Scientists bathe Civil War submarine in search of answers

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Bruce Smith / AP

The Confederate submarine HL Hunley sits in a preservation tank at a laboratory in North Charleston, SC, before being covered with a chemical bath on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Bathing the hand-cranked Hunley in chemicals marks a new step in the conservation of the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship. The chemical bath will help remove salts and encrustations on the submarine’s hull. The Hunley sank a Union blockade ship off the coast of South Carolina in 1864. It was discovered in 1995 and lifted in 2000 and brought to the North Charleston laboratory.

NORTH CHARLESTON, SC – Scientists near the town where the Civil War began prepared Thursday to soak an encrusted Confederate submarine in a chemical bath to reveal its hull for the first time in 150 years, seeking to solve the mystery from the disappearance of the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship

The hand-cranked HL Hunley – which sits in a 76,000-gallon conservation tank – will be treated with sodium hydroxide solution for about three months to loosen the encrustation covering the hull and interior of the submarine.

Environmentalists will drain the tank every day and later, wearing protective gear, use hand tools to remove the hard sand, sediment and rust that covers the submarine before refilling the tank each evening.

“This is the end of the beginning” of preservation work, said Nestor Gonzalez-Pereyra, associate director of the Lasch Conservation Center at the Institute of Restoration at Clemson University. “In a year, we may be able to get the clues.”

Removal of the encrustation will reveal the original surface of the hull and with it any damage that could give new clues to its sinking off Charleston, South Carolina, in February 1864. The war began with the bombing. from Fort Sumter to Charleston Harbor three years earlier.

The submarine and its eight-person crew had unleashed a powder charge that sank the Union blockade ship USS Housatonic as the Confederacy attempted to break a Union blockade of Charleston. But the Hunley never returned and why it remains a mystery.

The wreckage was discovered off the coast in 1995. Five years later, in August 2000, cannons rang, church bells rang, and thousands watched from the harbor as the submarine 40 feet long was lifted and brought by barge to the conservation laboratory. The submarine’s silt-filled interior was then excavated and the remains of the crew members were removed.

In April 2004, thousands of men in Confederate Gray and Union Blue marched in procession with the Charleston Waterfront Battery Crew coffins to Magnolia Cemetery in what has been called the last Confederate funeral.

Last year, scientists announced that it appears the load that sank the Houstonic was attached to the 16-foot spar at the front of the submarine. This could mean that the crew passed out from the explosion and died before waking up. A closer look at the hull may provide clues.

“Chiseling the concretion will allow us to travel through time, potentially helping us learn what happened to the Hunley and her crew that night,” said Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the South Carolina Hunley Commission, in a press release. .

When the Hunley was lifted, historians believed it was further away from the Housatonic and assumed the crew ran out of air before they could return the submarine to shore.

Gonzalez-Pereyra said that although the encrustation on the hull should be removed in a year, the submarine will need to soak in the chemical bath for at least four more years to remove salts from the metal and prevent further corrosion of the submarine.

Finally, the Hunley will be on display in a new museum in North Charleston, not far from the conservation lab.


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