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Confederate sub made history 150 years ago Monday

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- On a clear, moonlight night 150 years ago, the hand-cranked Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley glided out over glassy seas off South Carolina, sailing into history as the first submarine ever to sink an enemy warship.

A century and a half later - and nearly a decade and a half after the sub was raised - just why the Hunley and its eight-man crew never returned is a mystery, albeit one that scientists may be closer to resolving.

Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the Feb. 17, 1864, mission in which the Hunley sank the Union ship Housatonic as the Confederates desperately tried to break the Civil War blockade that was strangling Charleston. While the Housatonic sank, so did the Hunley.

On Monday evening, re-enactors planned a gathering at Breach Inlet between Sullivans Island and the Isle of Palms northeast of Charleston for a memorial service honoring both the Hunley crew and the five Union sailors who died. The loss of life came when the submarine set off a black powder charge at the end of a 200-pound spar, sinking the blockader.

The remains of the Hunley - which was built in Mobile, Ala., and brought to Charleston in hopes of breaking the blockade - were discovered off the coast in 1995.

Five years later, in August of 2000, cannons boomed, church bells rang and thousands watched from the harborside as the sub was raised and brought by barge to a conservation lab in North Charleston. There, scientists have since been slowly revealing the Hunley's secrets.

Among the first artifacts recovered from the silt and sand clogging the inside of the submarine were buttons from the crewmen's uniforms. Later came one of the most sought-after artifacts of the Hunley legend - a gold coin that had deflected a bullet and thus saved the life of Hunley commander Lt. George Dixon at the Battle of Shiloh.

The $20 United States gold piece was given to Dixon by his sweetheart, Queenie Bennett. The words "Shiloh April 6, 1862 My life Preserver" are inscribed on the coin.

One of the initial surprises was that there were eight crewmen, not the nine thought to have been aboard before the Hunley was raised. The remains were found indicating the crewmen were at their positions at the crank. There was no evidence of an attempt to escape through the hatches, raising speculation as to what prevented the Hunley from returning from its mission.

Scientists announced a year ago they may be closing in on exactly what happened.

An examination of the spar found it was deformed as if in an explosion. Scientists now believe the Hunley was less than 20 feet from the Housatonic when it sank. That means it may have been close enough for the sub's crew to have been knocked unconscious by the explosion - long enough that they may have died before awakening.

For years, historians thought the Hunley was farther away and had speculated the crew ran out of air before they were able to return to shore.

Those who went down on the Hunley comprised the third crew of the submarine. Two previous crews died in accidents before the sub could even attempt its mission.

In April of 2004, thousands of men in Confederate gray and Union blue as well as women in black hoop skirts and veils walked in a procession with the crew's coffins from Charleston's waterfront Battery to Magnolia Cemetery. There they were buried near the other crews in what has been called the last Confederate funeral ceremony.

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Bob February 17 2014 at 12:50 PM

History is engaging, interesting, and fascinating at the same time. Love it.

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2 replies
etmalonejr Bob February 17 2014 at 1:24 PM

I agree. Being interested in Confederate history doesn't mean that one is sympathetic towards slavery. There are parallels here with studying the history of Loyalists during the American Revolution, even though some people might consider them "enemies of liberty."

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1 reply
lackbeery etmalonejr February 17 2014 at 6:01 PM

No one said slavery was a wonderful thing. We were brothers and sisters commiting a horrible war against each other. Why can't we after 150 years lay our arms down. Everytime the Cival War is brought up---uneducated idiots who know nothing about it---come out of the woodwork--- Spewing ignorant venom.

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gsgsp Bob February 17 2014 at 1:26 PM

I love that this relic reminds us of out past and how far we have not come. I just read an explanation of the atomic bombes we dropped on japan and how and why . The first one was to end the war. but I have never understood why we dropped the second one

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7 replies
heart304 February 17 2014 at 1:34 PM


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1 reply
jamesrkellerllm heart304 February 17 2014 at 1:52 PM

Good point. Cussler and company had a significant part in locating the wreck. In fact, they may have been to only people actually looking for it at the time.

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1 reply
wmebp2 jamesrkellerllm February 17 2014 at 1:58 PM

I think the IRS found it -- after they heard mention something about a $20 gold piece.

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Mr. Grant February 17 2014 at 1:48 PM

This is history, there could have been whites and blacks on the sub. God Bless the dead.

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2 replies
arjohny Mr. Grant February 17 2014 at 2:03 PM

never read where blacks served with the confederacy . . . army or navy . . . escaped slaves could join the union army. it's wishful thinking to think blacks were on board and attempting to rewrite history.

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3 replies
Roberta Mr. Grant February 17 2014 at 3:03 PM

There may have been a black man on board.

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Gloria February 17 2014 at 1:28 PM

this is an amazing history of the United States. I am glad that it was found

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ddbmom February 17 2014 at 1:17 PM

It's really too bad that this article doesn't give credit to the group who originally found it and let the appropriate agency know where to look. From what I understand, it was Clive Cussler and the NUMA group who actually found it. They get the thrill of finding these ships but do not touch them.

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1 reply
bopenyan ddbmom February 17 2014 at 1:36 PM

Thank you for that information. I understood also that it was Clive Cusler and NUMA who found the sub. He and NUMA should have been mentioned in the article.

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hi newpatch1951 February 17 2014 at 1:36 PM

This is part of our history,like it or not we have to know what took place during those years

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kooldave1 February 17 2014 at 1:47 PM

Confederate or not, all soldiers & sailors who lost their lives in battle should be honored.

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1 reply
kklinvt kooldave1 February 17 2014 at 2:40 PM

Why should men who fought to continue the oppression and bondage of others be honored?

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3 replies
Buckingham's February 17 2014 at 1:38 PM

God bless the crew of the Hunley, incredibly brave men.

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Richard February 17 2014 at 1:39 PM

This is a cool peice of history. If it could talk the stories it could tell.

Flag Reply +8 rate up
Mart Grasmeder February 17 2014 at 1:52 PM

This was a great story.

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