Wulfriðe Blitzen: Good evening everyone, thank you all for coming to listen to Philip’s discussion. I hope you’ve all found comfortable seats, help yourself to tea at the back of the room 🙂
Wulfriðe Blitzen: So, I hand over the floor now to Philip! *Claps*
Philip Underwood bows
Philip Underwood: Howdy, thanks for coming.
Philip Underwood: A manageable crowd for my first SL address!
Philip Underwood: Above me you will see the topic of the conversation in proper scale to avis
Philip Underwood: internal diameter four feet
Philip Underwood takes a breath
Philip Underwood: Here we go
Philip Underwood: This talk is about the history of an exquisite engine with a sinister purpose. An infernal contraption built to deliver an infernal device. It had its brief moment of glory and tragedy just a few days before the end of the American Civil War.
Philip Underwood: This is a story, and I am a raconteur. Those of you who know me know that my relation of tales begins with the setup, the part, no matter how far back, that establishes the important effect of the conclusion.
Philip Underwood: So, I will start with a man named George Erasmus Dixon and the beginning of the American Civil War. Some of you out there, yes, I am looking at you, might refer to it as the War Between the States, or even the War of Northern Aggression.
Philip Underwood: And I start early, in the second April of the conflict. George Dixon was a Union officer, and just before he went off to war someone — well, there is a mystery exactly who, as there is lots of mystery in this whole story — gave him a $20 gold piece (it was obviously a well-to-do somebody) for luck.
Philip Underwood: He was carrying this Good Luck Charm in his first battle. Shiloh. And on April the 6th 1862 he caught a bullet with his thigh. But he was only bruised, because the mini-ball had struck dead center on his gold piece.
Philip Underwood: Instead of a bloody puncture he got a bad bruise. Sometime after the battle he had an inscription put on its reverse. I will tell you what it said later. Now we will set our Chronometers for forty-six months later.
Philip Underwood: It is the middle of February 1864, two months before the end of the American Civil War, the United States Navy sloop Housatonic is patrolling the waters outside of Charleston, South Carolina. She is participating in the coordinated slow strangulation of the Confederacy by blocking incoming supply lines by sea from other nations.
Philip Underwood: A bit before 9 o’clock in the evening something that looking like “a plank moving in the water” is spotting moving toward the ship. A porpoise coming to play, perhaps? Some big fish? The Union warship is close to the shore, in shallower water, riding at anchor to stay safe from the Confederate torpedoes or, as we call them now, mines.
Philip Underwood: The torpedoes were sophisticated with ingenious detonators and efficient designs to blow holes in enemy ships and send them to the bottom of the sea or just blow them to splinters. Some were anchored, some floating; but they were more dangerous and prevalent in deeper water where they were hard to see and always in motion.
Philip Underwood: For a time, some of the sailors discuss the object while standing confident and secure on the deck of a mighty warship. But the straight, rapid approach of this apparition shatters the sense of security, and the crewmen sound the alarm while running to their battle stations. The craft speeding toward them is attacking them!
Philip Underwood: The foe is upon them, too fast and too low in the water to shoot with their gimbled cannon. Desperate sailors fire at it with muskets, aiming at the dark cylinder and the small glowing windows that come into view on two short twin towers.
Philip Underwood: Their nemesis strikes the hull just forward of the mizzen mast. There is a massive explosion; its force blows up through the deck from below, where the copper torpedo on the end of a spar attached to the prow of the submarine, for submarine it is, impacted far below the water line just on the starboard side of the keel.
Philip Underwood: With a hole through all of her decks the ship is mortally wounded and sinks in minutes. Five men killed, either by the detonation of one hundred and thirty pounds of black powder or by being carried down into the dark depths and drowned. The USS Housatonic enters history as the first ship to be sunk by an enemy submarine.
Philip Underwood: [Behind me is the famous Conrad Wise Chapman painting of the boat]
Philip Underwood: [The model above has the torpedo, a beer keg sized device, attached to the end of its spar ]
Philip Underwood: The submersed vessel responsible was called the H.L. Hunley, after the man who envisioned, designed, and carried out the construction of a machine that could revolutionize naval warfare. It was a civilian project, privately conducted and financed; one of about a half dozen other submarines designed, built, and tested.
Philip Underwood: She was the third of Hunley’s projects. The first, built in New Orleans, had to be scuttled when Union Admiral Farragut captured that city. His second attempt was built in Mobile, Alabama. It sank and was lost during testing. This boat, the one that succeeded, was his third attempt and financed entirely out of his pocket.
Philip Underwood: Elsewhere, other such contraptions came off the drawing board of various other designers as well, including one built by the Union to thwart what the Confederates were doing, in their desperation, to try to survive their rebellion. The sleek Hunley could generate 3.5 horsepower to propel her. All the other boats built were too slow, too cumbersome, or too poorly suited, to mount a successful attack.
