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The New Explosive Theory About What Doomed the Crew of the Hunley

The Confederate submarine known as the H.L. Hunley delivered a torpedo bomb to the underside of the Union ship Housatonic in 1864, sinking the ship and killing five. But the Hunley also sank, and all eight crew members died. No one knew where the submarine was until 1970, and it took another 30 years to raise it to the surface.   

One hundred and thirty-six years later, in 2000, in a massive custom-built water tank, archaeologists clad in protective coveralls and wearing respirators sorted patiently through the muck and silt that had slowly filled the hull of the submarine as it lay on the bottom of the ocean floor. Accounts of the Hunley’s sinking had assumed horrific scenes of the men trying to claw their way through the thick iron hatches, or huddled in the fetal position beneath the crew bench in their agony. Sinkings of modern submarines have always resulted in the discovery of the dead clustered near the exits, the result of desperate efforts to escape the cold metal coffins; to sit silently and await one’s own demise simply defies human nature.

The crew of the Hunley, however, looked quite different. Each man was still seated peacefully at his station.

What killed the eight men of the Hunley? Rising water or lack of oxygen would have induced a mad dash to escape. Damage from the torpedo would have scattered the bodies and left evidence on the submarine itself. Biomedical engineer and blast-injury specialist Rachel Lance modeled the remains of the submarine and recreated the torpedo incident in a pond (assisted by a bomb-demolition expert and the ATF) to test a new theory on what killed the crew of the Hunley. Read a fascinating excerpt from her book on the subject at Smithsonian.

(Image credit: Conrad Wise Chapman)

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