On H. L. Hunley and U-576
Crew of U-576. Ed Caram via NOAA.
You may have seen the headlines recently about the discovery, off the North Carolina coast, of the remains of U-576 (above), a Type VIIC U-boat sunk in 1942. It’s a remarkable discovery, made more so by the fact that one of her victims, the Nicaraguan freighter Bluefields, lies on the bottom less than 300 yards away. They don’t call that area the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for nothing.
A discussion came up on SHPG about U-576, and its declared status as a “war grave” that should not be disturbed. Gary Adams started the discussion, contrasting the case of U-576 to that of H. L. Hunley, and concluding that
if it had been any other boat [than a Confederate one] they would not disturbed it. You go to jail for diving on, tonging or retrieving artifacts on the USS Cumberland or the USS Congress, like the Arizona they went down under [the U.S.] flag.
Adams has presumably forgotten about the case of U.S.S. Monitor, of which large components have been removed, including the engine and the famous revolving turret — the latter with the remains of two crewmen inside. Like the crew of Hunley, who were buried with military honors and great ceremony in Charleston in 2004, the two men from Monitor were interred at Arlington in March 2013. So yes, “they” handled the wreck of a famous Union ship in much the same way “they” did Hunley.
Adams’ citing of the case of U.S.S. Arizona is also flawed. That vessel is considered to be an inviolable war grave today, but that designation came long after her destruction in December 1941. The Navy spent months extensively salvaging what was left of the battleship, and removed all the human remains they could find for burial in a conventional cemetery ashore. The human remains there now are there only because divers could not recover them in he 1940s. It wasn’t until 1950 that what was left of the ship was designated a memorial, and the current memorial structure, designed by architect Alfred Preis, did not open until 1962. So “they” disturbed U.S.S. Arizona, too.
A salvage diver emerges from the after magazines of U.S.S. Arizona, Pearl Harbor, October 1942. U.S. Navy photo.
Still — it’s important to look at some of the reasons that H. L. Hunley and Monitor were handled differently than U-576. So I thought I’d share some insights on why there cases were dealt with differently. I know that some folks will not be persuaded, and that’s fine. But there are different circumstances that should be acknowledged.
First and foremost, by international treaty, military vessels that have not been decommissioned or sold remain the property of the governments that employed them, or their successor governments, under the “Doctrine of Succession.” It’s up to those governments to decide if and how those wrecks should be dealt with. In the case of U-576, that’s the present-day Federal Republic of Germany, which issued a statement that it “is not interested in a recovery of the remnants of the U-576 and will not participate in any such project.” Germany’s boat, Germany’s decision.
Legal claim for the wreck of H. L. Hunley, on the other hand, lies with the U.S. government, which assumed the assets of the “so-called Confederate States” under a joint resolution of Congress in 1870. and subsequently codified in June 1965 as part of 40 U.S.C. 310. Thus, Confederate shipwrecks are U.S. government property and, in most cases, assigned to the oversight of the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command. United States’ boat, United States’ decision.
Under this arrangement, the Underwater Archaeology Branch reviewed, approved and participated in the recovery of both the Monitor artifacts and H. L. Hunley. They oversaw the work here on U.S.S. Westfield, and currently have oversight on the work being done on the ironclad battery C.S.S. Georgia at Savannah. This same arrangement also helps protect Confederate ships from plunder, notably the wreck of C.S.S. Alabama, which lies in French waters and was discovered in 1984, and subsequently excavated by a joint U.S./French team under international agreement.
One of Alabama’s guns, lying in French territorial waters. Image via CERES, the European underwater Research Center.
Admittedly, the Navy’s practice when it comes to wrecks where the presence for human remains is either known or presumed — which was the case for both Monitor and Hunley — has been less than absolute. The official policy provides a little discretionary leeway, saying in one place that “the United States Government does not grant [salvage] permission with respect to ships that contain the remains of deceased servicemen,” but also citing an act of Congress in the 19th century requiring “that any salvage must provide for the removal and proper burial of the remains of the crew.” As a result, the Underwater Archaeology Branch has the discretion to authorize the excavation and removal of wrecks that contain human remains, provided that there are compelling reasons to do so.
There’s no doubt in my mind that there were compelling reasons to so so in the case of H. L. Hunley. The amount of information gained about the design, construction, and operation of that unique craft since its recovery in 2000 is just phenomenal — and they’re not done yet. More important, though, by the mid-1990s the wreck itself had become extremely vulnerable to plundering. The boat was buried under several feet of sand, but at a depth of only 30 feet or so, within easy reach of any amateur diver. Worse still, numerous private individuals and groups, including treasure hunter E. Lee Spence and adventure novelist Clive Cussler’s group NUMA, either claimed to have found the boat or were actively looking for it. There’s no question that H. L. Hunley would be found and disturbed; it was simply a matter of when, and by whom.
The case for recovery of elements of U.S.S. Monitor was more controversial in the underwater archaeology community, not because of the prospect of disturbing human remains — sixteen men were lost when she sank on the night of December 31, 1862 — but because of the enormous amount of resources it would consume. The money would be better spent, they argued, on other projects, where more original knowledge might be gained; by contrast, many of the original drawings used to build Monitor still survive. Others countered that, well-documented or not, Monitor was both a unique vessel and of fundamental importance in the progression of maritime and naval technology, one of just a handful of genuinely ground-breaking vessels in history. Furthermore, they argued, Monitor was rapidly deteriorating on the sea floor, large sections of her hull having collapsed in the years since her discovery in 1974. In the end, the pro-recovery argument won out, with the ship’s engine being lifted in 2001 and the 120-ton turret the following year.
Illustration distributed by the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary to show the deterioration of the Monitor wreck site.
The big-picture takeaway here is every shipwreck is different in terms of their historical value, their vulnerability to destruction, and their prominence in society’s collective conscience. As a practical result, they end up getting treated differently. I think that’s probably the right approach, although I know others will disagree. And that’s fine, too.