Philip Underwood: Hunley had experimented with electric and steam power to propel her, but finally opted for an offset crank system, to drive the boat. It had a large propeller protected by a circular cowling that was driven by crankshaft operated by seven of the eight crewmembers while the skipper sat up front with his head in the forward conning tower to control the vessel with the rudder. There were ballast tanks fore and aft that could be flooded or evacuated by hand pumps to raise and lower the boat;
Philip Underwood: The submersible had two metal plates at its front that emerged at right angles to the hull on both the port and starboard sides. They acted like wings do in the air. When they were pointed down by the front edge, they forced the boat deeper into the water; when they pointed down by the back edge, they brought the boat back up the surface.
Philip Underwood: In case of dire need she had weights attached to her keel that could be dropped by unscrewing the bolt heads and allowing her to rapidly ascend to the surface. As I mentioned, on her prow she had a cantilevered spar, over twenty feet long, with the torpedo at the end of it.
Philip Underwood: The Hunley never came home. The Housatonic’s fate was immediately known, a masted war ship does not blow up in sight of the shore every day. The submarine’s land crew in port waited in vain. Her loss would be overshadowed by the surrender of Charleston to Union General Schimmelfennig the very next day.
Philip Underwood: It was reported that the crew on the docks in Charleston saw a signal, a ‘blue light’, perhaps even twice, telling her them that she was on her way back. This was also reported by a lookout at the port inlet. But she never arrived. Eight men and an elegant machine just disappeared – lost at sea.
Philip Underwood: The vessel’s successful suicidal attack cost the lives of her third crew! The first one to meet mortality was in Charleston, when she was skippered by Confederate Navy Lieutenant John Payne. On 29 August 1863, while the entire crew was aboard, and the boat was being towed.
Philip Underwood: Payne was having trouble with the tow cable fouling, he was halfway out of the small forward hatch, both for and aft hatches were only 17 inches by 21, when he slipped and accidentally put his foot on the lever that controlled the dive planes. The boat went down by the head and water flooded through the two open hatches.
Philip Underwood: The man seated nearest the aft hatch escaped and the sailor behind Payne managed to emerge but was carried to the bottom before he freed himself from the hatch that had closed on his leg. The other five men drowned.
Philip Underwood: [ Behind me is a cutaway showing how the men were packed into the craft.]
Philip Underwood: Cozy! The crank that ran the propeller was the length of the boat, its radius dictated the diameter of the hull, so the men were packed in like sardines to run it. The handles were at 120° in relation to the seat on either side, so every three stations described a circle. That arrangement was necessary in order to prevent any incipient angular momentum causing the craft to ‘wobble’ and slow it down by friction as it proceeded.
Philip Underwood: Yeah, I know, a bit Physics teacher there …
Philip Underwood: The men sat with their backs to the port hull, on a narrow wooden bench. This configuration was fatal, submerged suddenly and in complete darkness the men became disoriented and had to contend with others fighting to escape though the tangle of rods and levers. A more horrifying death is difficult to imagine. All these men knew what might befall them when they volunteered. They were brave or foolhardy, take your pick.
Philip Underwood: A new crew was assigned after the first sinking and it was to be captained by none other than George Erasmus Dixon, the fortunate survivor of the Battle of Shiloh. Testing and modifications continued. The paces consisted of submerging for ten minutes and resurfacing. Then, on 15 October 1863, Hunley insisted on replacing Dixon and taking her out himself, he was to dive under a stationary ship and resurface on the other side as they had been doing.
Philip Underwood: She slipped beneath the waves but did not come back up. Even though he was the designer and financier he was not completely familiar with piloting her, she dove sharply into the bottom of the harbor and partially flooded. It took several weeks to locate her. When retrieved it was evident that the bulk of the crew had drowned yet Hunley and his second had asphyxiated, their heads in air pockets in the conning towers. They had tried to drop the ballast weights but ran out of time
Philip Underwood: Originally the explosive was to be towed behind and the submarine which would dive under the target and pull the charge into the opposite side of the enemy. This would have protected the boat, but during tests the cables would foul the rudder or the screw. For the 136 years she sat on the bottom of the ocean it was considered that the torpedo had a barbed spearhead in front of it which would be jammed into the side of the enemy’s hull and then the sub would reverse the crank and a lanyard would play out and detonate the mine when it went taut.
Philip Underwood: So, in 1995, (gosh, what, a hundred or so years in the future?) Clive Cussler, yes, the guy that wrote the goofy Lincoln’s mummy in an ironclad in the desert in Africa book, discovered the Hunley buried in the sand a hundred yards past where the Housatonic sank. So, did that mean the sub really did survive the attack? So why did it not return? And if it was in trouble why didn’t the crew drop the rapid ascent ballast weights?
