The Day – Waterford Library presents virtual lecture on Civil War submarine mystery on Tuesday


A reporter expresses concern to author Rachel Lance about the amount of information to be given in a newspaper article on her book “In the Waves – My Quest to Solve the Mystery of a Civil War Submarine”.

Lance laughs and says, “Spoiler! Everyone dies!”

It’s true. The entire eight-person crew of the HL Hunley, the Confederate Civil War submarine credited with the sinking of the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor in 1864 – the first incident of a successful submarine attack in the history – will die. Readers discover it from the very first pages.

The big question at the heart of the book – a wonderfully constructed work that combines elements of narrative non-fiction, memory, and historical mystery – is not whether the victims died, but how. Late one night in February, the HL Hunley approached the Housatonic, which was part of a blockade to the north to withhold supplies from the Confederate city. By extending a spar torpedo and placing it against the hull of the large ship, the crew of the HL Hunley detonated the weapon. Five Housatonic crew members perished and the ship was destroyed.

However, the Hunley also went missing during the mission and remained missing until discovered in harbor waters in 2000 – with the skeletal remains of the crew in their positions and no visible signs of trauma. , or that one of them reacted to enemy fire. or any kind of malfunction suggesting that the vessel has suddenly taken on water and caused panic.

Lance will address these questions and more on Tuesday in a virtual presentation sponsored by the Waterford Public Library.

The idea for the book, which is his first, was a bit of a happy accident. Lance, a biomedical engineer and blast injury specialist who studies the effects of underwater explosions on the human body, holds a PhD from Duke University and a full curriculum vitae that includes working for the US Navy as a civil engineer who designed rebreather systems for navy divers. . Currently, in addition to her nascent career as an author, Lance is employed as a research scientist at the Duke University Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology.

She stumbled across the Hunley case while researching a dissertation topic for her PhD, and the elements of the mystery, all of which are of her natural interest and curiosity, immediately captivated her. The more she learned, the more Lance suspected there was a book to write – a Howdunit, if you will – because there were so many unanswered questions about what happened to the Hunley’s crew and why the submarine sank.

One important thing to note: Lance intuitively, and with a natural wit and tone, conveys dense scientific detail on issues such as fluid dynamics and the different reactions of explosions depending on whether they occur in air or under water in a way that is easy to understand – and indeed fascinates – the layman.

But that’s only part of the appeal. Lance provides details of her own life and her involvement in the story with often hilarious observations and the development of real-life friendships with unlikely people as she weaves her way through her investigation. Released in 2020, “In the Waves” is one of the best mysteries you’ll read, a delightful autobiography and intro to complex science and physics that will make you wonder why you hated math to begin with.

On Wednesday, Lance took a few minutes to talk about her career and how it led to the writing of “In the Waves”. In conversation, she tends to laugh out loud, is very modest, and speaks with the enthusiasm of someone who clearly enjoys what they are doing. Here are some of the questions she answered, edited for space and clarity.

Question: It is the land of submarines here with the American naval base and the electric boat. Have you ever visited and what did you think of?

A: I visited. Sure! I was very impressed, but it is also true that I am obsessed with submarines. All submarines! The submarine base has excellent facilities and, thanks to what I do, I have had the chance to visit the on-site acoustic testing laboratories and hyperbaric chambers. Unbelievable.

Question: Do you think the HL Hunley, with its small dimensions and lack of modern technology, could for these reasons sneak into the waters of the Thames and attack the submarine base?

A: (Laughs) I have no idea what the submarine base’s defense system is, but I suspect it’s probably up to the challenge. Interestingly, the Hunley’s design has persisted over the years. During WWII, Germany had advanced submarine technology and used slightly smaller vehicles reminiscent of the Hunley design.

Question: As a layman unable to grasp even the fundamentals of basic science and mathematics, I was able to formulate a theory fairly quickly by reading “In the Waves”. Was I wrong? Yes, squeaking as well. But it makes me wonder: did you get from the start what turned out to be an accurate working theory of what happened in Charleston Harbor that night? And anyway, how did you go about proving it?

A: I suspected what had happened because of my history of explosion trauma. But suspicion means nothing in science without data. You have to rule out all the other theories; you have to try to prove yourself wrong. If you don’t, you might be right.

Question: One of the great things about this book is the readability of your descriptions of the scientific process, including establishing unlikely relationships with all kinds of people as a result of experiments. These anecdotes are amazing and funny.

A: Well, I’m thinking about what’s going on in science. The experiences got more and more difficult as we went along, and it can get stressful. (Laughs) I think I lost 12 pounds while writing the book. But, yes, I made some friends. In a way, we all got together. Who would have thought that I would meet and get to know an older North Carolina tobacco farmer? Or a reenactor of the Civil War? And we certainly keep in touch.

Question: How did it occur to you to write a book about your experiences, and how did you sell it?

A: I lost my job in the Navy when I was doing a hyperbaric chamber project. And the project was important to me because we are trying to save the lives of Navy divers. I needed the money to keep going, and figured if I could find an agent and sell a book that might help fund the work.

I got advice from a colleague at Duke, a writer, and the advice was to go to a bookstore and find books that looked a bit like what I wanted to do. Go to the acknowledgments section in the books and write down the name of the authors’ agents as they always thank them. So I was standing in a bookstore leafing through books and writing names. And I got a result in the first batch of five queries I sent. I have been very lucky.

Question: Were you able to complete the hyperbaric chamber project?

A: I was! And I’m happy to say it’s successful.

Question: Do you have a contact in the region? How did the Waterford Library event come about?

A: They were kind enough to email me and ask! I was brought up in public libraries and read constantly. I wouldn’t have had access to so much material without the libraries, and my parents didn’t always have the means to buy all the books I wanted. And to this day, there is something wonderful and delicious about the semi-randomness of a public library. We’re all used to the idea that, you know, if you want to know something specific, just go online and google it. But I like going to a library with the idea of ​​learning something without a plan. Just walk around and see what’s interesting, then dive right in. So I was very happy to hear from Waterford and to have this opportunity.

Question: It almost seems unfair that one can be a biomedical engineer with a focus on pulmonary physiology, an explosion injury specialist, and a fluent writer effortlessly. And I don’t want to focus on the morbid. But for the last question: if you could pick one incident in history that you would be called to the scene as a blast injury specialist, what would it be?

A: (Laughs) Well, from an academic research point of view, I would say in the trenches of World War I. It was the first war with a high rate of explosives casualties, and it was something that many people did not know at the time. It would be fascinating to experience it and learn from it at the source.

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