Uncommonly Good Books Read by Two Common Guys – Raising the Hunley

Raising the Hunley book coverNate:  Today we’re talking about the book, “Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine” by Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf. It’s an interesting story about the submarine the Confederacy built to try and combat the Union blockade during the Civil War.

Dave:  I always love some of the untold or back stories of the Civil War, and this certainly qualifies. The whole reason for the submarine, as you said, was because the South was being completely smothered by the Union blockade, and had to do something to try and break it, or at least threaten it. The South had virtually no Navy, or I should say their Navy mostly consisted of regular citizens who owned a boat and some guns and could go out on the water and shoot at Union ships.

Nate:  Right. So they were desperate for a strategy that would enable them to stick it to the blockade that was cutting them off from the rest of the world. And necessity being the mother of invention, they came up with the idea of a submersible ship which was powered by hand cranks. They, being Horace Lawson Hunley and James McClintock.

Dave:  Hunley funded the project mostly out of his own pocket – because he was a patriot of the South, but also because there was money to be made if it worked. The Confederacy was offering cash rewards for anyone who could sink Union ships, so that was also quite an incentive. So he and McClintock went about designing the submersible boat, which became known as the fish boat.

Nate:  McClintock was the real engineering mind behind the submarine, and we should point out that it was impeccably designed and put together.

Dave:  That’s right – it was well ahead of its time from an engineering and quality standpoint. In fact, when it was found, and was still in the water, there was some doubt as to whether it could be the Hunley, because the craftsmanship seemed too good and the boat seemed too aerodynamically constructed to be something from that time period.

Nate:  The project was so secretive that no one knew for certain what it looked like – there were no photographs – and all that that was available was a painting and some sketches drawn from firsthand accounts. But many of these turned out to be completely inaccurate; the painting, which is on the cover of the book, actually turned out to be the most accurate representation of the submarine. But as ahead of its time as the Hunley was in some ways, it was still operated by the crew hand cranking the propeller, and light was provided by simple candlelight.

Dave:  And if the candle went out, you’d been down too long, because that meant there was hardly any air left.

Nate:  Exactly. There was little room for error. Which is one of the things about the story of the Hunley that is wild to think about. There were so many successful test runs, where things went smoothly and the submarine did exactly what they wanted it to do. Yet each boat they made eventually sank – and generally sank due to one tiny thing going wrong. It didn’t take much for catastrophe to occur.

Dave:  But despite that, there was never a lack of volunteers to be a part of the crew – which either shows some real patriotism, or a thirst for reward money. Or a little of both.

Nate:  And as interesting as the history of the Hunley is, that’s only one part of the book. It’s really separated into two parts.

Dave:  You could even say three.

Nate:  True. You have the story of the history of the Hunley, then you have the story of the search for the remains of the Hunley, and then you even have another story of the archaeological exploration of the Hunley after it’s been brought to the surface. To me, that’s what makes the book so great. And the authors of the book, Hicks and Kropf, are actually reporters who had been following the story of the Hunley since before it was brought back to the surface.

Dave:  That’s right, they not only followed the story of the Hunley for some time before it was discovered in 2000, but they were present throughout much of the archaeological discoveries that were made after it was raised. To me, that might be the best part of the book – the artifacts they find after they recover the Hunley. There are personal items belonging to the crew, and then there’s the story of a gold coin that belonged to the captain of the ship, Lt. George Dixon that was given to him by his sweetheart.

Nate:  And the way they brought the ship up was pretty incredible, too. There had been enough other shipwreck recovery disasters that ended with the ship being destroyed, that they were plenty concerned that could happen to the Hunley. The method they devised to bring it up intact was ingenious, basically digging around the boat, and inflating foamy pillows for it to lie on.

Dave:  You know, we haven’t even discussed the whole saga of finding the Hunley, which took more than 100 years. And we’re not talking about a vast ocean to look through. It was in the vicinity of the harbor, but the water is incredibly murky in that area, making visibility difficult.

Nate:  Plus, with the change of the seasons, tides change as well, and much of the boat had been covered up by silt. But it was such a remarkable ship that there were several parties interested in recovering it.

Dave:  Most notably, the famous author of sea adventures, Clive Cussler. Cussler apparently has his own enterprise that explores the sea looking for shipwrecks, which I did not know before I read this book.

Nate:  Neither did I. And the amount of money Cussler put into finding the Hunley was pretty remarkable. Eventually it paid off, because his divers were the ones who finally found the boat, and then, as with most famous shipwrecks, the politics began in terms of who would ultimately claim the Hunley, where it would rest, who would explore it, and how it would be brought up.

Dave:  Another cool thing to me about the book was the care that was taken to ensure that the soldiers who served on the Hunley, and the other boats that sank, received proper burials. Once the ship was discovered, everyone became well aware that it was not only a ship, but a tomb as well, and there was a great deal of respect paid to the men who lost their lives while serving aboard the Hunley.

Nate:  And another side story that you’ll have to read the book to get all the details has to do with finding a lost Confederate cemetery in the middle of The Citadel’s football stadium parking lot.

Dave:  The book is full of interesting stories like that, which is one of the reasons it’s such a great read. So who would you recommend this to?

Nate:  It would certainly appeal to Civil War buffs, fans of military history, anyone interested in shipwrecks, or anyone interested in archaeology. I think it could also appeal to someone with a general interest in history as well.

Dave:  True. We should certainly note that you don’t have to be a Civil War buff or military historian to enjoy the historical aspect of the book. The Civil War is the backdrop of the story, but the history is more about the making of the ship, and then the history of finding the shipwreck after the war, which took over a century. So I think it would have a fairly wide appeal.