Book Review: The Sea Hunters: True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks
By Clive Cussler
The Sea Hunters: True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks
Pocket Star Books, 1996
I do not profess to know much about Civil War water warfare, blue or brown. Nevertheless, I know a good thing when I find it, and Clive Cussler’s The Sea Hunter: True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks is excellent. Especially when I thought it was an undersea adventure story having nothing to do with the Civil War and lots to do with modern black ops.
Here’s what happened: I am the caretaker of a Little Free Library. * Not everything in it is war-related–but a lot is because I put my used books out to be read just like I do all the others. I know many of you who have read this far have had the experience of what I call “Civil War Overkill.” That is when all you have read for the past few weeks is 300-600-page books of Civil War history. Sometimes a person needs a break. This was one of those times. So, I took some books out to the LFL and checked on what was there already.
Someone had put in Cussler’s book, and I thought it would be fun to read one of his Dirk Pitt adventures for a few days. I brought it inside, grabbed a diet root beer, and sat down to dive in—pun intended. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that The Sea Hunters is not Dirk Pitt. Instead, it is Clive Cussler doing what he did best–discovering historic ships left to rot on the ocean floor. I was even more surprised to find that most of the ships, barges, and submarines in this volume were from–yeah, you guessed it–the Civil War!
The way Cussler wrote makes everything tangible, including his descriptions of these once-sea-faring boats. He begins his chapters on the USS Cumberland, the CSS Florida, the CSS Arkansas, the USS Carondelet, and, of course, the CSS Hunley with exciting, relatable vignettes. The reader meets the captain, the crew, and, best of all, the ship herself in these beautiful chapters. Cussler wove each boat’s politics and mission into these introductions and included some fictional-but-plausible conversations among the critical parties. There are photos and excellent maps. My understanding of these brave craft was increased very much, and the stories of each were an addition to my interest in this topic.
The tale of the brave Mississippi River ironclad Carondelet was thrilling. Although many of her crew did not survive, she had already been pounded twice by Confederate gunners at Fort Donelson and lived to continue her mission. Finally, on April 4, 1862, she made a daring run past the blazing guns of Rebel Island Number 10. This time she was under the control of Commander Henry Walke, who dared to argue with his reluctant superior, Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote: “If any boat can do it, she can.”
The Carondelet had a barge tied to her side piled with cotton and hay bales to fool the Confederates into thinking it was only a cotton barge coming down the river in the middle of the night and not the ironclad, there to lead the Union Mississippi River Squadron to victory.
When I read Cussler’s words, I got goosebumps. I question why this story is not told in such a manner in other history books. Usually, it is just the facts: the Carondelet steamed past Island Number 10. This is not enough. A similar lack of information and excitement has been a flaw in many naval accounts. I think this has something to do with many of us not knowing much about water warfare in the Civil War. Where’s the grab?
One of my favorite stories from the war is that of the little man powered submersible Hunley. I first learned about it when I sought a naval story for my book The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead. On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Confederate H. L. Hunley became the world’s first successful combat submarine. She sank the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor with a spar torpedo. After signaling to shore that the crew and the little sub had accomplished their mission, the craft, and her crew of eight mysteriously vanished.
Lost at sea for 131 years, Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) located the Hunley in 1995. It is this story Cussler tells in The Sea Hunters. When NUMA left Charleston Harbor, the Hunley still rested at the bottom of the bay. Cussler’s book was published in 1996, updating all that had been discovered or known about the Hunley up to that time. Luckily, many people fell in love with the story of the sub and her fearless crew.
In 2000, money was raised to fund a successful effort to recover the hand-cranked vessel and the remains of the men who operated her. The Hunley was recovered on August 8, 2000. It was turned over to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina. In partnership with the Clemson University Restoration Institute, South Carolina Hunley Commission, Naval History and Heritage Command, and Friends of the Hunley, an international team of scientists is conserving the submarine for future generations and piecing together clues to solve the mystery of her disappearance.
The Conservation Center has done much work on the Hunley and her crew. First, the ship was rotated from her side to upright. Then the concretion of 180 years underwater was carefully and respectfully removed from the delicate skin of the sub. Each part of her restoration has been and is still being done slowly, carefully, and thoroughly. Anyone interested in learning the complete–up to now–story of her resurrection is encouraged to visit their website. There, readers will find out about all currently available aspects of the little craft. The research is extensive. I found their application of forensic science to recreate realistic images of the crew to be particularly compelling.
Sometimes, there is no better way to spend thirty minutes than by watching Forensic Files on a local cable channel. Viewers clearly see how a case goes “cold” or unsolved until science catches up with the need to accurately identify victims and perpetrators. Years went by before DNA–and recently, the DNA from genealogy caches like ancestry.com or 23andme.com–was used to determine the unknown and their relatives. This same technology has been applied to the remains of the men who crewed the Hunley with amazing results.
The Hunley website not only explains the complicated technique for reconstructing the faces of these doughty fellows but includes images of them looking much like they did on that fateful night in February 1864. X-rays show how many bones had been broken before the sinking of the sub. Patterns of daily life such as smoking, chewing tobacco, and years of hard work all come to the fore in ways that make the crew relatable as living men. Naval records offer descriptions of height, weight, and distinguishing features. These, combined with preserved hair recovered from the submarine, allow forensic artists to accurately determine hair and eye color, as well as skin tone.
It gets even better! One of the newest discoveries concerns the clothing worn at the time the ship went down: The Hunley as a crew did not have a set uniform at all. They wore what they were comfortable in or what they were used to. Only six of the eight wore something that was part of a military uniform.
Following the excavation of the Hunley submarine, the Conservation Center uncovered a plethora of artifacts related to the crewmember’s clothing. These included buttons from military and non-military clothing, vests, a kepi, pants, jackets, a pair of boots, and seven pairs of shoes. By examining heavily degraded textile fragments and buttons, archaeologists have better understood the different articles and types of clothing the crewmembers wore. This, in combination with the study of the shoes, has provided insight into the lives of those who operated Hunley during its final mission.
I always celebrate changes in our available information concerning those who perished because of the American Civil War. Something is chilling about monuments to “unknowns.” They were not always unknown. They were fathers, husbands, sons, lovers–and then they weren’t. Breakthroughs like DNA bring the historical community closer to identifying remains and restoring their faces, names, and identities.
The countenance of the commanding officer, Lieutenant George Dixon is an example. Scientists and archeologists have brought him from a jumble of bones to the handsome, mustachioed chap shown in this illustration. Additionally, his gold coin for good luck and other personal belongings have been discovered and authenticated. Slowly the public is learning just who Lieutenant Dixon was. The same is true for the other crew members, although some identification is moving faster than others.
Unfortunately, Clive Cussler died on February 24, 2020. His organization NUMA (the National Underwater and Marine Agency) continues his work. Both Cussler’s original organization and Friends of the Hunley are great places to make a tax-exempt contribution or just purchase some awesome swag.
And while you are at it, pick up a copy of The Sea Hunters: True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks. Your interest in Civil War water warfare will be thoroughly whetted. Just do it–Clive would have!
* A Little Free Library is a book box, usually on a stand of some type. It is placed so that it is easily accessible to the public and contains books that may be taken or placed so that reading them is free for everyone (https://littlefreelibrary.org/).