Hunley, history lure throngs to Charleston
Hotels, restaurants doing booming business as burial ceremony nears
By JEFF WILKINSON
NORTH CHARLESTON — Carl Wilson of Parkerstown, N.J., strolled bemused and a little overwhelmed through the wide aisles of Confederate art, artifacts and souvenirs in the sprawling CSA Galleries on Mall Drive.
A small, bronze statue of Civil War cavalrymen priced at $6,700 intrigued him. A roll of toilet paper bearing the image of Union Gen. William T. Sherman amused him.
“Believe me,’’ the 57-year-old nuclear power plant inspector said as he strolled the 7,000-square-foot store, “I could go crazy in here.’’
Wilson and friends Ed Griffin and Bill Cahill are Union Civil War re-enactors from New Jersey’s south shore. They and six family members are some of the 20,000 people expected this week for the burial of the eight crew members of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley.
Restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops are gearing up for the six-day event. Some of the kitschy merchandising on the street is in stark contrast to the solemn ceremony that will mark the Hunley burial.
Monday in Mount Pleasant, hundreds of people, scores from out of town, filed past eight flag-draped coffins in the midships of the aircraft carrier Yorktown. The ceremony at Patriot’s Point Naval Museum was the first of many memorials to be held throughout the week before the remains are buried Saturday in Magnolia Cemetery.
“This week has been sold out for four months,’’ said Rudi Witzel, manager of the King Charles Inn in the Historic District. “We have a waiting list of 100 people, and we’re still getting three or four calls a day. And it’s all Hunley.’’
But the Hunley burial isn’t the only event in town. The Family Circle Cup tennis tournament is being held on nearby Daniel Island. It is also Heritage Bike Week, with Harley-Davidson riders gathering at the fairgrounds.
“Downtown is loaded,’’ said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission and co-owner of CSA Galleries. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 150,000 people. This place is going to be packed.’’
Carriage barns have called in the cavalry. Restaurants are stocked up. And shops are bursting with all things Hunley — posters, models and dozens of commemorative T-shirts.
“There’s going to be so many people here I doubt we’ll be able to tell who the Hunley people are,’’ said J. van De Erve, manager of the popular Tommy Condon’s Irish Pub, two blocks from the historic downtown market. “We’re definitely staffed and ready for a huge week.’’
Most of the visitors for the Hunley are expected to be re-enactors. More than 5,000 have signed up to participate in different events. And not all of them will be Confederate.
“This isn’t a flag rally,’’ McConnell said. “We’ve tried to let everyone know that. This is a funeral. We want to follow protocol.’’
Many are just history buffs, like Jersey re-enactors Griffin, Wilson and Cahill. They spend their weekends as part of the 61st New York Volunteers.
Griffin said he and his wife, Valerie, have been following the Hunley story on the Internet since the sub was recovered. They are spending their vacation to be part of the burial.
“This is part of history that is still alive,’’ he said. “They were heroes, even if they were the enemy.’’
Cahill interrupted: “No, they were our brothers.’’
Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495 or email@example.com.