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Researchers find new clues on sinking of Confederate submarine off South Carolina

Exposing the Hunley: Researchers find new clue to what sank first combat submarine

The Hunley, the world's first successful combat submarine, sunk in 1864 from unknown causes. Clemson University researchers have finally removed concretion from the vessel — and may have discovered the cause of its loss.
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The Hunley, the world's first successful combat submarine, sunk in 1864 from unknown causes. Clemson University researchers have finally removed concretion from the vessel — and may have discovered the cause of its loss.

Researchers say they’ve found a new clue in the sinking of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, the first successful combat submarine that sank the USS Housatonic off Charleston, South Carolina in 1864. New clues show a broken pipe may have been to blame.

The Hunley vanished soon after it became the first submarine to sink a warship during a battle. The vessel was lost until 1995. Archeologists raised the ship in 2000 and have been working to solve the mystery of why the sub sank ever since, Smithsonian Magazine reports.

Conservators with Clemson University have been cleaning the Hunley of the “concretion — the rock-hard layer of sand, shell and sea life — that gradually encased the Hunley during the nearly 136 years she rested on the sea floor,” according to the news release from The Hunley Project.

The researchers found a broken intake pipe that may have allowed water to flood the submarine. They found a 1-inch gap where the pipe was supposed to connect to the wall of the submarine, according to the release.

Scientists on the project warned, “This new evidence is not conclusive.”

“Unfortunately, there are no easy answers when investigating what led to a complex 150-year-old sinking. Still, this is a very significant discovery that will help us tell the full story of the Hunley’s important chapter in naval history,” Clemson archaeologist Michael Scafuri said in the release.

More human remains were found inside of the H.L. Hunley while removing the encrustation from the inside of the submarine that sunk in 1864. The remains of eight soldiers were removed from the Vessel since 2000 when it was raised from Charleston Ha

Scientists working on the investigation say if the pipe did burst, it could have let in enough water to sink the sub in three minutes, the release explains. Archeologists hope to figure out if the pipe broke during the sub’s mission or if it broke over time as the vessel sat on the seafloor.

The conservation process had led to new discoveries for archeologists studying the Hunley, including more human remains.

“They also uncovered innovative operational features, including a complex gear system that helped enhance the output of the crew’s hard work when cranking the submarine,” the release explains.

Officials gave the first public look inside the H.L. Hunley submarine June 6, 2017. The Hunley, housed in North Charleston, was the first successful combat submarine by sinking the USS Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864. The submarine and its crew of eig

Conserving and preserving the H.L. Hunley has been a slow process since the submarine was brought to the surface in 2000. “Removing the concretion was a slow and challenging task for all of us involved, but the ability to get an up-close look at the true surface of the submarine after all this time has made it entirely worth it,” Clemson conservator Johanna Rivera-Diaz said in the release.

“Removing the concretion was physically and mentally exhausting. Conservators stayed curled up in various awkward positions for hours working in the small crew compartment. One mistake, drop of a tool or slip-of-the-hand could cause permanent damage to the fragile artifact,” the release states.

“Now that the Hunley has been mostly cleaned of this material, the vessel will sit in a conservation bath for approximately five years to preserve the metal and make her ready for permanent public display,” the news release notes.

The author's sons, Jake and Sam, interact with a hands-on exhibit as they attempt to experience what it might have been like to be a crew member of the H.L. Hunley submarine in 1864. This is one of several multimedia interpretive displays at the W

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Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.