Thursday, May 7, 2020

H.L. Hunley fascination: Social media post about past conservation of bandana found in Civil War submarine quickly goes viral

James A. Wicks' conserved bandana (Photos courtesy of Friends of the Hunley)
The item shortly after recovery and during the conservation process
When it comes to interest in the innovative Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley, items pertaining to its crew are near the top, just behind the ongoing debate over what caused the vessel to be lost in battle

A Friends of the Hunley social media post Wednesday about the conservation of a knotted bandana worn around the neck of crew member James A. Wicks garnered more than 950 shares within 24 hours.

James A. Wicks
The exacting work on the artifact was detailed in the winter 2007 issue of The Blue Light, the newsletter of the Friends group.

“We will at times showcase past work on the project,” Kellen Butler, president and executive director of the nonprofit museum, told the Picket via email.

Since its recovery from the Charleston (S.C.) Harbor in 2000, the Confederate submarine has been undergoing extensive conservation at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston. From time to time, the Friends of the Hunley posts photographs of an item before and after conservation. Such was the case with Wicks' silk bandana.

When what appeared to be nothing more than a blob of mud was found in the Hunley crew compartment during excavation, it was hard to detect is was a fascinating – and beautiful – piece of history,” reads a Facebook post.

Wicks and seven others lost their lives in the Hunley during a mission that made history.

On the moonlit evening of Feb. 17, 1864, the 40-foot iron vessel -- bullets pinging off its iron exterior -- planted a torpedo in the hull of the Union ship USS Housatonic, setting off a charge that sent the Federal vessel and five crew members to the sandy bottom outside Charleston Harbor within minutes. The Hunley became the first submarine to sink an enemy warship.

Conservators several years ago at lab in North Charleston (Friends of the Hunley)
The Hunley, too, was lost, but exactly why remains a mystery. A host of theories -- from pressure emitted by the explosion, suffocation, a "lucky shot," drowning or other factors -- has been debated for decades. The position of the crew found during conservation showed no signs of panic. 

Wicks and the conservation of his fragile garment each have an interesting story.

Mary W. Ballard, a senior textile conservator at the Smithsonian Institution, consulted by phone and traveled to the museum and assisted in the challenging work of bringing the bandana back to life.

“Saving this unique artifact created a challenging question for conservators: how do you dry a fabric that has been waterlogged for over a century? Complicating matters, the bandana was also completely covered with mud and a metallic-like concretion,” reads The Blue Light article.

Conservators first tested dozens of detached small samples with various chemical treatments before deciding how to treat the bandana itself.

Details of the bandana during and after conservation (Friends of the Hunley)
To remove water, they applied a technique called vacuum freeze-drying. The process dries the fabric without applying tension to its fragile fibers.

“We will never know the true color of the bandana since the fabric’s vegetable dye was lost long ago,” the article states. “Still, the completed artifact speaks to the delicate skill of conservation and offers a rare insight into the divided loyalties many may have felt during the Civil War.”

What divided loyalties?

Wicks -- a Southerner by birth -- was in the U.S. Navy at the outbreak of the Civil War. When the USS Congress was crippled by the Confederate warship CSS Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862, he switched sides, according to the Friends of the Hunley. 

He was about 45 years old when he died in the Hunley mission.

Given his personal history, it is not surprising Wicks is the only crew member known to be wearing a bandana around his neck, a common practice for enlisted Union sailors during that time,” The Blue Light surmises.

Exhibit at the Hunley museum in North Charleston (Civil War Picket photo)
Wicks served on the CSS Indian Chief before Hunley skipper Lt. George Dixon chose him to be part of the eight-member crew.

The Friends of the Hunley says the father of four girls stood nearly 5 feet 10 inches tall and was a heavy tobacco user. He had blue eyes and brown hair, according to records. His family was living in Florida when war broke out.

Wicks had the Hunley’s sixth crank position and in an emergency, his job was to release the aft keel block, should weight needed to be jettisoned so that the submarine could rise from the ocean floor.

His remains were found associated with seven US Navy buttons, which is consistent with his military service, according to the Friends of the Hunley. 

1 comment:

  1. GREAT stuff, Mr Gast. Thank you, from a fellow terrorizer of children also drafted into service on various battlefield tours.