Tales from the Civil War Trail: Visiting the H.L. Hunley


When visiting the H.L. Hunley Museum the first thing you notice, inevitably, is the surrounding area. It’s hard not to. North Charleston has been billed as “up and coming,” the sort of trendy neighborhood where people in their 20s go when they don’t want to pay too much for their apartments, but still want access to a beer garden. Gentrification has yet to truly make it this far, though, and indeed it might never – The Hunley is situated near the Cooper River surrounded by shipyards, an appropriate setting for the world’s first successful combat submarine.

My family has been vacationing in and around Charleston for years, and it took me almost just as long to finally make a visit to the Hunley. It had been on my list for a while; Anyone who knows me knows I love history. If you’re ever lucky enough to travel with me, you’ll probably get dragged through a cemetery to visit the grave of some founding father or other. Once, after my sister’s college graduation, I made my brother detour through some very sketchy looking areas of Baltimore to the cemetery where John Wilkes Booth was supposedly buried, only to find out it was closed (which, side note, what kind of cemetery is closed on Sundays?). I also have made Nick, my long-suffering and immensely patient boyfriend, bake in 90 degree heat so I could stand at the foot of President John Tyler’s grave and call him a traitor.

On this day, though, the grave we were to visit was unorthodox: The H.L. Hunley, a Confederate Civil War-era submarine, is best known for sinking the USS Housatonic before disappearing for over 130 years, taking its entire crew with it. It was the brainchild of James McClintock, who designed it, and Horace Lawson Hunley, who financed it.

When we first walked into the museum, I immediately felt like something was up. It’s not unusual when visiting historical Civil War sites to find reenactors milling about (at larger sites like Gettysburg, they’re almost ubiquitous), so I wasn’t immediately thrown when saw three guys dressed in their blues and greys studying t-shirts in the gift shop. It soon became apparent as we walked around, though, that there were almost as many reenactors as there were regular people, which both delighted and puzzled me (Nick, for his part, did not seem to care much beyond the polite interest he initially shows when I drag him to someplace he never imagined he’d go). And what’s more, there were men, women, and children reenactors, making this group outing seem like a giant, historical family affair. I tried to snap a few stealthy photos, not wanting to be rude (although, shouldn’t there be some unwritten rule that if you step into a public place in a costume, you should expect to be photographed?), but overwhelmed by the desire to document this.

“No one will ever believe this!” I thought to myself, imagining the reactions of literally everyone I know and love who would probably not care in the least.

Suddenly, a line of reenactors emerged from behind an exhibit panel and marched towards the bell, which they rang once, twice, eight times, punctuating the space between with the names of the men who had been lost on the Hunley. They did this one more time before we were ushered into the next room for our tour, which is when it became apparent that today was just not any day.

Today, February 17, the day I had decided to finally come see the H.L. Hunley in person, was in fact the 154th anniversary of its final fated mission to sink the Housatonic.

If it had been an appropriate moment to cry from joy, I might have.

Just checking Insta

The tour itself was very informative. Our guide had an easy way of describing the events as if relaying his thoughts on a baseball game over dinner. When we finally were able to lay eyes on the Hunley, it was both over and underwhelming. Suspended below us in a tank of green water meant to stabilize it, it was hard to truly get a feel for its size, or to examine it in the kind of close detail I wanted, but as our guide told stories leading up to the events it was easy to imagine those men buried beneath the water just as the sub was now. It was eerie, even, distorted by the chemical solution and the mysteries of time. No one really knows what happened on that last mission, but our guide had a plausible theory.

“They fell asleep,” he posited, a nice way of saying that they died from oxygen deprivation, waiting at the bottom of the ocean for the commotion on the surface to die down.

Out in the museum, we sat in replicas of the sub and tried to imagine how cramped and dark it must have been, how crazy you’d have to be to sign up for this. Money can’t buy you everything, but it does give you the ability to pay others to test out an invention that has the potential to kill you. I’m not sure I could ever be destitute enough to put myself in a dark metal tube that plunges into the ocean — I’ve never been much of a risk taker — but then again, who knows.

For more information on the H.L. Hunley, visit https://www.hunley.org. Visiting hours are only on the weekends, so plan accordingly (unlike I did for many, many years).