According to new evidence discovered by scientists studying the Confederate submarine HL Hunley, the Civil War vessel’s crew did not operate the emergency keel release mechanisms the night they lost their lives in the experimental 40-foot vessel.
Clemson archaeologist Mike Scafuri told South Carolina Radio Network the newly-revealed keels give some insight into the sub. “These are key components of the design of the submarine. And one of the things it does is help us understand the thought process of the builders and the designers and the crew.”
The Hunley became the world’s first successful combat submarine with the sinking of the USS Housatonic in 1864. Historical records indicate the submarine’s crew signaled to shore they were on the way back home but instead, they vanished without a trace in Charleston’s outer harbor. The reason surrounding the Hunley’s loss has remained an intriguing maritime mystery for over a century. The sub was found in 1995.
“That helps us interpret what they did the night of the attack. And it helps us, in general, understand the whole story of this submarine as we try to figure out and solve this mystery of what happened to HL Hunley over a 150 years ago,” Scafuri said.
The keel is made up of eight separate cast iron pieces, with a few of them weighing over 500 pounds. While they provided center-line weight for the submarine, they could also be dropped if she became stuck underwater. By using a turnkey function inside the crew compartment, three of the keel weights could be quickly released. This would enable the crew to drop over 1,000 pounds of weight in the event they were struggling to come back up after a dive.
This particular emergency function was not used. Scafuri said the question scientists must now answer is: why? Studies of the human remains show no new injuries to the crew and no signs of panic, suggesting that they did not know they were in trouble until it was too late.
For more information on the Hunley go to www.hunley.org.