On a February night in 1864, nine Confederate sailors climbed into the submarine CSS Hunley and steered it toward a picket line of Union ships blockading Charleston Harbor.
The sub, powered by a propeller turned by a hand crank, rammed 100 pounds of black powder on the end of a wooden spar into the Union frigate USS Housatonic.
The modern age of submarine warfare dawned with a thunderous explosion. The Housatonic went down, the first warship in history sunk by a submarine.
But the Hunley and its crew never returned, and for more than 130 years, researchers and relic hunters scoured the silty depths off Charleston for the wreck.
The quest ended this week when researchers announced they found the encrusted iron shell of the Hunley in about 20 feet of water a couple miles offshore.
“This is without a doubt the greatest underwater find since the Monitor was located,” said Clive Cussler, the best-selling author who devoted 15 years and about $130,000 to the search. The Monitor, found in 1973 off the North Carolina coast, was the Union ironclad whose battle with the Confederate Merrimack ushered in the era of iron ships.
Divers from Cussler’s non-profit National Underwater and Marine Agency located what they believed was the Hunley in January and confirmed it May 3 when they uncovered one of the sub’s observation towers.
The submarine, about 40 feet long and 6 feet in diameter, is intact, lying on its side and covered in silt.
“This is the single most important artifact in the history of submarine warfare,” said Mark Newell of the Institute of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina. “This little vessel proved submarine warfare is possible.”
Cussler said the exact location was made known to the city of Charleston and the state but will not be made public for fear of souvenir hunters.
“This is a federal war grave,” Newell said. “This thing is an icon for the South. We have nine gallant men in that vessel.”
Cussler said he has no plans to raise the Hunley. He hopes the state and city will raise and preserve the vessel, an undertaking he said could cost about $200,000. Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said the city will work with the state to find the money.
Federal law makes the wrecks of all Confederate ships property of the General Services Administration.
The Hunley apparently did not get blown up in the explosion that sank the Housatonic 4 miles offshore, as some have theorized. Cussler and Newell said that when the sub sank, it was some distance from the Housatonic.
Cussler said the explosion might have popped some rivets and the Hunley began leaking, eventually becoming a water-filled coffin.
“I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody told me I was wasting my time and the sub wasn’t out there, having been mistakenly salvaged along with the wreckage of the Housatonic several years after the Civil War,” Cussler said.