Philip Underwood: There was a surprise when the boat was opened in the year 2000. All the crew members were sitting at their posts! There had been no attempt, panicked or otherwise, to open the hatches. Each man died where he sat. Behind me now is a color-coded illustration of the position of the skeletal remains of each man in in their final positions. The recovery of these remains allowed for forensic reconstruction of their appearance when their boat foundered.
Philip Underwood: Behind me are the positions of the remains of the men, color coded by individual.
Philip Underwood: There was a theory that the Hunley had settled to the ocean bottom to await the passage of the USS Canandaigua rushing to the aid of the stricken Housatonic. Since the ballast was not dropped, it was further speculated that, in the pitch black and suffering of exhaustion from the trip out and exertion of the attack, the men had lost track and slipped into unconsciousness and died of carbon dioxide poisoning.
Philip Underwood: When finally located the submarine was on its side, buried in five feet of sand, and a fist size hole in the forward conning tower that had finally flooded her. The hole would not have doomed the crew, as the rate the water came into the compartment was to slow to prevent them from opening the hatches and some of them escaping.
Philip Underwood: The boat had lain intact for several decades as little stalactites of iron oxide formed on the upper section of the interior, proving air had remained entrapped and condensed water had dripped from the top of the cabin for a long time. It is probable she had been snagged by a dragging anchor and punctured and pulled over onto her side.
Philip Underwood: This is where, were I voicing, my voice would begin to warble.
Philip Underwood: The boat has been painstakingly excavated. And it has now been determined, with a high level of certainty, the fate of the crew. Rachel Lance, biomechanist with a PhD in biomedical engineering, from Duke University, worked with the Friends of the Hunley, the group that has been tending the artifact. Her specialty is the effect of explosions, especially underwater, on the human body.
Philip Underwood: [ Behind me now are the forensic reconstructions of the crew.]
Philip Underwood: The torpedo the Hunley delivered was likely 137 pounds of black powder in a copper cylinder on the end of a sixteen-foot spar. It detonated on impact. A hell of an explosion in the confining pressure of water, such that it blew a hole all the way up through the wooden ship they had killed. The torpedo was on a spar that placed the charge below the level of the submarine. The hull of the Hunley was only 3/8 of an inch thick and could transmit the force of the shock wave quickly and the force hit at the bottom of the boat smashing into the tube.
Philip Underwood: The blast echoed around inside the boat, force waves travel faster through solids; faster through metal and water, slower in air. When the wave reached the men’s bodies it would have passed through their muscle and bone, but when it encountered the lung and brain tissue it would have stopped, meaning all the energy was delivered there at once. Sever pulmonary damage and shock to brain tissue resulted. They were killed instantly.
Philip Underwood: Had the hull been thicker, or made out of wood, at least some of them might have survived. If the spar had been on the same level as the boat the forward ballast tank would have protected them by absorbing the force, the sharp prow would have split the wave with its edge. What doomed the crew most was how short the spar was and how close the explosion was to the submarine. Had it been twice as long, some of the men might have survived the explosion, if not the trip back to port.
Philip Underwood: After recovery she was taken to Charleston in 2000 to be assayed. The myths fell away. She did not survive for hours, groping her way back only to fail at the last minute. No ‘blue lights’ were shown to demonstrate she was coming back home. It turns out that, back then, ‘blue light’ was a euphemism for a signal from a naval ship, most likely a kind of white flare. The Hunley never launched one, never shone a lantern, never tried to inform anyone of anything. They were all dead.
Philip Underwood: She floated, dead in the water, for a time neutrally buoyant while gravity pulled her slowly down. She floated for about fifteen minutes, drifting some out to sea past her victim then settled to the sea floor. The keel of the Hunley was laid down in early 1863. Never commissioned her name was never official. She went into service 17 February 1864 and left service 17 February 1864. She made history.
Philip Underwood: The crew members were carefully removed from the craft by the conservators and scientists that cared for the boat. The men were interred with the other two crews lost, all three crew together were laid to rest in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, carried in a crowd of 4000 reenactors and 6000 people in period dress as well as witnesses in modern attire. All five branches of the US military provided a color guard in modern uniform.
Philip Underwood: The last of the remains were from the front of the ship, in the attitude he had died, his ankles crossed, his left hand on his thigh and his right shoulder resting on the starboard hull. It was, of course, the pilot George Erasmus Dixon.
