The interior of the world’s first successful combat submarine was revealed to the public for the first time on Wednesday.
The crew compartment of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley was small. Conservators working to save the vessel say they have a new understanding of just how cramped it must have been for the eight-man crew in 1864.
Crewmembers on the submarine made history during the Civil War, when the Hunley became the first submarine to ever sink a target. It torpedoed the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor on February 17, 1864. Shortly after the attack, the submarine sank just outside the harbor. It was not located until 1995 by Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency. It’s now housed in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at the former Navy Base in North Charleston.
Working in the small confines of the roughly 4-foot tall hull scientists are slowly breaking off layers of sand, sediment, shells and corrosion that built up slowly over time on the seabead.
“What we are doing is removing the concretion. It’s part of the conservation process,” Project archaeologist Michael Scafuri told South Carolina Radio Network. “It allows the chemicals that we have in and around the submarine as part of the treatment to access the surface of the metal.”
He said the restoration is a meticulous procedure. “We’re at the significant part of the conservation treatment and investigation of the submarine in that we’ve completed most of the de-concretion of the exterior and now the interior of the hull.”
Conservators said they discovered a tooth inside the concretion on crank position number 3. Researchers believe the tooth belongs to crew member Frank Collins, whose remains were buried in 2004 alongside his crewmates and others that lost their lives in the testing and development of the Hunley. At the time of his burial, several teeth were missing from his cranium.
Clemson researchers said forensic analysis of the skull indicated the teeth likely fell out after Collins’ death, so the additional human remains had been expected. The team still is not sure if the men died from suffocation or suffered fatal injuries in the explosion, although contemporary sources claim the Hunley signaled shore after the attack before it went underneath the waves a final time.
The Hunley Project is conducted through a partnership with the Clemson University Restoration Institute, South Carolina Hunley Commission, Naval History and Heritage Command, and Friends of the Hunley.