Scientists: Spar may hold clue to sinking of sub

(Alan Garmendia/WCIV)

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP/WCIV) - Scientists say a pole on the front of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley designed to plant explosives on enemy ships may hold a key clue to its sinking during the Civil War.

Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell and scientists discussed their news Monday at a North Charleston lab where the hand-cranked sub is being preserved.

The Hunley was the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship. The pole, called a spar, was the large pole at the front of the sub used to put a powder charge into the Union blockade ship Housatonic in 1864.

According to the new findings, the Hunley was likely less than 20 feet from the torpedo when it exploded.

The Housatonic sank, while the Hunley and its eight-man crew never returned. The sub was found off the South Carolina coast in 1995 and raised five years later. It's been in the laboratory ever since.

"There is overwhelming evidence to indicate this was not a suicide mission. The crew no doubt knew the dangers facing them, but still, they hoped to make it back home. They must have believed this was a safe enough distance to escape any harm," said Hunley Commissioner and{} Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell. "If so, they were at least partially right. Thus far, no damage has been found on the actual submarine caused by the explosion."

According to a release from the Friends of the Hunley, historians had always thought the Hunley was designed to "ram the spar torpedo into her target and then back away, causing the torpedo to slip off the spar. A rope from the torpedo to the submarine would spool out and detonate once the submarine was at a safe distance."{}

{}"You have to remember, what these guys were trying to do had never been done before.{} They were constantly improving their new weapon as they learned during testing," said Maria Jacobsen, Senior Hunley Archaeologist at Clemson University's Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston.{}

Scientists will use new information, including remnants of the original torpedo casing found still bolted to the tip of the spar, to create digital attack simulations to hopefully solve the mystery surrounding the Hunley's destruction.