Monday, December 11, 2017

Submarine H.L. Hunley: 'Difference of opinion' arises at talk claiming torpedo shock wave killed its 8 crew members

(Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley)

Rachel Lance made a big splash this summer when her research on what may have caused the Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley to disappear got national attention.

Testing and analysis eliminated several theories and showed the eight crew members were killed by blast injuries caused by the detonation of their own torpedo, she wrote. Some news coverage had headlines indicating the mystery of the Confederate vessel’s loss may finally have been settled.

Dr. Lance
But there’s been pushback, including from the Friends of the Hunley and the U.S. Navy, which conducted its own tests. One of those experts challenged Lance’s theory after she spoke Monday in Washington, D.C., about the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel.

Dr. Lance, who conducted three years of research and tests on a 6-foot scale model of the 40-foot Confederate sub, detailed her findings at the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives. Research included studying human respiration and the transmission of blast energy.

When the torpedo blew up, sinking the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor, shock waves passed through the iron hull of the sub and fatally injured the crew, Lance said, reiterating findings she and others described in a paper published in August. She did the research while a PhD candidate at Duke University.

After the Hunley was raised in 2000, conservators found the men were still at their stations, indicating there was no rush to escape or movement to bring air into the boat. There were no obvious physical injuries.

Evidence of blast injuries

Lance said she ruled out suffocation, a “lucky shot” that brought torrents of water through a hole in the conning tour, and a concussive force. Rather, she said, it was pressure from the explosion. The torpedo was still attached to the Hunley by a spar when it was set off.

1/6th scale model used in testing (National Archives YouTube broadcast)

“The blast does not move you. It does not throw you,” she said. “It does not break bones. It does not destroy the material of your brain. That is exactly how the crew was found.”

On Feb. 17, 1864, the Hunley left its base on Sullivan’s Island and placed its torpedo into the Housatonic, one of many blockade vessels on the edge of the harbor. Those on board desperately opened fire on the attackers. Five U.S. sailors were killed in the explosion and a chaotic scene ensued as other Federal ships came to the rescue. The Hunley vanished, and there have been many theories – but no proof -- of what happened to it.

While Lance’s research brought a sense that the mystery had been solved, the Friends of the Hunley – a part of the Hunley Project, which was not involved in the new research – was skeptical and said the matter has not been resolved.

A week after the findings of Lance’s team were released, the Friends of the Hunley issued a press release that said Lance’s work is “unsubstantiated.”

“While the likely cause of the submarine’s demise has not been concluded, the scenario of a concussive wave killing the Hunley crew has been deemed not likely by those working on the actual submarine and who have access to this key data,” the organization said.

Lance did not have access to detailed forensic and structural information about the sub, it said. “As tempting as it may be, we are careful not to jump to definitive conclusions until all the research has been evaluated,” Friends executive Kellen Correia said in the statement.

A difference of opinion

At the Q&A that followed Lance’s talk Monday, Robert Neyland, who was involved in the recovery of the submarine and is head of the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, said there is a "difference of opinion."

Whereas Lance’s team had to use a smaller test explosive charge because of safety concerns, another team was able to do a full-scale test of a black powder charge for a 135-pound torpedo, Neyland said. “We have come up with different results that counter that.” 

Conrad Wise painting of H.L. Hunley (Wikipedia)

The blast did not cause fatal injuries to the Hunley crew, he said. “Maybe some heave on the motion of the submarine, but it would not have injured the crew.”

Lance, who previously worked with Navy civil service, said she has collaborated with some of the other scientists and agrees with some of their data. But she said two different theories have incorrectly been blended in the discussion. She said the other researchers’ project was on the theory of concussion. “They were not studying the (wave) propagation through the hull.” That confusion has been used to try to discredit her results, Lance said.

The researcher is a biomedical engineer and has studied respiratory physiology. She told the audience that one misconception is that a blast of the type she said killed the Hunley crew would have caused their bodies to move and show obvious injury.

While her team did not have the money to build a full-scale model, Lance said, the use of 6-foot scale model CSS Tiny was sufficient to replicate the impact of the torpedo detonation on the Hunley crew. The model included ballast tanks and was tested several times in North Carolina ponds.

