Tag Archives: civil war

1864 painting of H. L. Hunley by Conrad Wise Chapman.

Crew of first ever combat submarine, the Confederate Hunley, was killed by their own torpedo

1864 painting of H. L. Hunley by Conrad Wise Chapman.

1864 painting of H. L. Hunley by Conrad Wise Chapman.

On the fateful morning of Feb. 17, 1864, a crew of eight sailors inched through the murky waters close to the Charleston’s outer harbor inside a unique and strange contraption for its time. This was not a ship but the first ever combat sub, the H.L. Hunley. It’s mission: sink the pestering 1,200-ton Union warship, the USS Housatonic, which had been blocking Charleston. With a well-placed torpedo (sort of), the Hunley achieved its mission having sunk the Housatonic in no more than five minutes after the explosion, much to the rejoicements of Confederate commanders. At the end of the day though, the Hunley was nowhere to be found.

It was only in 1995 that the 12-meter-long Hunley was recovered, found about 300 meters away from the Housatonic’s resting place. It is now undergoing study and conservation in Charleston by a team of Clemson University scientists. In the meantime, a new study performed by Rachel Lance for her Ph.D. at Duke Engineering pieces together the last moments of the Hunley and reveals the fate of its crew. According to her work, all eight sailors were killed by their own weapon or rather the blast whose shockwave damaged their internal organs, killing them instantly. Previously, most people thought the crew died of suffocation or drowning.

“The disappearance of the Hunley has long stood as one of the great mysteries of American history,” Lance said in a statement. “Finding the cause of death of the crew has finally allowed us to declare the mystery solved.”

A mystery revealed

The Hunley, sometimes called the “fish torpedo boat”, was supposedly fashioned out of a cast-off steam boiler. Each end was equipped with a ballast tank which could flooded by valves or pumped dry by hand pumps. Everything was operated by hand. Seven out of the eight sailors that were supposed to man the sub were busy turning the hand-cranked propeller while the eight steered the boat.

Few people are aware that the Hunley sunk on Feb. 17 was the third to get destroyed. On two other occasions the Hunley sunk, drowning 13 crewmen including its namesake, Horace L. Hunley, who was responsible for the combat sub’s research and development.

When the Hunley was finally found off Charleston harbor, everyone hoped they now could definitely answer how its crew died. What happened instead was the discovery raised more questions than it answered.

Besides a hole in one of the conning towers and a small broken window, the sub was very much intact despite more than a century and a half of slumber at the bottom of the water. As for the crew itself, all members were found as if they were still serving their stations along the hand-crack that propelled the sub. What’s more, their bones suffered no visible injury, suggesting their torpedo — a copper keg of gunpowder fastened on a 16-foot pole — didn’t damage the ship. The obvious explanation was that the sailors drowned after the sub took a leak, perhaps after Union sailors shot pellets at it as reported historically.  But if that’s the case why didn’t the crew struggle?

To get to the bottom of things, Lance took on some serious detective work that saw her scrambling for clues in the National Archives in Washington, working closely with a dive-certified ATF agent expert in explosives or testing historically accurate sheets of iron.

For her experiment, Lance and colleagues designed and built a 6-1/2-foot mild steel scale model of the Hunley. A series of pressurized-air blasts and scaled black powder explosions were then fired near the ship at least at the torpedo’s spar length. Sensors embedded inside and outside the ship then recorded physical parameters.

Civil War forensics

Graphical reconstruction of the eight-man submarine H.L. Hunley. he barrel on the end of the 16-foot spar contains 135 pounds of black powder. Credit: Michael Crisafulli.

Graphical reconstruction of the eight-man submarine H.L. Hunley. The barrel on the end of the 16-foot spar contains 135 pounds of black powder. Credit: Michael Crisafulli.

What she ultimately found was that the crew was almost certainly killed by the explosive’s shockwave, which destroyed their lungs and brains but left the ship and their bones intact. This effect is known as blast-lung.

“This is the characteristic trauma of blast victims, they call it ‘blast lung,'” said Lance “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.”

It was a combination of shockwaves, in fact, that caused such unspeakable damage. Because water molecules are more densely packed than air molecules, a blast wave travels far faster in water than outside its surface — about 1,500 meters per second in water versus 340 m/sec in the air (the speed of sound). When the two shockwaves meet, such as in a frothy combination like the human lungs, the energy of the blast travels slower thus amplifying the damage. According to Lance, once it crossed the lungs of the crewmen, the shockwave was slowed to about 30 m/s, subjecting the crew to 60 milliseconds or more of trauma. That’s about six times longer than they would have seen from a blast shockwave traveling in the air.

As a result of this deadly combination of effects, delicate structures where the blood supply meets the air supply get torn to shreds by shear forces, filling the lungs with blood in the process. The blast could have also triggered traumatic brain injuries, the calculations suggest.

All of this damage would have been clearly seen in the soft tissue but leave no trace in the skeleton remains. Coupled with the crew’s remains position and the relatively intact sub, Lance concludes the shockwave was the prime murderer.

“All the physical evidence points to the crew taking absolutely no action in response to a flood or loss of air,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated water molecules are less densely packed than air, which was wrong. 

Hurricane Matthews exposed a trove of Civil War cannonballs in South Carolina

Hurricane Matthews unearthed an unexpected trove of Civil War cannonballs on a beach near Charleston, South Carolina when it hit the state. An US Air Force Explosive Team was deployed this weekend to dispose of an unexpected threat.

