Clive Cussler has found over 60 shipwrecks; more than half are Civil War wrecks. So, it was inevitable that Clive Cussler would eventually search for the Hunley. Since the late 1800s many people have claimed to have found the Hunley; and many more have searched for the Hunley. P.T. Barnum offered $100,000 reward for the first person to prove they had found the Hunley. However, no one ever proved they found the Hunley with photographs or artifacts from the wrecked submarine. No one even knew positively what happened to the Hunley.
As always, when the topic is the United States Civil War, there were the two time-honored antagonists. Union apologists claimed the Confederate submarine’s historic first sinking of a ship was an unqualified success, as the Hunley sank itself with the Housatonic. The Union apologists claimed the blue light signal was a fabrication created by a sentry to explain why he did not report the Hunley as overdue. Confederate apologists claimed that the prearranged signal of the blue light from the Hunley proved the Hunley successfully survived the attack on the Housatonic.
Of the many possible explanations for Hunley’s loss, no one was certain what happened or where she lay. The explosion could have loosened plates in Hunley’s hull causing it to flood inside the hull; leaving the Hunley on the bottom of the harbor anywhere from the Housatonic, west to the Hunley’s pier. The concussion from the blast could have knocked the Hunley’s crew unconscious, leaving the little sub drifting east out to sea, where eventually it sank. The Hunley could have even been run over by one of the many Union ships rushing to the aid of the Housatonic, leaving it almost anywhere on the bottom of Charleston harbor.
Cussler knew of Confederate Col. Dantzler’s report of the blue light signal from the Hunley. He also knew of researcher Bob Fleming’s finding of the board of inquiry transcripts into the loss of the Housatonic; where crewmembers of the Union ship reported seeing a blue light low on the water. Cussler knew this proved the Hunley survived the attack, but didn’t realize the board of inquiry transcripts pinpointed the location of the Hunley to the east where it was eventually found.
In 1980, Cussler began preparations to search for the Hunley by applying for a permit from the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA). Alan Albright, the institutes lead archaeologist at that time, was cooperative but suspicious. As Cussler said in his book, The Sea Hunters:
Albright asked him, “If you find the Hunley, what then?”
Cussler replied, “That’s your problem.”
Clive Cussler founded NUMA (National Underwater Marine Agency), fashioned after the NUMA organization in his novels, to search for lost underwater shipwrecks. Even when the approximate location of a shipwreck is known, the search for a lost ship involves long tedious hours of back-and-forth searches usually in a small boat towing sonar, magnetometers, or cameras. NUMA, in its search for the Hunley, towed a magnetometer behind a zodiac boat. That first year NUMA did not find the Hunley, but they did save the lives of three boys caught in a current that was taking them out to sea.
NUMA was using a two-boat strategy in its search for the Hunley. The first would start along the shoreline going back and forth pulling a magnetometer working towards the sea. A second boat, the Coastal Explorer, would search the wreck site of the Housatonic. The first boat was mapping magnetic anomalies found with magnetometer, which would later be searched by divers from the Coastal Explorer. The second boat found the outline of the hull and the one boiler from the Housatonic, but no Hunley. Cussler even used psychic Karen Getsla on the bow of the Coastal Explorer to tune into the location of the Hunley, but nothing.
At the end of the 1980 season NUMA did not know where the Hunley was, but they did know where the Hunley was not. Cussler and his search team had searched a two-mile long grid from Breaches Inlet extending out a half-mile to sea. Cussler was now certain that the Hunley lay closer to the Housatonic.
June 1981 Cussler was back at it again. This time that permit went much more smoothly with Albright; he even offered a top-notch archaeological dive team with a first-rate outboard boat. Cussler’s NUMA search team had now grown to 17 people, including two students from the North Carolina Institute of Archaeology, and Ralph Willbanks and Rodney Warren from the University of South Carolina.