Lance’s talk was promoted and carried on YouTube by the National Archives, where she found research materials that buttressed her theory.

Navy's study of pressure wave from Housatonic blast

Several scenarios, or combination, possible

Earlier this year, a new archaeological report issued by the U.S. Navy, South Carolina Hunley Commission and Friends of the Hunley looked at six theories on what might have happened. Among those are that a Federal vessel hit the sub, the Hunley submerged and lost oxygen, or the hull was breached.

Those organizations have cautioned that it could have been a combination of factors that caused the disappearance.

The Navy found the “imparted load” of the blast to the submarine was “relatively modest.” The primary response of the Hunley to the explosion was a rapid vertical motion resulting from the flow of water around the bubble, it said.

Hole in conning tower has raised questions (Friends of the Hunley)

While the archaeological report said there’s a possibility that a “lucky shot” from small arms fire by the Housatonic crew caused enough damage to a conning tower, leading to its sinking, Lance disagreed.

Analysis doesn’t show a clean bullet hole or wide fracturing of the armor from a shot, she said. A study of tides and currents on that cold, moonlit night showed it took 13-14 minutes for the sub to drift to where it was found nearly 140 years later. A shot from a single bullet meant it would take 58 minutes to sink, and the hole that it is evident on the tower would have caused it to sink in about 5 minutes, she said.

“Why were they not pumping out the water, or trying to get out of the boat?” Lance said.

Her team also ruled out suffocation.

“The crew had about a 30-minute air supply before they would have had painful and uncomfortable symptom from carbon dioxide,” Lance said. “They made no efforts to try to save themselves or bring air into the boat.”

And the researchers ruled out the concussion, or blunt force, theory. There was no sign of skull fractures or other potentially fatal fractures. “They did not necessarily hit their heads hard enough to cause any kind of significant trauma.”

Lance also addressed accounts by a lone Housatonic sailor and Confederate battery officer on shore of seeing a blue light coming from the sub, a signal that it succeeded in its mission. She said the sailor had been exposed to miserable conditions in the water while awaiting rescue, a factor that may have affected his recollection.

As for the citing by the Rebel officer, there was no corroboration, no evidence of a signal fire to guide the sub home and the officer was several miles from the sub, meaning he would have had a hard time distinguishing a light, the engineer said.

Pressure waves fatal, she says

So that leaves, she said, blast, or wave, trauma that pushed into the submarine and killed the crew. Such strong pressure would rupture lungs and damage neurons and blood vessels and cause traumatic brain injuries that left the organ intact. The brains of the Hunley crew were found to be intact, she said.

USS Housatonic (Wikipedia -- public domain)

“It is just pressure waves. …. We are not saying people are getting hit, just the pressure exposure.”

The Navy has questioned why World War II submariners survived close depth charges while the Hunley crew did not survive the torpedo blast. Lance said modern hull armor is much thicker and would have provided more protection.

Lance said the watch of sub commander Lt. George Dixon provides further evidence of a traumatic blast. The hands stopped at 8:23 p.m, the estimated time the torpedo went off.

The audience saw a rendering showing the position of Dixon’s skeletal remains. It appears the officer’s body was locked in place by silt that filled the submarine after it sank.

“He seems to have simply been slumped over to the side. The position of his legs indicate he likely was still sitting on his bench.”

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

At Fort McAllister (Ga.) this weekend: Battle re-enactment and dedication of Rebel officer's personal effects

Federal re-enactors during 2014 event (Courtesy Armory Guards)

A re-enactment of the victorious Federal assault on Fort McAllister near Savannah, Ga., will be staged Saturday hours after the dedication of a case holding items belonging to a Confederate cavalry officer who helped defend the fort early in the war.

This year’s Winter Muster is set for 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Dec. 9) at Fort McAllister State Park near Richmond Hill. The fort fell quickly to Federal land forces on Dec. 13, 1864, during the last days of Sherman’s March to the Sea. In the years before, the fort successfully guarded the Ogeechee River from naval assaults.

More than 120 re-enactors are signed up for the weekend event, which will include skirmishes, musket and artillery demonstrations, and displays of camp life before the 5 p.m. re-enactment.

