Discovery of lock brings workers close to truth of sinking
BY BRIAN HICKS
The Post and Courier
When the H.L. Hunley slipped underwater for the last time, the sub's
forward hatch was most likely unlocked.
But that clue doesn't solve a mystery, it merely reveals another,
because it appears the crew was not trying to escape.
Archaeologists have found what may be the latch for the Civil War
submarine's forward conning tower, and it seems to have been stored -
not dropped in a moment of panic.
Along with a locked aft hatch, this seems to rule out any chance
that the crew was scrambling to escape in their final moments.
"The idea of some frantic effort to get out doesn't appear to be
part of the story anymore," Hunley Commission Chairman Glenn
McConnell said Friday. "By telling us what didn't happen, we are
starting to close in on the real story."
The Hunley disappeared shortly after sinking the USS Housatonic
about four miles off Sullivan's Island on Feb. 17, 1864. The
Confederate privateer was spotted leaving the scene of the battle
and then, about 45 minutes later, signalling troops on shore. And
then, nothing for 131 years.
Since scientists recovered the sub in 2000, they have been trying to
unlock the secrets of its final moments. Perhaps it is fitting that
a lock has put them one step closer.
Mike Scafuri, a Hunley archaeologist, says the clue to the forward
hatch's latch is a rectangular piece of metal that is like half a
lawn mower blade with a hole in the middle.
It was found on the floor, below the hatch, stored behind the
ballast tank and rudder pipes. If it had fallen from the hatch years
after the sub sank, Scafuri said, it most likely would have been
found on the other side of the sub.
This metal bar is nearly identical to part of the aft hatch's
locking mechanism. There, a bar hangs down from the inside of the
hatch and is threaded through a hole in a similar flat piece of
metal, and then cinched down.
For years, archaeologists figured the forward hatch used a different
sort of latch because such a lock makes it impossible for the
captain to stick his head in the tower to navigate. Now it appears
they are similar sorts of locks.
Historical accounts suggest the sub's crew did not always lock the
hatches while on the surface - they opened both regularly to let in
air. But with the sub found on the ocean floor with one hatch locked
and the other unlocked, the possible number of endings for the crew
The Hunley's hatches were almost certainly secured when it rammed a
spar torpedo into the side of the Housatonic. But later, when
Captain George Dixon signalled Confederate troops on Sullivan's to
light a fire to guide them home, he had to open the forward hatch.
That's where the questions begin. Some witnesses say as Dixon
signalled the shore, the Hunley found itself in the path of a Union
warship coming to the Housatonic's aid. The sub could have had to
submerge quickly to get out of the way. Or, the crew could have
merely forgotten to lock the hatch before diving to wait on a flood
tide that would carry them to shore. It's unclear if the unlocked
hatch could have slightly opened on such a dive, allowing enough
water into the hull to sink the sub. It didn't take much to rob the
boat of neutral buoyancy.
The definitive answers remain hidden in concretion that covers much
of the sub's interior and exterior. McConnell said he hopes the
project will be able to borrow a powerful X-ray machine in the next
few months that will allow closer examinations of both the locking
mechanism and the settings on the ballast tank valves.
"Better X-rays will provide a better picture, and hopefully tell us
whether they were trying to bilge the sub," McConnell said. "This is
just another little piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle."