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Truths Finally Surface for Ill-Fated Civil War Sub

The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley knew victory and defeat in its single combat mission on February 17, 1864—becoming the first sub to destroy an enemy ship in battle and then sinking shortly thereafter under mysterious circumstances. Even now, 11 years after the vessel was lifted from the Atlantic just outside the Charleston, S.C., harbor, many questions remain unanswered, but one was recently eliminated—that major holes in the hull contributed to the sub’s demise. Instead, the holes were caused by “scouring” in the dynamic environment of the ocean floor.

The breakthrough came when the Hunley was brought to upright position for the first time in 137 years. Ever since going from the sea to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, the sub had been kept at the 45-degree angle at which it was found, so as not to disturb the interior contents. But with the excavation of the remains of its eight-man crew (buried in 2004), objects and various kinds of crud now complete, a painstaking three-day rotation of the seven-ton, 40-foot craft was followed by removal of the contraption holding it in place. Experts could see a part of the hull’s exterior—and two larger holes—for the first time. Says Maria Jacobsen, head archaeologist for the Hunley project, “It’s a bit like studying the dark side of the moon.”

Walter Reed Gets New Digs

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., has been shuttered after more than 100 years of treating countless soldiers. Newer facilities were judged better at adapting to a greater emphasis on outpatient care, in addition to a bureaucratic need to reduce the number of medical centers in the area. The complex’s 72 buildings will be used by the District of Columbia and the State Department. A facility in Bethesda, Md., will be called the Walter Reed National Medical Center, and the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which was located on the original Walter Reed campus, will move to a new home in Silver Spring, Md.

Rhode Island Puts Murder Case to Rest

Rhode Island recently ended a 166-year-old case of executioner’s remorse by pardoning a man convicted of murder in a trial riddled with irregularities and anti-Irish bias. Irish immigrant John Gordon was hanged on Valentine’s Day 1845, and seven years later the state banned capital punishment, many historians believe, because of controversy over the trial. (Although the death penalty was reinstated in 1872 before it was abolished again in 1984, Gordon remains the last person executed by the state.) A new play, The Murder Trial of John Gordon, by Ken Dooley, brought attention to the case, spurring state legislator Peter Martin to introduce the bill that led to Governor Lincoln Chafee’s pardon. “Justice,” says Martin, “has no statute of limitations.”

Yosemite Clears Scenic Vistas

Yosemite National Park is naturally beautiful, but what if nature itself gets in the way of the view? After decades of inconsistent efforts to deal with the problem, the National Park Service has developed a holistic approach to prettiness known as the Scenic Vista Management Plan—think of a stylist who offers a touch-up rather than an extreme makeover. That still means thousands of trees are on the chopping block, but only if they lack aesthetic, ecological, cultural or historical importance. Essentially, the Park Service is curating the popular vistas, and because Yosemite’s development started about 130 years ago, no trees older than that will be taken. Wear and tear on the park might actually be reduced because the plan channels folks who come to gaze—about 80 percent of visitors—to places already set up for traffic. “In many ways,” says historical landscape architect Kevin McCardle, “what we are trying to do is manage people.”

Free Black Community Unearthed in Central Park

You would think that a short-lived, antebellum black community would be ripe for study, especially one founded by free African Americans in New York in 1825, two years before the state outlawed slavery. But this precious piece of archaeological turf, once known as Seneca Village and home to some European Americans as well, now makes up part of Central Park in New York City. So, the academic team investigating Seneca Village— professors from City College of New York, Columbia University and New York University—had to lobby the park for 10 years. “It took a long time for them to see the value,” says Diana diZerega Wall, an anthropology professor at City College. “And I think finally we just wore them down.” In addition to finding personal items, like a child’s shoe, the team took soil samples that could reveal diet and other lifestyle details of this middle-class group.

Edison’s Talking Doll Recovers Its Voice

Even Thomas Edison flopped now and again. One of his worst spin-offs—a talking doll that combined his recording expertise and his toy ignorance—was highlighted recently when a National Park Service researcher at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J., took advantage of new 3D scanning technology that lifted sound from the grooves of an outof-round tin ring that dates from 1888. This prototype evolved into a wax cylinder that was lodged in the back of a doll and then hand-cranked to produce sound—not exactly cuddly, which helped doom the doll. Museum curator Jerry Fabris had thought the voice on the ring would be Edison’s, but it turned out to be an actress reciting “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” “It threw me for a loop,” says Fabris—and a mangled one at that.


Originally published in the December 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.