Hunley Crewmen Found


Two of the South’s great loves–college football and the Confederacy–came together in July when archaeologists confirmed the discovery of four members of the submarine C.S.S. H.L. Hunley’s first crew buried beneath the Citadel’s football stadium in Charleston, South Carolina. The skeletal remains were found among two dozen other graves in a long-lost Confederate cemetery paved over and forgotten when 21,000-seat Johnson Hagood Stadium was built in 1948.

The disappearance of the cemetery was apparently the result of a clerical error. A 1947 vote by the city council gave Charleston’s stadium commission permission to move all the graves to nearby Magnolia Cemetery, where more than 1,100 soldiers from all over the Confederacy are buried. According to the note written by the city’s recording clerk, however, the council had approved the relocation of only the headstones. The four Hunley sailors were found in two unmarked pits–their coffins stacked on top of each other near the home bleachers’ C-gate entrance, parallel to the 20 yard-line.

Proof that the remains were of Hunley sailors came from the fact that all four bodies were dismembered, with rough chop and hack gashes on the leg and arm bones. “There are cut marks on the arms, like a saw or sharp object was used to cut the bone,” said volunteer digger Randy Burbage of the Confederate Heritage Trust, one of several reenactors who took part in the excavation.

“He’s a mess,” Jonathan Leader, spokesman for the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, said of the first skeleton found. “It seems he was very contorted, with parts of him dismembered and put back into place.”

The Hunley sank for the first time during a freak accident in Charleston Harbor on August 29, 1863. According to Lieutenant Charles H. Hasker, who survived the accident, Hunley commander Lieutenant John Payne “got fouled in the manhole by the hawser and in trying to clear himself got his foot on the lever which controlled the fins.” Payne had just given the order for the boat to move out, and the submarine dove while its hatches were still open. Four men escaped the sinking sub, but five others were trapped inside its iron hull and drowned. Ten days passed before the craft was recovered. By that time the bodies of the trapped crew were so badly bloated and contorted that salvagers were forced to cut off limbs so they could extricate the men through the sub’s tiny hatchways.

After their recovery the bodies were transported by horse cart to the city’s maritime graveyard where they were buried in unmarked graves among dozens of other dead Confederate sailors and marines. Four of the Hunley victims were found in the July dig; the whereabouts of the fifth is unknown.

Historians believe the men were buried with honors but that their role in the submarine’s development made for a hasty, low-profile ceremony. “It was probably a very quick event because they didn’t want any publicity,” said South Carolina Hunley Commission Chairman Glenn McConnell. “They knew the North would be monitoring anything that was in the newspapers. They didn’t want to put much attention on the fact the Hunley had suffered this fate.”

A Catholic priest may have been present for the interment, as the Hunley’s first crew was composed mainly of Irish immigrants who had arrived in New Orleans before the war. When the Civil War began in 1861, some of these men joined the Confederate Navy, eager for adventure and a steady paycheck. The dead men’s identities are Frank Doyle, John Kelly, Michael Cane, Nicholas Davis and Absolum Williams, but archaeologists are unsure which four they found.

The five men joined the Hunley project after Horace Hunley brought his experimental sub to Charleston from Mobile, Alabama, just weeks after the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1-3, 1863. Once in Charleston, Hunley made a personal plea for a volunteer crew by soliciting men from the Merrimac-style ironclads Chicora and Palmetto State, which were trapped inside Charleston Harbor by the Union blockade.

“These men were physically fit. These weren’t wimpy guys who got pushed to the front when they called for volunteers. These were eager participants,” said Mark Ragan, who has written two books about the Hunley and Civil War submarines.

This summer’s dig was the second time that archaeologists have gone hunting for Confederate dead beneath the Citadel’s stadium. In 1993, the bodies of 13 Confederate sailors were recovered from beneath the stadium’s parking lot. This year archaeologists expanded their search from the parking lot to inside the actual stadium walls after uncovering documents indicating that “men of the torpedo boat” had been taken to the mariners’ cemetery.

“After we found the first one, we all gathered around in a circle and held hands and sang ‘Dixie,'” Burbage said. Some of the graves were found a few feet beneath a room where Citadel supporters enjoy lunch before games.

Besides the four Hunley crewmen, workers also found the remains of 22 other Confederate sailors and a three-year-old boy, believed to be a relative of one of the dead. All the remains will be reinterred at Magnolia Cemetery in ceremonies this fall and next spring.

The recovery of the Hunley’s first crew is related to the continuing effort to raise and restore what is widely recognized as the world’s first successful attack sub. A team of divers funded by best-selling author Clive Cussler discovered the 40-foot, cigar-shaped vessel in 1995 about four miles off nearby Sullivan’s Island.

The sinking of the Hunley in August 1863 did not end the circle of tragedy that surrounded the sub. With Hunley, its inventor, in command, it sank a second time that October in the Cooper River. All hands were lost, including Hunley. After this second disaster, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard was reluctant to use the sub ever again. “I can have nothing more to do with that submarine boat,” he swore at the time. “It’s more dangerous to those who use it than the enemy.”

On the night of February 17, 1864, however, the hand-cranked Hunley made history when it rammed a 90-pound black-powder charge fitted on a 20-foot spar into the hull of the blockader U.S.S. Housatonic. The Federal ship sank in three minutes with a loss of five men. The Hunley, with her commander, Lieutenant George Dixon, and his supporting crew of eight, were also lost when the sub sank during its return trip.

Plans are in place to raise the sub as early as May 2000 and transport it to a warehouse on the former Charleston Navy Base for a 10-year restoration project. Federal, state, and private sources have committed more than $8 million to the effort. Inquiries and additional contributions can be made by contacting Friends of the Hunley at (843) 958-0610 or by visiting the group’s website at