Ongoing discoveries revealed in mystery of the Confederate submarine
The CSS Hunley

This is an update on current work taking place by researchers and conservators working on the Confederate submarine, the CSS H.L. Hunley in North Charleston, South Carolina. Previously, as I stated in my first article, they uncovered new evidence that the submarine was only 20 feet away when it ignited its torpedo that sank the Union warship, the USS Housatonic off South Carolina in 1864. This was vital new evidence as to its sinking as it has always been presumed that the submarine was much further away when it sank and that the Confederate crew ran out of air before they could return to the shore.

Ongoing work is now concentrating on removing the hard concretion from the Hunley`s outer casing and researchers are painstakingly chiseling away at the sand and shell deposits. They are using particularly small tools such as dental chisels and small hammers in their task. What is emerging is that the vessel was clearly extremely better constructed that was previously thought. Despite its corrosion, the vessel has maintained its structural integrity and the builders of the vessel staggered the plates to strengthen the hold as well as carefully connected the rings that bound its 40 foot length. There is astonishment at the detail put in as the finishing as assessed as extremely high quality and all the rivets are perfectly flush.


1) The Hunley was struck by chance and a shot broke the glass in one of the Hunley`s portholes allowing water to cascade in as she dived after her attack on the Housatonic. Research to date has stated there is no evidence.

2) The Hunley was struck by another vessel or hit by bullets or shells. Research to date has indicated no such damage including holes at this stage.

3) The Hunley was swamped or plunged to the sea floor to avoid detection. Research has indicated that a latch on the conning tower was found to be improperly locked which has added to the mystery.

4) New research has found that the Hunley was only 20 feet away from her 135 pound torpedo when it exploded in the side of the Housatonic. The blast may have sent the Hunley to the bottom where the crew ran out of air. Research so far has indicted the vessel appears intact and that no separation of the wrought iron plates has been discovered which could have occurred being so near to the impact.

5) The Hunley`s forward conning tower was compromised. Research has revealed that there is no evidence of any problems or issues with the forward conning tower.

In essence, the conservators have discovered nothing major but are slowly unveiling the secrets of the HL Hunley. They feel they are moving forward to finding new evidence. Work is focusing on removing the encrusted sediment and once complete will give a full understanding of its construction and as such its demise. The submarine is immersed every day after work by the conservators in a bath of toxic sodium hydroxide which helps loosen the concretion and sediment, remove salt and thereby stop any further corrosion. Work has been completed on cleaning all of the exterior plates and work is now focusing on the cast iron components of the submarine. These include he dive planes, the conning towers and parts of the bow and stern. This will a long and complicated process as it is difficult to work on. Conservators are particularly excited about examining and exploring the connection between the torpedo spar and the actual hull. Work will begin on deconcretion of the interior in 3 months time and hopefully the entire process will be completed by the end of the year. With the slow chipping away of each piece of crust, the submarine is returning to its original appearance as painted in an 1863 painting by Conrad Wise Chapman. This is the only contemporary material available. No blueprints or design paperwork has ever been uncovered as the CSS HL Hunley was built in secrecy by the Confederacy in Mobile, Alabama.

Article by Stewart "Goober" Douglas

Sources: "The Civil War Picket." Jan 15 2015.

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Spring 2015