Everything ran smoothly and they had good weather. The team picked up where they left off the year before and searched an additional 16 square miles, well beyond the Housatonic. This year the team used three boats. The dive boat followed up on and checked each magnetic anomaly discovered by the search boat’s magnetometer. Most of these anomalies were old shrimp boats, barges, and 300 years worth of scrap metal. Once again, they did not find the Hunley; but they did discover five Confederate blockade runners and three Union ironclads.
One humorous side story is discovery of the blockade runner Stonewall Jackson. After more than a century the place where the Stonewall Jackson ran aground and burned was now under the beach. One day when the waves were too rough, Cussler and his team laid out grid patterns on the beach to search for the Stonewall Jackson. The plan was to walk the grid with metal detectors, and if not found, set up a new grid and continue the search. After setting up the first grid pattern on the beach Cussler tried to calibrate his metal detector. However, each time the needle went off scale. Clive checked the batteries, wires, and connectors. Still the needle went off scale. Finally, Clive realized that not only had they laid out the first grid pattern exactly overtop of the Stonewall Jackson, but that he was standing right above the engines trying to calibrate his metal detector. If only all searches were this quick and easy.
When the season ended Cussler and NUMA had found no less than eight Civil War shipwrecks, but no Hunley. It would be 13 years before Cussler would return to his search for the Hunley.
July 1994 found Cussler once again at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology. The new people at the Institute, instead of issuing a permit, suggested they make it a joint venture and Cussler agreed. In his book, The Sea Hunters, Cussler describes this only by saying “not a wise move on my part as it turned out.”
This season Cussler hired Ralph’s company, Diversified Willbanks, with their search boat called Diversity. Ralph Willbanks had left the university and started his own underwater survey company since Cussler had search for the Hunley in 1981. The University supplied the dive boat with sport divers who paid for the privilege of diving on the Hunley. The universities chief project investigator was constantly announcing that every anomaly they dove on had same dimensions as the Hunley. The target he was most enthusiastic about was eventually revealed as an old steam engine. NUMA’S third boat was a 15 foot outboard boat with a gradiometer for searching shallow areas. The 1994 season ended with another 10 square miles searched, more antique scrap iron, but no Hunley.
Because of Confederate Col. Dantzler’s report, Cussler had concentrated his search between Breach Inlet and the Housatonic, but no Hunley. The only thing left to do was to expand the borders of the search grids. Cussler flew back to Colorado to write more books to pay for the search for the Hunley, a debt that would grow to more than $100,000 before the search was over.
Cussler contracted Ralph Willbanks and West Hall to keep searching for the Hunley in their free time. The rest of 1994 and on into 1995 right up until May 4, Clive Cussler back in Colorado would fax new search grid patterns to Ralph in Charleston, and Ralph would phone back to Colorado with search results. On May 4, 1995, Ralph phoned Clive with another update. Ralph said he would be sending Clive his last bill. Disappointed, Clive thought Ralph was giving up. No, Ralph had found the Hunley, and they had photographs. The Hunley was actually found on the afternoon of May 3, 1995, but Cussler wasn’t home when Ralph called.
Clive Cussler’s penchant for hiring good people paid off. In the end it was not Cussler’s grid patterns that found the Huntley, but Ralph’s hunch. Ralph had decided to return to the Housatonic site and work farther east. The Hunley was 1000 yards east and slightly south of the Housatonic. On May 11, 1995, Clive Cussler and the rest of the NUMA team flew out to join Ralph and Wes for a press conference, beside the replica of the Hunley in front of the museum in Charleston, where they announced to the world the discovery of the H.L. Hunley. They provided video and still photos of the wrecked Hunley on the harbor bottom, to the press.
Then all hell broke loose, but that is a future article in this series.
To learn more about Cussler’s discovery of the H.L. Hunley as well as a dozen other wrecks found by NUMA, I suggest reading The Sea Hunters, by Clive Cussler and Craig Dirgo.
Next Sunday’s Article:
E. Lee Spence’s Hunley
Learn about Dr. Spence’s discovery of the H.L. Hunley in 1970.
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