The day kicks off with a 10 a.m. dedication of the exhibit in the visitor center/museum. The items will join other displays on the history of the area and the McAllister family, which formerly owned the land on which the fort was erected.

The collection, which includes a saber, uniform vest, spurs and a photograph of Joseph Longworth McAllister, were donated by Carolyn C. Swiggart, an attorney in Greenwich, Conn. The cavalryman is her fourth great uncle. She will attend the dedication.

McAllister grew up on the Bryan County rice plantation, where his family owned numerous slaves. He lived in Strathy Hall, just to the west of the fort.

Lt. Col. McAllister's personal efforts (Courtesy Georgia DNR)

Soon after Confederates shelled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, McAllister was commissioned a captain of an artillery unit at the fledgling Fort McAllister.

In April 1862, McAllister formed the Hardwick Mounted Rifles, comprised of volunteers from Bryan County. The regiment, one of several homegrown units in the Savannah area, helped guard against Federal invasion of the coast.

The troopers were sent to Virginia later in the war.

McAllister, 43, died June 11, 1864, at the Battle of Trevilian Station, a Confederate victory in central Virginia. The lieutenant colonel with the 7th Georgia Cavalry fought to the last, throwing an emptied gun at Federal troops just before he was cut down by bullets.

Fort McAllister site manager Jason Carter told the Picket that the addition of the McAllister personal effects will give patrons a more human connection to what happened during the Civil War.

Exhibit ready for Saturday's unveiling (Cheri Hadler/Ga. State Parks)

Swiggart said the state has been an excellent steward of the fort and its history.

“It’s my hope that the items will add to the understanding of who Joseph McAllister was as a person, as well as to bring the reality of war home,” she said. “McAllister was killed in June of 1864, and his loss was immense to his family at Strathy Hall .... Then Sherman's troops wreaked destruction upon this area in December 1864. The war is long over now, but these reminders are important for us as Americans.

Admission Saturday is $8 per adult, $5 for youth. Parking passes are not required for event admission.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Old war bonds, but no real treasure

Civil War bonds and old advertising posters are among the long-forgotten artifacts found in a mysterious vault at the New Hampshire State House in Concord. The 6-by-10-foot space is at the top of a narrow spiral staircase in a room that served as the state treasury in the 1800s and later as the Department of Motor Vehicles. Today, it's assigned to the Senate Finance Committee. • Article

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Civil War gave us modern Thanksgiving

From the Federalist: “The roots of our Thanksgiving celebration -- like the discipline of thanksgiving itself -- go deeper than happy feelings over food and football. Most of us know the story of the first Thanksgiving, celebrated by that tiny band of Separatists at Plymouth in 1621. However, we may not realize that our modern Thanksgiving celebration originated in our nation’s worst period of turmoil and bloodshed: the Civil War. In that story, there are lessons that can help us today." • Article

Monday, November 20, 2017

Robert Toombs house in Georgia reopens: Here lived a charismatic, volatile, unreconstructed firebrand of the Confederacy

Property before renovation (Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

The home of Robert A. Toombs – lawyer, congressman, U.S. senator, slave owner, vocal secessionist, Confederate official and general, prominent figure in 19th century Georgia politics and, perhaps most notably, an “unreconstructed” rebel -- has been repaired and renovated and reopens this week.

Beginning Tuesday, visitors can see the entire residence at Robert Toombs House State Historic Site in Washington, Ga., about 50 minutes east of Athens.

Problems with a leaky roof damaging plaster and other features closed the second floor in 2011 and the remainder was shuttered this past April. A new roof was installed and interior plaster was repaired and repainted, with work extending to the entablature at the front of the home.

Wilkes County officials are excited about the reopening, which comes right before the annual Christmas holiday tour of homes.

“In his era, the home was very elegant. He was a very wealthy man,” said Marcia Campbell, who works for Wilkes County, which took over operation of the site in 2009. The state owns the property.

(Georgia DNR)
Most visitors come mainly for the stately house itself, said Campbell. A foundation garden and camellias adorn the outside, while a walk through the daylight basement and two floors provide a window to upper-class life before and shortly after the Civil War.

