By Bruce Smith
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Thousands of men in Confederate gray and Union blue yesterday escorted the crew of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship, to their final resting place.
In what has been called the last Confederate funeral, the coffins of the eight crew members, draped in Confederate flags, were first taken to Charleston’s Battery. The coffins were placed in a semicircle, a wreath set in front of each.
Then, a column of the uniformed re-enactors stretching a mile and half — joined by women in black hoop skirts and veils — took the crew of the Hunley, which sank outside Charleston Harbor, to their interment in Magnolia Cemetery.
Randy Burbage, a member of the South Carolina Hunley Commission, said it was a testiment to the crew that so many had come to pay tribute to "eight Americans who died for a cause they believed in so long ago."
"There are some who have scoffed at our efforts to pay tribute to these men, saying that because they were Confederates, they don’t deserve so high an honor," said Ronald Wilson, commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "It is our duty to respect and remember these individuals."
It took the column of re-enactors more than an hour to file into the cemetery.
The hand-cranked Hunley made history on Feb. 17, 1864, when it rammed a spar with a black powder charge into the Union blockade ship Housatonic.
But the Hunley never returned from the mission. The sub was found off the South Carolina coast nine years ago and was raised in 2000 and brought to a conservation lab at the old Charleston Naval Base.
About 40 relatives of Hunley crew members were in Charleston yesterday.
Emma Busbey Ditman of Silver Spring said she learned about 12 years ago that she had a relative aboard the Hunley. She is the great-grandniece of crewman Joseph Ridgaway, who was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
"It’s been very emotional. My father died when I was a little girl, and I knew almost nothing about my father’s family when I was a child," she said. "For me, it’s finding my family."
The crew buried yesterday was the third crew to die aboard the submarine.
The first crew drowned in the fall of 1863, when waves from the wake of a passing ship flooded the sub at its mooring. A few weeks later, a second crew, including designer H.L. Hunley, died during a test dive.
The members of the third crew were buried next to the other crews in a plot shaded by oaks and palmettos.
Rebecca Farence of Harrisburg, Pa., said crewman Frank Collins was her great-grandfather’s half-cousin.
"These are just extraordinary men — brave and strong — who did a marvelous thing," she said.
Fourteen Southern governors were invited to the ceremony but declined to attend. Most cited scheduling conflicts, but some observers speculated they may be wary of the political implications of attending an event with thousands of Confederate re-enactors.
For many blacks in South Carolina, the ceremonies are "just more Confederate games," said the Rev. Joe Darby, head of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It’s just another case of them overblowing and aggrandizing an unfortunate period in our history."
Mr. Darby has said the NAACP would not protest the ceremony because it "would be in poor taste to protest anyone who is trying to honor their dead."
In the late 1870s, showman P.T. Barnum offered a reward of $100,000 for anyone who could find and salvage the Hunley. In the mid-1990s, an expedition identified the vessel’s location. It was recovered in August 2000.
The sub turned out to be an iron time capsule. The crew’s remains were well-preserved, providing forensic specialists with clues about their backgrounds and how they lived and worked.
Researchers learned that four were recent immigrants from Europe, and only two were from the South.
The story of George Dixon, the sub’s commander, received the most attention. In the 1862 Battle of Shiloh, a bullet hit his leg, but a gold coin given him by a sweetheart stopped the round.
Archeologists recovered the dented coin with Dixon’s remains in the Hunley.
© 2004, Associated Press