Eyes turn to Hunley funeral

Dan Hunley
Knight Ridder

CHARLESTON – More than 30,000 people are expected to descend on this history-soaked city in two weeks for what’s being called the last funeral of the Civil War.

The remains of the crewmen who perished on the final voyage of the Confederate submarine Hunley will be buried April 17, four years after they and their vessel were plucked from the briny muck of the Atlantic.

Organizers say the hoopla surrounding the funeral is expected to surpass the attention garnered by the raising of the sunken sub, when Meeting Street church bells pealed and cannons boomed along the Charleston harbor.

The 10,000-member funeral procession will include families of the deceased, as well as uniformed Civil War re-enactors, both Confederate and Union, from as far away as England. They will follow horse-drawn caissons from near the Charleston Battery down East Bay Street to the Spanish-moss-draped Magnolia Cemetery.

The attention lavished on the bones of eight Confederates points up the enduring fascination that the war in general, and the Hunley in particular, has for many Americans.

"Charleston was, and still is, the heartbeat of the Confederacy; it’s where the cult of remembrance is brought to high art," said Tony Horwitz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War."

The crew will be buried alongside the two crews who died in earlier mishaps aboard the Hunley. Magnolia Cemetery looks like a movie set, with century-old brick and oyster-shell crypts amid live oaks shading the graves of five Confederate generals and more than 1,700 rebel soldiers.

Magnolia will be the final resting place for the crew, but the interest generated by this cigar-shaped iron tourist magnet probably will never be laid to rest.

More than 200,000 people have come to see the sub since it went on display at a marine conservation lab in North Charleston in fall 2000.

Almost $18 million has been raised to excavate and conserve the sub.

Up to a decade ago, the Hunley was a mere footnote to all but the most dogged students of the Civil War. However, it’s long been revered by naval historians for its innovative technology. The Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship, a feat not replicated until half a century later during World War I.

The Hunley is the centerpiece attraction for historical and educational events with lectures and unveilings throughout the week and a formal ball April 17.

Hunley officials say there is no organized opposition to the funeral. An online petition protesting the flying of the U.S. flag at a funeral of Confederate sailors has been in circulation but has had little impact.

Clive Cussler, author of "Raise the Titanic!," says people are attracted to the Hunley because of its story. He began searching for the Hunley in 1980. His maritime research group located it four miles from Sullivans Island in 1995.

"Yes, it was a hand-cranked submersible, but at the time, it was like a spaceship. No one had ever seen this type of technology before; it was stunning," Cussler said. "Eight men who completed a one-of-a-kind mission died and were sealed in an iron tube on the bottom of the sea. You can’t invent a story like that."

The question remains, what’s the appeal of the Hunley that apparently cuts across cultural, racial and geographical lines?

"There’s such a mystique to the Hunley. It’s an unfinished story of our country’s history," said Skip Smith, a 45-year-old schoolteacher from Lenoir, N.C. He’s commander of the 26th N.C. Troops, the state’s largest group of Confederate re-enactors. He’ll camp for three days at Fort Moultrie and march in the procession. "If you care about this country and where we come from, how could you not be attracted to this boat and these men who went down with her? To participate in this funeral and honor these men, well, we’ll never again have an opportunity like this."

Re-enactor George Hughes, 73, will ride one of the caissons in the procession. The retired Air Force veteran is with the 54th Massachusetts, an all-black Union force that fought on Charleston’s Morris Island. The movie "Glory" with Morgan Freeman was based on the exploits of this unit.

"I feel perfectly comfortable participating in the funeral of these brave men. The Hunley is not a black-white thing. These were soldiers who died fighting for their cause, and I can respect that," Hughes said. "I have no animosity for the Confederates. If you’ve served in the military, you understand this."

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