Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Duke Researchers: Hunley’s Crew Killed by Blast Wave

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 23, 2017

Four and a half years ago, the archaeologists announced that they had confirmed that when the Confederate submersible H. L. Hunley sank USS Housatonic in February 1864, the torpedo they used was still attached to a sixteen-foot iron pole attached to the bow of the boat. They were also able to corroborate that the remains of that copper torpedo match a contemporary drawing of a device claimed to be the same weapon, filled with 135 lbs of black powder. It was a landmark discovery in the process of investigating the wreck itself.

Now, armed with that knowledge, researchers at Duke University believe they’ve determined what actually sank the boat and killed its crew:

Speculation about the crew’s deaths has included suffocation and drowning, but a new study claims that a shockwave created by their own weapon was to blame.

Researchers from Duke University in North Carolina set blasts near a scale model of the vessel to calculate their impact.

They also shot authentic weapons at historically accurate iron plates.

They used this data to work out the mathematics behind human respiration and the transmission of blast energy.

Ms Rachel Lance, one of the researchers on the study, says the crew died instantly from the force of the explosion travelling through the soft tissues of their bodies, especially their lungs and brains.

Ms Lance calculates the likelihood of immediately fatal lung trauma to be at least 85 per cent for each member of the Hunley crew.

She believes the crippled sub then drifted out on a falling tide and slowly took on water before sinking.

‘This is the characteristic trauma of blast victims, they call it “blast lung”, said Ms Lance.

‘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.’

While I don’t have the scientific background to assess the Duke researchers’ methodology, this seems right to me, and I’ve long thought that whatever died happen must surely have killed or incapacitated the crew almost instantly.


Update, Wednesday evening: Here’s a paper from last year arguing that the crew of Hunley did NOT suffocate due to lack of oxygen. So that rules out one of the other major theories.


Update, slightly later Wednesday evening: The U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command isn’t so sure:

Navy researchers helping with the official examination of the Hunley have studied the blast wave theory and have their doubts, Naval History and Heritage Command spokesman Paul Taylor said.

“The Navy has already examined the concussive wave theory. We found it highly unlikely to have injured the crew, let alone caused their deaths,” said Taylor, who added the team had not had time to review Lance’s research. . . .

The official scientists working to preserve the submarine in a North Charleston, South Carolina, laboratory, had no comment on Lance’s research, said Kellen Correia, executive director of the Friends of the Hunley. Correia pointed out Lance had no access to the primary evidence from the current research into the sub.

Those official researchers continue their work on several ways the men could have died, including the notion that the submarine had a leak and could not surface, or that the crew ran out of oxygen while underwater.

So maybe something, maybe not. The “fish boat” has fooled people before.

h/t Bobby Hughes of the Ships and the Sea Museum in Savannah, Georgia.

11 Responses

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  1. Chris Kolakowski said, on August 23, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    Most interesting. But how do you account for the blue lights seen from shore afterward – the agreed signal from the crew?

  2. Bob Nelson said, on August 24, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    Two very interesting pieces. Thanks for sharing. If the explosion was strong enough to kill the crew, wouldn’t it have also been strong enough to propel the little boat back into the harbor rather than further out to sea? Hunley was found 1000 feet SE of Housatonic. That’s 3 football fields.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 24, 2017 at 8:41 pm

      Housatonic was well offshore when attacked. The theory presented is that the blast more-or-less instantly killed or incapacitated the crew and the boat drifted while filling with water. I don’t recall estimates of the current, but a one knot current she would drift 1,000 feet in about 10 minutes.

      While looking for follow-ups to the blast wave theory, I happened on this medical journal paper from last year. The primary author is Rachel Lance, who announced the blast scenario. One of the other authors is Michael Crisafulli, who probably knows more about the boat’s technology and design than anyone not directly connected to the research lab.

  3. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on August 24, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    The fact that the submariners showed no signs of having panicked leads one to believe their deaths were either very quick or very slow. The latter would have had to have been something that would have first rendered them unconscious, but without them realizing something was wrong.

  4. Bob Nelson said, on August 24, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    You and your family stay safe this weekend.

  5. H. E. Parmer said, on August 25, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    Thirding. This looks like it’s gonna be one hell of a storm. With a side helping of tornados and gators, to boot. Yeesh. Good luck and keep safe!

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