A burning Hunley mystery

Paul Mardikian, senior conservator of the Hunley project, talks about the lantern found aboard the Hunley.

As Robert Flemming clung to his doomed warship off the Charleston coast on a cold night in 1864, he spotted a blue light shining on the dark Atlantic.

Less than an hour earlier, the USS Housatonic had become the first victim of a submarine attack, and no one had seen the attack ship — a tiny fish-boat — since.

And then Flemming saw the light.

“While I was in the fore-rigging, I saw a blue light on the water just ahead of the Canandaigua, and on the starboard quarter of the Housatonic,” he later told a court of inquiry.

History would record Flemming’s account as the last sighting of the H.L. Hunley for more than a century. But what exactly did he see?

Hunley scientists have now restored the lantern found aboard the Civil War-era submarine and are trying to determine if it did in fact send the final message from the crew — and whether its light was actually blue.

“It’s one of the emblematic objects of the Hunley,” said Paul Mardikian, senior conservator on the project. “You’re never completely happy, but for this one, I’m kind of satisfied.”

That’s because when the lantern was found, it was entombed in a blob of hardened sand that had just about caused the thin tin body of the lantern to disintegrate. Scientists feared they would never have more than an X-ray. Mardikian called it “the ghost of an artifact.”

It has taken years for Mardikian and his crew to restore what was basically the crew’s flashlight. And now it’s time to study the lantern for clues to the Hunley’s fate. And that’s not going to be easy.

So far, there is no proof that the lantern’s light was blue, but the most popular theory at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center is that the lantern may have used fuel that cast a blue flame. But the lantern’s fuel canister is in rough shape, and it’s hard to say if they will ever find traces of what kind of fuel oil it used.

The Hunley sank the Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864 — the waning days of the Civil War. The incident was one of the last major conflicts in Confederate Charleston, a final attempt to break the blockade of Charleston Harbor by the Union Navy.

Historical records on both the Union and Confederate sides mention the blue light in accounts of the Hunley incident. Senior Archaeologist Maria Jacobsen doesn’t discount those reports, but she is skeptical of linking Flemming’s sighting with Confederate accounts.

The lantern may have been the Hunley’s signal, but perhaps not so soon after the attack.

“You’re surrounded by an entire enemy fleet and you’re going to be popping out and shining a light?” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen points out that Confederates on Sullivan’s Island reported a blue light would be Hunley Captain George E. Dixon’s signal that they had completed their mission and were headed back. But she suspects the light might have been a signal to guide the sub into the notoriously treacherous waters of Breach Inlet between Sullivan’s and what is now called the Isle of Palms.

And that would have happened much closer to shore.

The role of the lantern will tell scientists much about the Hunley’s operation. Essentially, the lantern was the crew’s version of a flashlight — but was likely not used to light the inside of the sub, as the noxious fumes of burning fuel would have fouled what precious little air the crew had.

“They had two sources of light aboard the Hunley — a candle and the lantern,” Mardikian said. “The candle would have been their canary, it would flicker when the cabin was low on oxygen.”

But the question is: was Dixon signaling a successful attack, and looking for the shore, less than an hour after the Housatonic sank on Feb. 17, 1864? Or did Flemming see something else as the Hunley sank beneath the waves?

It is just another Hunley mystery.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or follow him on Twitter at @BriHicks_PandC.