New Clues To The Sinking Of A Confederate Submarine

Confederate SubmarineThe Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley may have been sunk by its own torpedo, researchers say.

The cause of the Hunley’s sinking has been a mystery since it sank the USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864, and then the Hunley itself mysteriously sank shortly thereafter. This submarine, which had a hand-cranked propeller and a torpedo set at the end of a 16-foot pole, was a desperate attempt by the Confederacy to destroy the Union blockade on Southern harbors that was strangling the economy.

A press release by the Friends of the Hunley, the organization that raised and is conserving the Civil War sub, says that archaeologists have discovered part of the torpedo still attached to the end of the pole. The jagged metal shows that the torpedo exploded its charge of 135 pounds of gunpowder as planned.

Historians used to think the plan was to ram the torpedo into the ship’s side, and then pull away, detaching the torpedo from the pole and then pulling a rope trigger that would explode the torpedo from a safe distance.

Now we can see this didn’t happen. The question remains whether the release mechanism was faulty or if the plan was much cruder – simply ramming the torpedo into the side of the ship and hoping for the best.

It remains unclear if this explosion is what actually sank the Hunley. The submarine’s hull is encased in hardened rock, sand, and silt that the archaeologists are still removing. Only when their job is done will they get a clear idea of how the brave crew of the Hunley met their end.

You can visit the lab where this historic sub is being studied; the Warren Lasch Conservation Center is located in North Charleston, SC. You can also see a different Confederate submarine at the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge.

[Top photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Bottom photo showing the sub being raised courtesy Barbara Voulgaris, Naval Historical Center]

Confederate Submarine

New Civil War museum at Appomattox features General Lee’s sword and uniform

Civil War, Robert E. LeeAs we reported a year ago, a new Civil War museum has been under construction at Appomattox, Virginia. It is a branch of Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy and will commemorate the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the aftermath of the Civil War.

Now the Museum of the Confederacy-Appomattox is almost complete and will open March 31. Among the displays are General Lee’s uniform and gold ceremonial sword — the very same he wore and carried on April 9, 1865 when he met General Ulysses S. Grant to surrender.

More than 450 items will be on display in an exhibition space spanning 11,700 square feet. It’s located near Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, which includes the McLean House where Grant and Lee met.

The Museum of the Confederacy is planning more regional museums in order to make their large collection more accessible. Satellite museums are planned for Fredericksburg and Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Oklahoma’s largest Civil War battlefield may become National Park

Civil War, Honey Springs
The Honey Springs Battlefield Park in Oklahoma may become a new addition to the National Park Service, the Tulsa World reports.

The U.S. Department of the Interior said in a report that there’s “potential action” for “support designation of Honey Springs as a National Battlefield Park.” Now Oklahoma history buffs are scratching their heads over just what that means. The Tulsa World couldn’t get an answer. Hopefully that government-speak translates into real action. The Battle of Honey Springs was the largest Civil War battle in Oklahoma, which was the Indian Territory back then. The battle was notable in that white soldiers were a minority on both sides.

On July 17, 1863, a Confederate army was gathering at Honey Springs in order to attack the Union position at Fort Gibson. About four or five thousand rebels had assembled, mostly Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw. More reinforcements were coming, so the Union troops at Fort Gibson, which only numbered 2,800, decided to attack before it was too late. The Union side was mostly black and Indian troops, some from the same tribes as the rebels.

After a night march, the Union army attacked the Confederate position in a pouring rain. The rain ruined much of the rebel gunpowder, and this helped decide the battle. Nonetheless there was enough powder left for the rebels to put up a hard resistance. After a few hours they were forced to retreat, having to burn part of their wagon train to keep it out of Union hands.

The Confederates lost 150 men killed, 400 wounded, and 77 taken prisoner. The Union lost only 17 killed and 60 wounded. The rebels lost control of the Indian Territory north of the Arkansas River. This helped open up Arkansas for invasion and led to a Union army capturing Little Rock that September.

Prominent in the fight on the Union side was the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, a black unit of mostly escaped slaves that was the first American black regiment to see combat when they defeated a larger force of rebel guerrillas at the Battle of Island Mound in Missouri on October 29, 1862. The victory made headlines across the country and helped dispel a widespread belief that black soldiers wouldn’t fight.

