Sally M. Walker,
Secrets of a Civil War Submarine:
Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley

(Carolthoda, 2005)

The notion of submarine travel dates back to 1620, although it wasn't until the 1900s that the stealthy, underwater mode of naval warfare flourished. Although some mariners toyed with the theory during both the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the first successful attack on a sailing vessel, resulting in its sinking, occurred during the American Civil War.

The H.L. Hunley, a cramped, 40-foot-long tub of war, was deployed on Feb. 17, 1864, from the blockaded port city of Charleston, S.C., and, using a form of towed torpedo, destroyed the Union steam sloop USS Housatonic, one of the blockading ships. But the Hunley never returned from that voyage, and for more than a century historians wondered what had happened to her.

Searches for the submarine's remains proved fruitless. Immediately following her loss, both the Union and Confederate navies sent out crews to find her. Some 130 years later, on May 3, 1995, a mission financed by author and shipwreck enthusiast Clive Cussler employed a magnetometer to find submerged iron -- and found her.

Author Sally M. Walker here tells the Hunley's story. The book is a blend of history and science, from the design and development of the sub in the 1860s -- including two trial runs with fatal results for her crew -- to the physics involved in raising her remains and the archeology, biology and forensics involved in examining and preserving the plucky vessel, along with the bodies of the crew still trapped inside.

It's interesting stuff, and Walker takes us through the process of keeping the vessel intact, of studying the sediment that filled her, of sorting out the artifacts found within and attempting to determine exactly what caused her to sink. It's a quick read -- not much over 100 pages and packed with photos and illustrations -- but a fascinating one. The text is written at a level for younger readers -- it won the Robert F. Sibert Medal and a Notable award from the Association for Library Service to Children -- it's still detailed enough to keep adult readers turning pages.

The Hunley had not yet revealed all her secrets at the time this book was published, but this makes me want to visit Charleston and see her museum myself.

book review by
Tom Knapp

8 November 2014

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