Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Honoring the Hunley

I’ve always known which side I supported during the Civil War, even before I learned that a few of my ancestors had fought with the Union Army. I am a West Virginian first and foremost, and West Virginia won its independence 150 years ago because we wanted to be Americans, not Confederates.

However, I can still appreciate some of our honorable, albeit misguided, brethren from the south. One particular facet of the Confederate war effort that had long fascinated me was the story of the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy warship in combat. I’ve always appreciated scientific advances, and the Hunley was indeed cutting edge technology for the mid-19th century. The 40 foot long submarine had a crew of seven, and relied on power from the arms of the men turning a crankshaft.

Although it blew up a Union blockade ship outside the Charleston harbor, the Hunley sank during its return and was never used again. In the late ‘90s, its location was discovered on the sea floor, and it was eventually recovered. A movie was made about the same time, which further captivated my interest in the sub.

When I heard that a full-scale replica of the Hunley would be on display during Civil War Days in Putnam County this past weekend, I decided to check it out. The replica had been created for use during the filming of the movie. Side panels could be removed for easy viewing, but otherwise it was very true to the original. The crew sat on a bench on one side, while the hand crank ran down the length of the other side. The crankshaft was connected to the center-mounted propeller shaft (complete with flywheel) via a chain drive—not a roller chain like on a bicycle, but a standard linked chain—with sprockets designed so that the alternating links fit precisely in place as the sprockets rotate.

There was a complex “plumbing system” to allow water to be pumped out from the forward and aft ballast tanks (which were open at the top on the inside of the sub), as well as bilge pump. There was a foot powered pump to remove carbon dioxide that would gather at the bottom of the sub, because it was heavier than oxygen. Horizontal diving planes could be angled to help the craft submerge or resurface. These are just a few of the many technological features that had to be created and tweaked to make this early submarine feasible.

While I found it to be fascinating from a technological standpoint, the display also included the story of each of the men who had went down with the sub, including some of the personal effects that they were carrying. It must have been terrible to have perished inside this iron coffin shortly after they accomplished their mission.

Overall, it made for a very informative presentation about an intriguing chapter from the Civil War. To actually see the physical size of the sub, to better understand its working components, and to actually place my hands on the crank and rotate it are things that I will always remember—and would not have fully appreciated, had I not made the effort to visit Putnam County’s Civil War Days. I may not agree with the political motives of those behind the Hunley, but I can certainly admire their efforts to advance our scientific knowledge. R.I.P., submariners!

A look inside this "steampunk sub"--the bench is on the left, with a rod controlling the rudder underneath and the pipe from the aft ballast tank near the floor. The crank is obvious on the right side, perfectly staggered to maintain a steady pace. The dark semi-circle in the forward wall is the opening into the forward ballast tank.

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