undamaged, but each member of the crew was also seated at his battle station with limited evidence of any attempts to escape. 

So you have the bones of the crew sitting where they last were. Nobody’s tried to even unlock the rear conning tower hatch and climb out of there. And nobody is trying to cluster at the exits or claw their way through the doorways in what people had always kind of imagined was the dramatic, last moments. They all just seem to have slumped over and died.

Hunter-Chang: So we have an undamaged Confederate vessel, containing the remains of a crew that apparently did not even try to save themselves. It is quite the detective case. 

But to start solving this case, first we have to address a more fundamental question. What on earth was the Confederacy doing with a hand-cranked submarine anyway?  

Since the Civil War began in 1861, Charleston had been under siege. The city’s port was blockaded, along with the rest of the Southern coastline, as part of a U.S. strategy to isolate the Confederacy and strangle its new economy. 

And besides the occasional blockade-runner bearing luxury goods for wealthy Southerners, this plan was working. By February 1864, the people of Charleston were ready to try just about anything to break the blockade. Here’s Rachel Lance again… 

Lance: So by February, 1864, people are in a really bad situation. Especially in Charleston, they’ve been bombarded routinely, they are out of food. They’re still under blockade. And Dixon writes about all of that in his letters. He writes about how he’s starving. Like he personally is starving. And there are other people who break leave records of the fact that they haven’t been out of the range of explosions in at least two months, which is just a mentally jarring experience I can’t even imagine. 

But Dixon wrote about the amount of pressure he was getting from the people in Charleston to, to somehow single-handedly and of course with his crew, but he was – the bulk of the burden was placed on his shoulders as the leader, but to somehow use this submarine to break the blockade. 

So I personally think that’s really informative of the fact that these people were just being bombed with a frequency we can’t really imagine. And they were experiencing food shortages that we can’t really imagine. And I think that led them into a situation where they were just willing to take extreme measures to try and stop it.

Hunter-Chang: Using a submarine to break the blockade was certainly extreme. This was a brand new, untested technology! But there’s another factor that made this daredevil stunt even more risky for the crew.

You see, before the mission that sank the Housatonic, the Hunley had already sunk twice, taking with it two earlier crews. And these poor sailors were not sitting peacefully when they were discovered.

Lance: So one of those crews sank when the submarine was already submerged and they think with the submarine already fully sealed, obviously. So it was underwater and they dove into the bottom of the ocean. They were not able to free the boat and send it to the surface in time before their gas supply ran out. And with that crew, we have Horace Hunley himself dying in the boat. 

He was curled up inside this hatch, trying to push his way through this conning tower hatch, which is physically impossible for any realistic human being who’s not Bruce Banner and he’s trying to claw his way out. And as are the remaining seven people in the crew who died with him. They are curled up in the fetal position. They are trying to release the keel weights. They’re making these very clear signs of desperate efforts to get out of that boat and get out of there so that they have time to survive. 

Whereas the other crew that was inside the boat it’s swamped and it sank while they were underway. So so the boat starts going down very rapidly while it’s open and unsealed. Three of the crew managed to come out and they, we have their escape stories. Like they left behind records of what this was like, and the doors slamming on their legs as they’re trying to swim, and it settles on the ocean floor. And that’s when they finally managed to get out. And they’re having this clawing, swimming ascent for the surface. And the other five die inside.

And I think that’s the most common question that everybody including myself still has about the Hunley, is why were they willing to do this? Why did they know that two crews had already died and still climb inside themselves? I’ve thought about it a lot. And when I finish my time machine, it will be one of the first places I go to ask them. But unfortunately, most of them didn’t really leave behind any clear record.

Hunter-Chang: As Rachel implies here, we still don’t know why the last crew of the Hunley did what they did. George Dixon writes about the blockade, bombardment and starvation. But that’s just George Dixon, and it’s only one source. 

Using DNA samples, scientists have been able to determine that four members of the crew were born in Europe. What were they doing in the Civil War at all, much less in a Confederate submarine? We can’t know that either.

But although history, and even science, can’t tell us how these men lived, Rachel Lance can tell us how they died.   

So, what happened when the H.L. Hunley’s bomb went off? Let’s take our time machine back to that night in February 1864.

The bomb-laden Confederate submarine is plowing slowly through the freezing Atlantic…

Lance: So the Hunley cranks up to the side of the Housatonic. These men know they’re about to collide directly with the Housatonic. The entire bomb goes off within milliseconds. We’re talking thousandths of a second.

This whole thing essentially converts this beer keg sized chunk of black powder immediately into highly pressurized gas. So when that gas expands, that’s what we think of as the explosion itself. So now you have this massive ball of superheated, highly pressurized gas, and it’s immediately below the hull of a wooden ship in the water. So this gas bubble starts pulsating. It expands outward. It very quickly blows off the stern side of the Housatonic, the stern starboard side, and it creates a massive plume of water.

So this pressure waveform, the way that it impacted the Hunley and the way that it impacted the crew inside, these injuries can be extremely rapid. We have a lot of case reports from World War II, of people being blasted, especially like during the blitz and things like that, or during bombings where they’re found in the exact position where they were in the moments before their death. 

Within the Hunley itself, I think it’s highly likely that most of them would not have even realized their success.

Hunter-Chang: In her book, Rachel Lance takes us through her process of scientific conjecture and historic discovery. She describes the physics of this fatal pressure wave, and goes into detail about how it caused the deaths of the crew. It’s a fascinating story, and you should definitely check it out. 

But first, there’s one more twist to the mystery of the Hunley. According to Rachel, some new details have emerged about the final moments of one of the crew.

Lance: The person at the first crank handle inside the Hunley, they’ve never released the positions of his bones. But if you kind of piece together the imagery from the videos that they’ve allowed like National Geographic and Discovery to have, you can do some like little internet sleuth work, and you can see how this guy was positioned. And it’s not conclusive, but it looks a little bit as if he’s trying to crawl for the exit. So his bones are a little bit more stretched out. He’s kind of come to the side, whereas everyone has just dropped down. 

This guy might’ve survived for a minute or two. That’s also very consistent with blast trauma. It tends to kill some and spare others right next to them. That’s a very normal experience that we hear back from veterans all the time. So for this one person, there’s a chance that he survived those last few moments after the blast, but his lungs were so full of blood that he wasn’t able to save himself despite the fact that his compatriots had all just died around him. So that’s the one I think about.

Hunter-Chang: The Civil War killed over three quarters of a million people. It left countless more injured, in mourning, or displaced. After the war, and still to this day, people tried to find ways to create meaning out of this catastrophe.

So it makes sense that the story of the H.L. Hunley was, and is, so popular. When it was lost, and again when it was found, the Hunley became a perfect vessel for Americans to interpret and create meaning from the war. It became a myth. But mythmaking can obscure the real historical people it deals with.

We don’t know a whole lot about this last crew member. We do know that his name was Arnold Becker. By studying his skeletal remains, we know he was about 20 years old, and that he was one of the four crew members who were born in Europe.

We’ll never know what Arnold Becker thought about in these last moments, if he did in fact survive. But it’s wild to imagine. In a way, what we understand about the past is a lot like blast trauma: some details are lost, while others are spared right next to them.