Philip Underwood: His gold watch was stopped at 8:23. And among his effects a golden disc was recovered, unaffected by the sand and salt water due to the incorruptible nature of gold. It was a twenty-dollar gold piece, dented by the force of a bullet. And on its reverse an inscription engraved:
April 6, 1862
My life Preserver
G. E. D.
Philip Underwood: G.E.D. is of course Dixon
Philip Underwood: He was blonde of hair.
Philip Underwood: So, the upper left hand face was the best we can do for what he looked like.
~ Questions and Answers ~
Philip Underwood: Thank you for your kind attention. I will answer what questions I can.
Tanner raises hand.
Philip Underwood: Yes Tanner?
Tanner: is the Hunley on display now to the public?
Philip Underwood: It is now. In a special facility in Charleston
Philip Underwood: It’s internal artifacts are displayed.
Tanner: awesome 😉
Tanner: the coin as well?
Philip Underwood: Including the Gold Piece
KillianBaileyJameson has a question
Philip Underwood: Yes Ms Killian
KillianBaileyJameson: Was Dixon any relation to the Mason-Dixon fellows?
Philip Underwood: I wondered that myself, but I do not think so
Philip Underwood: That older Dixon was a Quaker, btw
Philip Underwood: I could not find a link
KillianBaileyJameson: just a coincidence I suppose
Philip Underwood: Not sure, we do not always know!
Tanner: looks around n raises a hand again
Philip Underwood: Yes Tanner
Tanner: you said it was theorized the torpedo was barbed and stuck in the hull, which couldve also saved the crew. Were there any plans found of any of the 3 designs that suggested that?
Philip Underwood: That design was actually known and tested. Hunley et all consulted a man who told them that was the only design that would allow the crew to survive. They were in a hurry to break the blockade so ignored him!
Tanner: :O Eeep!
Sabine Artemis raises a hand
Philip Underwood: Sabine?
Sabine Artemis: So has there been any more discussion about the shockwave from the blast being the reason for the crew’s demise?
Philip Underwood: Doctor Lance has written a book that is only recently out. It details all her experiments and research
Philip Underwood: Checking for the title…
Sabine Artemis: since the pre-recovery theories about holes in the hull have been debunked by having the boat to examine
Philip Underwood: The book is called “In the Waves” by Rachel Lance, PhD
Philip Underwood: And it is an entertaining read!
Tanner makes a note
Tanner: 137 lbs of powder would make a hell of a shockwave.. especially at 16′ o.o
Philip Underwood: Oh, and it MIGHT have been 200 pounds
Tanner: :O Eeep!
Tanner: so after Hunley died, they altered the design fatally…
Sabine Artemis: Hydrodynamic shock was not a Science then
Philip Underwood: There is a bit of a question which design they used
Philip Underwood: Lances conclusion is pretty well discussed, but there are lots of variables for underwater explosions
Tanner: yeah I’d think so
Philip Underwood: on dry land you can find the bits
Philip Underwood: but they are pretty much gone under water
Philip Underwood: She built a small model called the CSS Tiny and tested it with three different methods of concussion
Junie Ginsburg: hee
Philip Underwood: Excellent point, Sabine.
Tanner: on a bright note.. there were far worse ways to die in the CW than instantly..
Jimmy Branagh: Yes
Philip Underwood: Hunley himself had a bad end
Wulfriðe Blitzen: Nods
Philip Underwood: In fact he had a candle with him
Philip Underwood: Oh, and for dinner conversation
Tanner: which no doubt sped his asphyxiation
Philip Underwood: the boat was under water for four days with the first sinking
Philip Underwood: and two weeks for the second
Philip Underwood: You can imagine the unpleasantness preparing her to go again
Liz Wilner: not exactly a pleasure cruise boat! LOL
Philip Underwood: Lance also looked into suffocation as a means of death for the crew
Philip Underwood: But the fact that they were all at their posts, and not piled up near a hatch, ruled that out
Tanner: did Hunley have any other designs wed know of?
Philip Underwood: Well there were the two previous, the first one was called the Pioneer
Philip Underwood: it was the only one if his commissioned
Philip Underwood: and there were lots of other designs going at the time
Philip Underwood: The first ever war submarine was actually the Turtle, from 1776. Our side’s!
Philip Underwood: Her one mission failed but Bushnell, the pilot, survived
Tanner: what was hunleys trade prior to war subs tho? seems brilliant
Sabine Artemis: Have they tried to find the USS Alligator?
Philip Underwood: Oh jeez
Philip Underwood: You know I am not sure if they have, Sabine.
Philip Underwood: I would imagine
Philip Underwood: That one folks was a US effort
Philip Underwood: they were towing her out for testing but hit foul weather, they cut her loose
Philip Underwood: It is amazing how much work the folks did and how quickly it came to nothing
Sabine Artemis: Off Cape Hatteras, wasn’t it?
Philip Underwood: Yes, it was