Many original furniture pieces remain, including a sofa, two side chairs and an arm chair made by renowned craftsman John Belter.

The residence, described as plantation plain style with a Greek Revival front, is the crown jewel of Washington’s large inventory of antebellum homes. The local Chamber of Commerce has this tout: “Washington-Wilkes is the epitome of a Southern small town complete with charm, beauty and of course hospitality which is usually exhibited in the form of a tall glass of iced sweet tea on the veranda!”

(Library of Congress)
Those more interested in history and politics tend to focus on the legacy of the influential Toombs, celebrated during his life for his oratory and political skills and charm, but remembered also as a volatile figure who had unyielding convictions and sniped at critics. He became a key figure in the secession movement.

Toombs “had a my way or the highway” approach to the law, said Campbell, a thinking that might have applied to other matters.

The story of the controversial firebrand has no shortage of interesting anecdotes: He left the University of Georgia under a cloud, made a lot of money as a lawyer, resigned from the Confederate army after leading troops at Antietam, fled to Cuba and Europe after the war, and refused to become an American citizen once he returned to Washington. He helped craft the 1877 state constitution, which held for nearly 80 years but disenfranchised newly gained rights for African-Americans.

So there’s a lot to cover. “I don’t go deeply into anything until I know what that person is interested in,” said Campbell.

Roof work during restoration (Wilkes County)

Impressive law practice and residence

Toombs was born in Wilkes County in July 1810 to a prosperous family. “He was a native son. His father was a major in the Revolutionary Way and came to settle in Wilkes County on bounty land,” said Campbell.

At 14, he entered Franklin College (now the University of Georgia) but left when he got into trouble for indifference and conduct during a card-playing game. Toombs studied law in the North before returning to Wilkes County to begin his hometown practice.

Toombs was elected to the Georgia House when he was 27 and became an expert in fiscal matters. His political acumen and skills grew quickly.

(Library of Congress)
About that time, he purchased the home that he would own for nearly 50 years. The central core of the residence was built in 1791 by Dr. Joel Abbot. The current front of the home was constructed in 1810. Toombs installed its familiar fa├žade in 1854, and added the east and west wings in the mid-1870s.

While his true passion may have been politics, Toombs excelled in his law practice. He earned a princely $30,000 to $50,000 a year in law practice, land speculation and cotton production (the family also owned a plantation in southwest Georgia).

The Toombs house presided over about 300 acres and he owned about 30 slaves to run the plantation and home, Campbell said. “He was not a cruel slaveholder at all.”

The bulk of the estate is long gone, and the house is surrounded by Victorian era and later dwellings. The Toombs site has a few outbuildings but they are not open to the public.

The daylight basement has a lower ceiling than the rest of the house and was built in a practical English style. The family ate in this cooler area during the summer.

(Georgia DNR)

Toombs’ law office is on the first floor, along with the main hall, two parlors, the formal dining room and a guest bedroom, which was informally named for his longtime friend Alexander Stephens, another famous Georgia politician who became vice president of the Confederacy.

The second floor has three bedrooms, one for a daughter (the couple had three children) and one each for Toombs and his wife Julia.


From moderate to secessionist

Beginning in 1844, the Toombses spent much of their time in Washington, D.C., where he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

He was a states’ rights advocate, and while he believed slavery should be allowed in newly acquired territories, he supported the Compromise of 1850. He eventually moved away from moderation and toward radicalization and Southern secession.

Toombs (right), other leaders (LOC)
"Defend yourselves, the enemy is at your door," he said on Senate floor on Jan. 24, 1860. Toombs was a captivating figure and powerful speaker, his visage topped by a shock of unruly hair.

Auburn University history department faculty member Jacob Clawson, who reviewed Mark Scroggins’ 2011 biography ofToombs, said the author “provides a rendering of both the public and private Toombs that paints the Georgian as a bullish politician whose blend of acerbic wit, fiery demeanor, and political tact aroused the full spectrum of emotions from his constituents and colleagues.”

An entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia said the politician “helped to lead Georgia out of the Union on the eve of the Civil War … This was surprising; although Toombs was a slaveholding planter, he had dedicated the majority of his political career to preserving the Union.”

