Book tells two tales of the H.L. Hunley

SEA OF DARKNESS. By Brian Hicks. Spry Publishing. 512 pages. $26.95.

Brian Hicks has written the “Tale of Two Tales.” There are, indeed, two complete and absorbing stories here. The first, of course, is the fascinating story of the H.L. Hunley, the peripatetic little submarine that sank a Yankee warship during the siege of Charleston 150 years ago. Unfortunately the sub never returned, which leads to the second story.

It’s the treasure hunter’s story, “The Raising of the Hunley.” Never was an author better positioned or better prepared to write such an engaging and entertaining history. Hicks is an accomplished writer by trade, a Southern history buff by avocation and a close friend of many of the key movers and shakers who found, raised and are now restoring the submarine.

The Hunley was built in Alabama and transported by rail to Charleston by mechanical engineers with the motivations of privateers. Few boats have been sunk three times then raised and repaired twice before returning to combat.

Located in 1995 and recovered in 2000, the story of the Hunley’s retrieval is nearly as intriguing as the story of its 1864 sinking of the Housatonic. It is well known that the best-selling author Clive Cussler is also a dedicated marine historian and treasure hunter. He began actively searching for the Hunley in 1980. This story, too, is populated with strong, motivated people.

The flashback has long been an author’s favorite technique when telling a story that has key related events happening in different eras. Hicks employs a variation of the use of flashbacks. He writes the two stories in alternating chapters, and it is not at all disruptive to the reader. The two stories are so cleverly interlaced that the shuffling back and forth a century and a half ties the two narratives into one cohesive whole.

No anecdote ties the past and the present together better than the $20 gold piece in the skipper’s pocket. George Dixon had been wounded at Shiloh when a mini-ball was stopped by the gold coin. He had it engraved and carried for the rest of his life as his lucky piece. When the coin was recovered by the lead archeologist, Maria Jacobsen, on May 23, 2001, the circle was closed in a most emotional moment.

A well-known truism states that success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan. The recovery of the Hunley, therefore, has several fathers. In addition to Cussler, there was Warren Lasch, chairman of “Friends of the Hunley,” and Glenn McConnell, South Carolina state senator and chairman of the Hunley commission. And, of course, there were innumerable technical folks necessary for the preservation, raising and restoration.

While the discovery and retrieval story has a nice, clean ending after some tumultuous progress, the story of George Dixon and his crew has elements of mystery to this day. What caused the Hunley to sink? It probably was not the meager enemy small arms fire. Why was she found seaward of where the Housatonic sank?

There will always be unanswered questions, but all of the answers we do have are artfully woven together in Brian Hicks’ “Tale of Two Tales.”

Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier is a retired engineer living in Hanahan.