Ten years have gone by since Cheryl my wife- and I had the privilege to attend the funeral of the eight sailors who died in the Hunley on the fateful morning of February 17th, 1864. The Honorable Bob Young, mayor of Augusta and his wife, Gwen, were invited by the organizing committee. We were the Youngs guests. We were comfortably sitting with the dignitaries at the Magnolia Cemetery to see the ceremony.
The extraordinary three miles long procession, under a scorching sun, from the Battery to the graveyard began at 10:30 a.m. on April 16, 2004. It included 6,000 re-enactors dressed in Civil War uniform and another 4,000 wearing civilian clothing from the mid-19th century. Color guards from all five branches of the U.S. armed forces wearing modern uniforms- were also in the procession. The Cabell Breckinridge Civil War Band from VMI played funeral music and a bagpipe band from the Citadel performed when the sailors were laid to rest in the Magnolia Cemetery, amid the dogwood blossoms and oaks draped with Spanish moss. The Hunley crew was buried joining thousands of other Civil War soldiers interred here. The Charleston committee that planned the funeral wanted primarily a Christian burial in dignity not a flag rally- that these men deserved in their last journey home.
During the long and unforgettable afternoon, sitting next to my wife a true daughter of the Confederacy- I had a lot of time to ponder about the many sacrifices that took place during the American Civil War. The recalculated death toll through digitized census data in 2012 has now reached 750,000 by far the greatest toll of any war in American history. Many died honorably in combat like the eight Hunley sailors that we were burying that day, but many more two third- died not so gloriously from infections, gangrene or dysentery. Too many of them ended up in mass graves without the elementary dignity.
To refocus on the Hunley, we were actually putting to rest the third crew of the ship. The first two crews failed miserably. The first attempt to launch the sub happened six months before, on August 29, 1863. With a local volunteer crew and a Naval officer at the helm, it tragically disappeared off Johnson wharf, as it was getting ready for a nighttime attack on a Union ship. Three out of eight crewmembers survived. Horace Hunley himself led the submarines second attempt in October of the same year. He was a strong believer in his project. This time, the crew was composed of volunteer employees from the Park and Lyons machine shop in Mobile, AL where the vessel had been designed and built. Even their experience proved futile. All men on board, including Hunley, succumbed to the depths. The sub sank while performing a routine diving exercise. Again the divers recovered the sub from the Ocean floor. Upon its return to the dock, someone painted on it the word coffin.
The Hunley had now sunk twice killing a total of 13 crewmen. General Beauregard had grave concerns over the two fatal accidents. At the urging of Lt George Dixon, he approved the third attempt. The identities of this last undeterred crew of volunteers came to light just days before the last mens remains were to be buried. Interestingly, only two of them were originally from the Confederate States. The leader, Lt Dixon, was from Ohio and four other crewmembers were, according to the forensic experts, recent European immigrants. What about the victims from the USS Housatonic? Two officers and three men died in the explosion. All the other crewmembers saved themselves escaping from the rapidly sinking ship by climbing into the rigging that remained above water.
After the funeral, we went to see the Hunley, now the centerpiece of a very interesting exhibit in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at the former Navy Yard in North Charleston. It is a combination of clever imagination and surprisingly primitive mechanism. In total, it caused 26 casualties. Artifacts recovered recently from the USS Housatonic are to be displayed in the same museum.
Augusta, GA. June 4, 2014
H.L. Hunley: Sesquicentennial Anniversary 1864-2014 The Final Mission