On Sunday morning, a Charleston local reported finding 16 Civil War cannonballs on a Folly Island beach near Charleston, South Carolina which were exposed by the passing of Hurricane Matthews. The site lies just 20 km (12.8 miles) off of Fort Sumter in Charleston, a place of historical significance. This is the place where the fist recorded shots of the Civil War were fired, at the First Battle of Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861.

An US Air Force team was dispatched to the area and detonated most of the 150-year-old ordinance on-site with a small amount of explosives. The rest was transported to a local navy base for disposal.

“We had to wait until after 7[pm] for the tide to go down,” Watson told Mary Bowerman at USA Today. “When the tide receded, our guys and members of the US Air Force explosive team used a small amount of C-4 to detonate the cannonballs.”

“We call it ‘rendering safe’, and we did that right there on the beach front,” Eric Watson, a spokesman with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office told the press. “They’re putting the dirt from the detonation back in the hole and they’re transporting the device to [Joint Base Charleston].”

Folly Island is an 18-square-kilometer (7-square-mile) stretch of land which was used as a Union fort and staging area for attacks on Confederate strongholds during the Civil War. So it’s not surprising to find artifacts from that era here — in fact, in 1987, construction workers stumbled upon the remains of 14 people here. They were later identified as soldiers from the 55th Massachusetts regiment of the US Coloured Troops. What was most disturbing about the find was that most of them were missing their heads.

“What was odd about the bodies discovered on the island was that 12 of them didn’t have skulls and were also missing other body parts,” says Wheeler.

“And, more importantly, they showed no signs of battle injury, according to an account in an official history of Folly Island. What happened to these men was then and still is a mystery.”

So Hurricane Matthews has been doing some archaeology itself. Who knows how many other artifacts are waiting to be found, unearthed by the storm?


(c) AP

How chemical weapons ‘work’ (kill) people

For nearly two years now, Syria has been embroiled in a gruesome civil war that has so far claimed thousands of lives. Cruelties in the region reached a climax in past weeks after alleged reports of chemical weapons use against civilians were made. So far, it’s unclear which side – the government or rebelling opposition – was responsible for the heinous act, and little does it matter for those struck down by the chemical attack. UN officials are currently deployed – and have actually been attacked by snipers during a tour – in order to assess the situation and confirm whether or not chemical weapons were deployed. How do chemical weapons like sarin nerve gas affect the human body, and how can it be detected beyond the obvious onslaught (showing footage of devastated people isn’t proof enough; you need to show that those people were hit by chemical weapons and not something else) ?

Speaking to ABC science, Dr David Caldicott an emergency physician and senior lecturer at the Australian National University, is pretty convinced chemical weapons were indeed deployed on the people of Syria. The substance in question is most likely a type of chemical known as an organophosphate. You’d be surprised to know that some of you might have already been exposed to organophosphates, albeit in a tiny concentrations, through ingestion of food derived from sprayed crops. This class of chemicals include many of the insecticides we use every day, however they’re also deployed in cruel chemical weapons like sarin, soman, tabum, and VX. The main difference is that the warfare-grade organophosphates are “several thousand times” more potent than everyday organophosphate insecticide, according to Dr. Caldicott.

“It’ll probably become very obvious very quickly whether an organophosphate has been used, more difficult than that will be determining what sort of organophosphate that was, and even more difficult than that who was responsible for its release,” says Caldicott.

Organophosphates inhibit an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase at the nerve junction (synapse), responsible for  regulating the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine crossing nerve synapses. Acetylcholine is one of the most important neurotransmitters in the brain, signaling tasks to the body’s autonomic nervous system. Depending on frequency and concentration, acetylcholine  controls things such as heart rate, respiratory rate, salivation, digestion, pupil dilation, and urination.

(c) AP

(c) AP

It’s clear that inhibing the acetylcholinesterase enzyme – which can be resembled to a on-off switch – can have a devastating impact on living beings.

“You can imagine that if you block one of the major ‘off-switches’ of the body, and are left with all the lights turned ‘on’ all of the time, the body might run into trouble. With an extremely rapid build up of acetylcholine in the synapse, things like secretions, respiratory problems, and muscular dysfuntion can go on unattenuated,” explains Caldicott.

“And that’s really how people suffer and die.”

Scientific security analysts can probe whether or not a person has been contaminated by organophosphates by taking urine and blood samples.

“Early on following the exposure to a military organophosphate you may well see the breakdown products of metabolism in the urine, but after it’s been secreted in the wee it’s very difficult to detect.

“If someone has got very low levels of functioning acetylcholinesterase in their blood, then they’ve probably been exposed to an organophosphate, because the poison has bound to it and inactivated it.

“Depending on the toxicity of the agent used, how much was involved, how long patients were exposed and how they were exposed, enzyme levels can start to return to normal levels from several days to several weeks post-exposure.

“What is more difficult and more problematic, the later we are in the process of analysis, is working out what sort of organophosphate has been used.

“That is the real test for the inspectors, particularly a week down the line.”

Caldicott says it is unclear whether or not military-grade chemicals have been used.

“You could mimic this effect by using a high concentration and large volumes of a simple insecticide,” he says.

Charles Duelfer, the former head of U.S. weapons inspection teams in Iraq, said the U.N. experts will be looking to collect evidence from witnesses and survivors of last week’s attack, including samples that can be analyzed later.

“They’ll be looking for remnants of the munitions, which could be sophisticated munitions that a military would have — or if it turns out, unexpectedly, to be the case that the insurgents had cobbled together some sort of CW capability, maybe they’ll find that,” Duelfer said.

UPDATE: In the meantime, CNN has footage of alleged chemical attack victims. Be warned viewer discretion is advised, as the video is most, most graphic.