Did the Hunley’s Own Torpedo Kill Its Crew?

Intriguing article by a biomedical researcher at Duke University, whose research suggests that the crew of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley died from the effects of their own torpedo.

… after an exhaustive three-year Duke study that involved repeatedly setting blasts near a scale model, shooting authentic weapons at historically accurate iron plate and doing a lot of math on human respiration and the transmission of blast energy, researcher Rachel Lance, a 2016 Ph.D. graduate of Duke Engineering, says it was a powerful shockwave from the Hunley’s weapon that killed the crew.

In a paper appearing Aug. 23 PLOS One, Lance calculates the likelihood of immediately fatal lung trauma to be at least 85 percent for each member of the Hunley crew.

The Hunley’s torpedo was not a self-propelled bomb, as we think of them now. Rather, it was a copper keg of gunpowder held ahead and slightly below the Hunley’s bow on a 16-foot pole called a spar. The sub rammed this spar into the enemy ship’s hull and the bomb exploded. The furthest any of the crew was from the blast was about 42 feet.

Lance says the crew died instantly from the force of the explosion travelling through the soft tissues of their bodies, especially their lungs and brains. She says the crippled sub then drifted out on a falling tide and slowly took on water before sinking.

“This is the characteristic trauma of blast victims, they call it ‘blast lung,’” said Lance, who worked as a biomechanist at the U.S. Navy’s base in Panama City, Florida for three years before entering graduate school at Duke. “You have an instant fatality that leaves no marks on the skeletal remains. Unfortunately, the soft tissues that would show us what happened have decomposed in the past hundred years.”

Well worth reading. I don’t know enough about the subject to comment one way or the other.

More from Dr. Lance here.

If you are visiting Charleston I would highly recommend a visit to the Hunley museum, where restoration and preservation work continues.



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