Toombs called for the move after the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. The senator telegraphed Georgia leaders, saying secession “should be thundered forth from the ballot-box by the united voice of Georgia."

1860 secession meeting in Charleston (LOC)

Campbell, who gives tours of the home, says Toombs and other landowners believed secession was their constitutional right, a view many historians challenge.

“When he realized it was inevitable, he joined forces with the Georgia citizenry and drafted the first Constitution of this new country,” said Campbell. “In his mind, it was a new country.”

Never sought a pardon

Toombs is in center in cartoon (Library of Congress)

Toombs had dreams of becoming the Confederacy’s president, but that fell to Jefferson Davis. He served for a time as secretary of state, but he became increasingly critical of Davis.

In later life, Toombs said of his rival: “He would have been a successful magazine man, but in the practical, everyday life he was utterly lost. There was never a moment during the war when Davis actually appreciated the situation. He was as jealous as a Barbary hen, and once started to have me arrested for ridiculing him.”

Toombs soon resigned the secretary of state post and joined the Army of Northern Virginia as a brigade commander of Georgia troops. The temperamental officer’s military experience was mostly undistinguished, though he did take a bullet in his left hand in September 1862 at Antietam while holding a position near Burnside Bridge.

While popular with his men, he quarreled with his superiors and resigned in March 1863 after he was passed over for promotion. He returned to Georgia. “He stayed out of the war until near the end, and he continually criticized Davis’ leadership and Confederate policies -- especially conscription, suspension of habeas corpus, and reliance upon credit to finance the war effort,” a biography in the Encyclopedia Brittanica says.

At the end of the war, Federal troops swept through the South, arresting top Confederate leaders.

When soldiers came to Wilkes County to arrest Toombs, “there was quite a stir in town. In local folklore it was frightening. He was given word and escaped, Campbell said.

The former general flew to Cuba, then Europe, before returning to the United States in 1867. He was “unreconstructed” to the end, declining to seek a pardon from Congress that might restore his citizenship. He resumed his law practice and contributed to the Georgia Democratic political scene, including effective work on the sweeping 1877 constitution that supplanted Reconstruction policies.

That document increased the power of the Legislature, brought about state taxes and its white supremacy portions put new burdens on African-Americans by imposing separate schools and a poll tax.

(Library of Congress)
Within a few years, Toombs’ age and years of heavy drinking were catching up with him.

“The year 1883 was traumatic for Toombs,” said the New Georgia Encyclopedia. “His lifelong friend and political comrade Alexander Stephens died suddenly after serving brief as Georgia’s governor. Within a few months his wife, Julia, suffering from a prolonged illness, also died.”

A depressed Toombs sank into self-neglect and he died on Dec. 15, 1885, age 75.

House needed TLC, a little more

Toombs’ favorite niece and her descendants owned the home until the state acquired it in 1973. It was operated as a state historic site until 2009, when severe budget woes left it in peril. The county’s commission chair, Campbell said, said “it would just have been devastating to lose the Toombs house.” It’s been managed by Wilkes County since.

Campbell has obtained several grants to help make repairs and upgrades to the facility, and state money has gone to much of the work, including challenging work to build a roof on an older design.

(Georgia DNR)

“The house was in need of a new roof even when the county took it on,” she said. Water caused all kinds of problems, including cracking plaster.

Campbell said floor joists and beams beneath the Alexander Stephens guest room had become weakened over time. “You felt like you were on a trampoline.” That area has been reinforced by state contractors.

The center of the residence includes a timeline of Toombs’ life. Visitors can use a self-guided pamphlet or take a guided tour when available.

While most people don’t get into the politics and controversy regarding secession, some do ask about the slaves who ran the plantation and root causes of the Civil War. The backdrop to this is the national debate and discussion about memorializing the Confederacy and its leaders.


But most are curious about the house’s history and belongings. “They are very interested in who built what. They are interested in what their eyes are seeing,” said Campbell.

The Robert Toombs house reopens on Nov. 21. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. A holiday open house will be held from 10-4 on Dec. 9. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children 6-12, and $1 for children 3-5.