The First Kansas Colored Volunteers fought in several engagements in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas yet they aren’t very well known. The justly famous 54th Massachusetts has inspired books, a monument, a movie, even a rap video, but the First Kansas remains largely forgotten. I’ve been sending a book proposal on the regiment around to publishers for a few years now, and despite being an established Civil War author I keep getting told there’s an “insufficient market” for the subject. Apparently the American public can only deal with one group of black heroes at a time.

Here’s hoping the Honey Springs battlefield will become a National Park and the First Kansas will get some of the recognition they deserve. Thanks to Jane Johansson over at the The Trans-Mississippian blog for bringing this to my attention. Jane blogs about all aspects of the Civil War west of the Mississippi and is worth reading.

Photo courtesy farmalldanzil via flickr.

Vicksburg 1863: America’s most important July 4th (besides 1776)

VicksburgThe Fourth of July has always been an important day in the U.S. It marks the day in 1776 when the colonies issued the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. A new nation was born, at least for a little while.

In 1861 that nation was torn apart by a bloody Civil War that saw its turning point on another fourth of July, that of 1863. On that day the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.

The Union army had been trying to take it since the beginning of the war. The fortified city was the key to the Mississippi River. If the North could control the river it would cut the Confederacy in half, leaving Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and the Indian Territory cut off from the rest of the rebellious nation. The Confederate west was a major source of supplies and men, especially Texas, which had overland access to Mexico and the only reliable contact with the outside world thanks to the Union navy’s effective blockade.

It took General Grant many months and thousands of lives to take the city. He managed to capture Jackson, Mississippi, an important railroad connection, and then surround Vicksburg on the landward side. Then he launched two massive assaults on the fortifications, only to lose hundreds of men.

Grant was not one to repeat mistakes, except for the mistake of drinking too much. He decided not to waste any more men and settled in for a siege. He kept up a constant bombardment on the city as the civilians and rebel soldiers dug in. Eventually the defenders were reduced to eating rats and dogs. One local newspaper ran out of paper and issued the news on wallpaper.

%Gallery-127185%On July 4, 1863, the Confederates had had enough. Their commander John C. Pemberton surrendered, figuring the Union troops would be more merciful on that day than any other. The final and much smaller Confederate stronghold on the river, Port Hudson, surrendered on July 9. Robert E. Lee had lost the battle of Gettysburg on July 3. For the North, winning the war was now only a matter of time.

As the telegraph lines sent the news across the North, there were huge Fourth of July celebrations. There weren’t many in the South, though, and in fact July 4th wasn’t celebrated in Vicksburg again until World War Two made the locals realize that the USA wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the nation’s most impressive battlefields. Parts of the city’s six-and-a-half miles of defenses can still be seen and reconstructions make you feel like you’re back in the nineteenth century. There are living history demonstrations every day as well as visits to the USS Cairo, an ironclad Union gunboat that’s been raised from the water.

So if you’re not sure where to go this Fourth of July, you might consider taking a road trip to either Philadelphia, where this country was formed, or Vicksburg, where this country was saved.

[Photo of Vicksburg graves courtesy user Matito via Flickr]

Confederate submarine set upright for first time since 1864

Confederate submarineThe H.L. Hunley made history back in 1864 when it became the first submarine to successfully attack an enemy ship. Launched by the Confederacy as a way to break the Union blockade of Southern ports during the Civil War, it sank the USS Housatonic on 17 February 1864 and itself mysteriously sank shortly thereafter.

Crew members hand cranked the propeller to make the sub move forward and its one weapon was a bomb set at the end of a long pole. The idea was to ram a ship with the bomb, which would then explode and leave a hole below the waterline. That’s what happened when the H.L. Hunley attacked one of the warships blockading Charleston harbor, but the sub never returned from its mission.

The Hunley was later found and brought to the surface. Now after several years of restoration the Confederate submarine has been placed upright for the first time since its sinking. The sub had been found resting at a 45 degree angle in a layer of silt and was kept in the same position until now. Moving it to the upright position has given researchers a look at a side of the ship unseen since 1864.

The researchers have found some holes on that side but are unsure if they are natural erosion or the cause of the Hunley’s sinking. Analysis of the bones of the eight crew members showed they died of a lack of oxygen. Interestingly, they were all at their posts as if nothing was going wrong.

You can visit the lab where this historic sub is being studied. The Warren Lasch Conservation Center is located in North Charleston, SC. You can also see a different Confederate submarine at the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge.

Confederate submarine

[Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons]