A Visit to the H.L. Hunley and a Dose of Southern Culture

By Paul Siedel
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved

Every year it happens; we receive invitations to fundraisers for our pet causes and each year we say, “Next year I’m going to do this.” Well, this year was my year to take in the annual “Friends of the Hunley” barbecue and oyster roast in Charleston, South Carolina. What an experience it was!

It was a ten-hour drive down I-77 to Columbia, S.C., which is well worth taking if one is a Civil War buff. The next day it was on to Charleston, which is a fantastic tourist town for anyone interested in any aspect of American history. The day of the members’ tour arrived, and I drove to the Warren Lasch Conservation and Research Center in North Charleston, a huge hall named after Mr. Warren Lasch, a former Clevelander now affiliated with Clemson University and where the Hunley currently resides.

Inside we were shown the ongoing recovery efforts by a group of conservators, and the slow painstaking work it takes to bring this Civil War submarine back from the dead. We were shown how each article was desalinated by leaching out salt water and replacing it with a polyethylene solution that will keep the submarine and artifacts from deteriorating. Much of this is groundbreaking work, and many of these methods have never before been used. The vessel, itself, is submerged in a huge tank of desalinization solution, which must be drained each time research is done. A very moving sight, and one I will remember for a long time to come.

A sketch of the H.L. Hunley

At 7:00 that evening I met some friends and we took in a good old southern oyster roast. Held in the bus barn where tourists meet their tour busses, we were treated to all the pulled pork, coleslaw, baked beans, and rolls we could eat. Then came the oysters. Huge baskets about the size of a stretcher were thrown onto tables made of plywood. As I stood there wondering what to do, the crowd dove in and began shucking and devouring oysters at an amazing rate. I acquired an oyster knife, and my friend Mary Ellen showed a Yankee how to shuck and eat oysters. In the middle of the table was a huge hole under which was a fifty gallon drum, and as one eats the oyster, one throws the shell into the barrel. Needless to say, that combined with a good glass of beer, this whole affair put me in a food lover’s “seventh heaven.” There were easily three hundred in attendance, and a live band played country music. After about two hours, I managed to make it back to the car and back to the hotel room. This event is definitely on my calendar for many years to come.

There was a very touching story told by the one of the staff regarding the Hunley and how it affects people even today. The ship was lost in February 1864, after sinking the U.S.S. Housatonic. She signaled the crew on shore that she had accomplished her mission and was coming in. She never did. The Hunley vanished and was never seen again for one hundred and thirty-one years. There were no survivors. The ship was captained by George Dixon. His fiancée, although she lived until 1933, never spoke of Dixon or the war. Upon her death, the family members were going through her effects and came upon an old scrapbook, which contained pictures of the people who had made up her life. One page held a photo of a young man, whom no one in the family could identify. In 2014, as the descendants were going through the Conservation Center, they were shown the facial reconstructions of the crew members. The face of the Hunley’s captain, George Dixon, bore a striking resemblance to the photo in the old scrapbook.

Mysteries of the Hunley

What actually happened to the Hunley? To this very day, no on knows for certain why the ship never resurfaced after the attack on the Housatonic. Many theories continue to be put forth, but none has been proven.

What happened to the crew members? There was no evidence of panic. The skeletal remains were found at each man’s duty station.

Why was part of the propeller guard missing?

Related links:
Friends of the Hunley
The Life and Death of H.L. Hunley
Report: Friends of the Hunley Oyster Roast, October 23, 2009
One Scientist May Have Figured Out Why a Civil War Submarine Sank
The New Explosive Theory about What Doomed the Crew of the Hunley