The mystery surrounding the deaths of the eight-man crew of the HL Hunley has finally been solved 153 years after it was sunk in battle.
Like me, you’re probably surprised that submarines were used in the late 1800’s – how did the technology even exist back that? Turns out that first known military submarine was the Turtle back in the late 18th century, 1775 to be exact.
So quick history recap on submarines aside, the HL Hunley and its eight-man crew were fighting on the side of the Confederacy when it took down the Union’s USS Housatonic in 1864. It was the first submarine in navel warfare history to sink another ship, however it the Hunely itself sunk in the process.
Scientists from Duke University have worked out how the Hunely and it’s crew members went down and they believe it was to do with their weapons system.
Instead of using standard self-propelled torpedoes, the submarine was grafted with a 60kg keg that was loaded with gunpowder on a 5 metre pole on the front bow. This oversized, explosive spear was used to ram into the timbered hull of the Housatonic. They left it there to exploded and therefore sunk the battleship.
The university researchers believe that the shockwave from the explosion was what caused the Hunely to sink, therefore killing the crew before they could do anything about it.
The after shock is believed to have travelled at 1500 meres-per-second through the water. It blasted through the Hunely’s iron coating and immediately ruptured the the blood vessels, lungs and brains of the crew.
Speaking to The Mirror, Dr Rachel Lance from Duke University said:
This is the characteristic trauma of blast victims, they call it ‘blast lung.
You have an instant fatality that leaves no marks on the skeletal remains
Unfortunately, the soft tissues that would show us what happened have decomposed in the past hundred years.
Shear forces would tear apart the delicate structures where the blood supply meets the air supply, filling the lungs with blood and killing the crew instantly.
Researchers came to this conclusion after they created an exact replica of the submarine (to its exact scale), added the same explosive payload and detonated it.
The actual vessel of HL Hunely is currently in Charleston, South Carolina, where another team of experts are studying and restoring it.
One of the toughest parts of the restoration is cleaning the insides.
Conservator and collections manager, Johanna Rivera-Diaz, explained to The Mirror:
It’s tough physically to do this every day.
You are wearing special suits and using chemicals with high pH levels.
The eight men who went down with the HL Hunley were remembered at a large ceremony.
The crew members were believed to be; James A. Wicks, from North Carolina, Frank Collins of Virginia, Joseph Ridgaway of Maryland and the submarine’s commander Lt. George Dixon of Alabama. The other four members were believed to be foreign-born soldiers who’s identities remain a mystery.