Casing of exploded torpedo found on Hunley spar

Researchers at the Hunley Project have found an important piece of evidence that has changed what we know about the mysterious demise of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley: the exploded remains of the copper torpedo casing still bolted to the spar, the 16-foot-long iron pole that served as the sub’s weapon delivery system.

The spar has been on display at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Lab where the Hunley has been conserved since it was raised from Charleston Harbor in 2000, but since the sub itself was the main priority, conservator Paul Mardikian wasn’t able to begin working on removing the concretions from the spar until last fall. Once the thick concrete-layer of silt and sand was gone, he found that the dense area they had seen on an X-ray was not a release mechanism bur rather the copper sleeve of the torpedo itself. This means the torpedo exploded at the end of the spar, a discovery of critical importance.

The Hunley was the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship in wartime. On the night of February 17th, 1864, the 40-foot hand-powered sub manned by a crew of eight rammed its spar torpedo into the starboard stern of the USS Housatonic, a 205-foot, 1,260-ton Union warship that was part of the fleet blockading Charleston Harbor. The blast blew a hole in the ship so wide that witnesses report seeing a couch float out of the hole sideways. Within minutes the Housatonic was sunk and five sailors dead (most survived on row boats and the others climbed the sail rigging that remained above the harbor’s water level).

We know the Hunley survived the explosion because the commander of Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island saw the submarine signal with a blue magnesium light indicating the success of the mission. Other witnesses, including one on the Housatonic, also reported seeing the blue signal light. After that, the Hunley and its crew was never heard from again. It sank just outside Charleston Harbor where it remained, buried in sand and silt, until it was raised in 2000.

What the torpedo casing on the tip of the spar proves is that the Hunley was much closer to the Housatonic at the time of the explosion than anyone realized.

Until now, the conventional wisdom has been the Hunley would ram the spar torpedo into her target and then back away, causing the torpedo to slip off the spar. A rope from the torpedo to the submarine would spool out and detonate once the submarine was at a safe distance. This theory has always had difficulty under scrutiny since it would be very hard to actually lodge the torpedo into the hull of the enemy ship.

Finding a portion of the original torpedo casing has enabled the team to confirm a long held suspicion that it was built and designed by a group associated with Edgar Singer (cousin of the famous sewing machine entrepreneur Isaac Singer). A period diagram housed at the National Archives indicates that this Singer torpedo held 135 pounds of gunpowder and was detonated by a trigger mechanism.

This means the Captain had to position the torpedo while still attached to the spar and trigger it when the time was right.

Since the spar is just over 16 feet long and the torpedo was two feet long, the Hunley was less than 20 feet from the warship when those 135 pounds of black powder blew. At that distance, the crew could have been stunned by a shock wave. Even if only a few of the eight crewmen were knocked unconscious, the hand-cranked propulsion system that kept the vessel moving would have been severely undermined.

This possibility is supported by a clue straight out of Agatha Christie: Lieutenant George E. Dixon’s pocket watch was found stopped at 8:23 PM, almost exactly the time the Housatonic crew reported being under attack. Also, the remains of all eight men were found at their stations. There is no evidence that they tried to escape.

The new information about the spar torpedo gives researchers precious information that will allow them to run computer models and simulations of how the explosion affected the Hunley. They now have physical evidence — so much of the eye-witness evidence and conventional wisdom has turned out to be completely wrong — of the distance between submarine and ship, and of the strength of the payload. Hunley Project researchers hope to enlist the aid of third party computer modeling experts to simulate the blast, and then perhaps to create scale models of the attack.

Since thick concretions coat the body of the submarine, we still don’t know if it was disabled in any way by the explosion. Conservation has been everyone’s top priority since 137 years in salt water is not kind to iron. The vessel, submerged in a 90,000-gallon tank of cold fresh water at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, was turned upright in June of 2011 after spending more than 10 years on its starboard side in a truss. The truss only came off two weeks ago, revealing the submarine surface in its unobstructed entirety.

At the end of this year, WLCC scientists hope to replace the fresh water in the tank with a chemical bath that will slowly leach the salt out of the iron. Once the solution has had a few months to do its thing, researchers plan to remove the encrusted layer of silt, sand and rock. This will allow the chemicals direct access to the iron which will speed up the salt removal and will allow examination of the iron skin. Scientists hope this will answer many of the remaining questions about how and whether the sub was damaged in the attack.

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8 Comments »

Comment by LadyShea
2013-01-29 12:39:02

My dad and my son built a model of the Hunley and we helped him with some basic reasearch info so he could give a brief presentation to his Kindergarten class. Yes, I am raising a history nerd…so?

Anyway thanks for the additional info to give to him :)

Comment by livius drusus
2013-01-29 13:15:09

That is so cool that grandpa and grandson built a model of the Hunley together. You should go to Charleston and visit the original now that it’s out of its truss.

 
 
Comment by Cordate
2013-01-29 12:56:27

I wonder what sort of couch was likely to be found in the lower decks of a Civil War-era warship.

Comment by livius drusus
2013-01-29 13:12:53

I know, right? It must have come from an officer’s stateroom.

 
 
Comment by LadyShea
2013-01-29 15:27:18

A grandma trip to there was the catalyst for the project. It’s in my “possible trip” portfolio

 
Comment by Ofnir
2013-01-31 19:03:29

Dunno if this is the case here, but ward and staterooms in some of the sailing ship replicas I’ve been on had what they called couches. They tended to be about as wide as a love-seat and upholstered, but not as deep…more of a fancy bench than anything.

 
Comment by Blue LIght Guy
2013-02-03 17:44:04

If, indeed the torpedo was bolted to the spar, it refutes the eyewitnesses on the Housatonic who testified that the Hunley was backing away (at various distances) when the torpedo exploded. I wonder if there could have been a fitting between the torpedo and the copper sleeve found bolted to the spar, arranged to allow the torpedo to come off of the spar before exploding.

One thing for sure, the Hunley crew did not signal to shore with a blue magnesium light. See recent research showing that the “blue light” mentioned in the historical record was a pyrotechnic composition found in period military manuals, and contained no magnesium.

 
Comment by Bruce K. Evans
2013-03-06 22:37:10

There has been discussion of a lead cup or collar at the end of the thimble that would have held the torpedo to the spar. It was supposed to have torn when the submarine backed away. The only problem that I have determined with that is the distinct possibility that the soft lead would have torn on impact and the spar likely rammed through the thimble and into the torpedo housing at the rear. Regardless, the thimble material folded as it is certainly indicates it was over the spar at the time of the blast–so does the slot behind the bolt. I think the team will have to analyze the tensile strength of metals in sheet form (for the aft face of the torpedo)and the force needed to drive home a spike in a wet hull. I think it was bolted on purpose…a calculated risk.

 
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