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Clues surface on fate of 1864 submarine

Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley in a conservation tank at a lab in North Charleston, S.C.

Bruce Smith/AP, file 2012

Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley in a conservation tank at a lab in North Charleston, S.C.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — On a moonlit night 150 years ago, the hand-cranked Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley glided out over glassy seas off South Carolina, sailing into history as the first submarine to sink an enemy warship.

A century and a half later — and nearly a decade and a half after the sub was raised — just why the Hunley and its eight-man crew never returned is a mystery, albeit one that scientists may be close to resolving.

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Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the Feb. 17, 1864, mission in which the Hunley sank the Union ship Housatonic as the Confederates desperately tried to break the Civil War blockade that was strangling Charleston. Although the Housatonic sank, so did the Hunley.

Reenactors on Monday gathered at Breach Inlet between Sullivans Island and the Isle of Palms northeast of Charleston for a memorial service honoring both the Hunley crew and the five Union sailors who died. The loss of life came when the submarine set off a black powder charge at the end of a 200-pound spar, sinking the blockader.

An examination of the spar found it was deformed as if in an explosion. Scientists believe the Hunley was less than 20 feet from the Housatonic when it sank. That means it may have been close enough for the sub’s crew to have been knocked unconscious by the explosion, long enough that they may have died before they could awake.

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