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Civil War High Tech: Excavating the Hunley and Monitor from MIT World

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Always on the hunt for opportunities to inform my understanding of history, I’ve hit a gold mine. In addition to my fascination with the Civil War, I am equally passionate about maritime history and am a degreed engineer. Those three fields of study converge in a fascinating symposium hosted by the DeepArch Research Group in Technology, Archaeology and the Deep Sea at MIT in April 2003 which they have made available for viewing on MIT Earth (TM).

The symposium, Civil War High Tech: Excavating the Hunley and Monitor gives us an opportunity to hear from the senior archaeologist on the recovery of the C.S.S. Hunley, Maria Jacobsen. For those of you familiar with Civil War Naval history, the CSS Hunley will not be a new name. For those not, its story is nothing less than remarkable. A Confederate submarine, it was lost after driving a mine into the hull of USS Housatonic, detonating it, and sending the ship to the silty bottom of Charleston Bay in five minutes. But the Hunley was lost as well, only to be found, recovered, and excavated in the last decade or so.

I have made it through the first presentation on the Hunley (wow) and hope to watch the second half of the symposium on the Monitor. But for now, this from the MIT site:

Civil War High Tech: Excavating the Hunley and Monitor

Moderator: Merritt Roe Smith
Maria Jacobsen
David A. Mindell PhD ’96
Brendan Foley PhD ’03

About the Lecture
In the last few years, archaeologists have recovered two of the Civil War’s most ingenious inventions: the Union ironclad warship Monitor and the Confederate submarine Hunley. In this symposium panelists discuss the newest technology projects that have brought these inventions to light from the sea depths, and what they can teach about technology and the Civil War.

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"Civil War High Tech: Excavating the Hunley and the Monitor" from MIT World

Submarine CSS H. L. Hunley [1863-1864]

  • Submarine built by Horace L HunleyCSS Hunley
  • First submarine to destroy an enemy ship
  • All three crews died aboard although several from the first crew were able to escape.
  • Lost off of Charleston after sinking the USS Housatonic with a spar torpedo
  • Remains discovered in 1995 by NUMA
  • Recovered August 8, 2000

Photo credit: Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley (1863-1864) U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph [#NH999]

You may be interested in previous posts I’ve made on the Hunley. My first was the following:

On Dog Tags, Sunken Confederate Subs, and Graves Registration

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The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of The Confederacy

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The good folks at Hill and Wang sent me a review copy of Tom Chaffin’s book, The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy which arrived today. I’m really jazzed about this since I wrote a post on the Hunley a while back (see On Dog Tags, Sunken Confederate Subs, and Graves Registration). Fascinating stuff.

The book’s official webpage is here and includes some interesting features including interactive blueprints of the sub.

hlhunley

Hill and Wang
Published: September 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8090-9512-4
ISBN-10: 0-8090-9512-2
Trim: 5 1/2 X x 8 1/4 inches
352 pages, 16 Pages of Black-and-White Illustrations/2 Maps/Appendix/Notes/Bibliography/Index

I found Professor Chaffin’s credentials (see his page at the University of Tennessee here) impressive and will enjoy reading the text version of his dissertation as well.

Ph.D., U.S. History, May 1995; Emory University. Dissertation: “‘Buffalo Hunt’: Narciso López and the Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba, 1848-1851.”
M.A., American Civilization, 1982, New York University. Thesis: “Toward a Poetics of Technology: Hart Crane and the American Sublime.” B.A., English, “with honors,” and philosophy minor, 1977, Georgia State University.

On Dog Tags, Sunken Confederate Subs, and Graves Registration

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I am returning in this post to a topic covered previously here on the discovery and recovery of the Confederate submarine, CSS H. L. Hunley, found in 1995 in the waters off Charleston, S.C. The Friends of the Hunley chronicled the archaeological discovery process which uncovered something very interesting. It was the “ID Tag” of Ezra Chamberlin. This created somewhat of a mystery because Ezra was a member of the infantry of the Union Army. What would the ID Tag of a Union soldier be doing in a sunken Confederate submarine?

Research by forensic genealogist Linda Abrams provided a plausible solution to the mystery as outlined in a story on the Friends of Hunley site. It’s a good read. The suggestion is that Chamberlin died at the Battle of Fort Wagner, a.k.a. the First Assault on Morris Island. His body was likely ransacked by Confederate troops and his ID medallion taken as a souvenir. This was common practice on both sides.

Interestingly, the remains of the Hunley crewman wearing Chamberlin’s medallion were identified to be those of Confederate Corporal J. F. Carlsen who can be placed at Morris Island during the Union’s second attack. His facial reconstruction is available at the link above. Whether he took the medallion from Chamberlin’s body or traded for it is unknown.

That Civil War soldiers wore identification medallions (Dog tags) like the one belonging to Private Chamberlin was news to me. My research confirmed that they were not issued by either government. According to an essay by Edward Steere posted on the U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Center, there were no graves registration units to formally identify and bury battle dead. “Burial was, of necessity, performed by fatigue parties from the line. … Little or no provision could be made for any systematic interment of remains during a campaign of rapid movement.” Burying the dead at Fredericksburg, Va., after the Wilderness Campaign, May 1864. Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. 111-B-4817.

As in any war, the bodies of the victors were treated better than those of the vanquished. It is well known that battle dead in the Civil War were often buried in pits or unmarked graves. Use of coffins, like those pictured here at Fredricksburg after the Wilderness Campaign, was unusual.

Men began to take responsibility for their own identification. Those of means could order ornate identification medals or pins. Some purchased less expensive medallions from sutlers, merchants following the armies. Made from coins or other metallic disks, sutlers charged a small fee for stamping into the metal a soldier’s name and unit among other things. Some men without other identification simply wrote their names on paper and pinned it to their shirt prior to going into battle. Shockingly, Steere estimates that only 30 percent of soldiers who died in the Civil War were identified.

Of additional interest:

  • Mike Brown has an excellent history of Civil War Dog Tags and pictures of several varieties on his website.
  • Replica ID tags can be purchased from Civil War memorabilia shops like Memorial Brass.
  • The modern process for embalming began during the Civil War as grieving families wanted to have the the bodies of their oved ones returned home for burial.

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Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

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