Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!–U.S. Navy Commodore Stephen Decatur, in a toast to the nation, 1815
Tomorrow–April 17–the remains of the crew of the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley will be buried with full military honors in Charleston, S.C.’s Magnolia Cemetery. It is being billed as the last funeral of the American Civil War.
The ceremony–including horse-drawn caissons bearing the remains–is slated to follow a four-and-a-half mile procession from Charleston’s historic South Battery to the cemetery. There, 50 artillery pieces will fire a salute, and U.S. and Confederate flags will fly overhead.
Newspapers are predicting a turnout of 30,000-50,000 people, including honor guards, Northern and Southern military re-enactors, bagpipers from the Citadel (the South Carolina Military College), a brass band from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), veterans of the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet serving as pallbearers, reporters from around the world, and throngs of curiosity seekers.
Not all support the event.
Texas activist Carl McClung has gathered thousands of signatures on a petition to bar the presence of U.S. flags. McClung’s petition argues the Hunley crew “fought and died for the sovereignty and the independence of the Confederate States of America.” The petition adds the U.S. flag is the banner of the crew’s “eternal enemy.”
State Senator Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission disagrees. In a letter to McClung, McConnell states that after the war “Confederate soldiers laid down their arms and raised their families as loyal Americans. We honor them for answering the call of their consciences rather than trying to be on the winning side of history.”
Others contend the funeral will honor a legacy of oppression. Last year, brief consideration was given to having the bodies lie in state at the capitol building in Columbia, S.C. But to the relief of State Senator Darrell Jackson, a descendant of slaves, the plan was rejected. “Can you imagine how we would be perceived by the rest of the world honoring these men who fought for slavery?” Jackson told the Associated Press. “I don’t have a problem with the neo-Confederates honoring them in an appropriate cemetery. But, please, don’t throw it in our faces.”
True: Slavery is indeed the greatest scar on the national soul. But chances are the men who went down with the Hunley would have been no more concerned with whether-or- not slavery would have continued (or been extended into the western territories of North America) than a 21st-century soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine might have concerned himself with what particular U.N. resolutions Iraq violated prior to March 2003. For the most part, American combatants–then as now–take up arms for one reason only: Their nation calls them to do so.
This fact is best illustrated in one of the more popular stories of the Civil War. During a lull in the fighting, a Union officer asked a captured Confederate soldier if he was a slaveowner. When the young Confederate answered, “no,” the officer asked why he was fighting on the side of the rebellion. The prisoner simply responded, “because you’re here.”
Like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetic celebration of the “Charge of the Light Brigade” at Balaclava:
Theirs not to make reply…
Theirs not to reason why…
Theirs but to do and die…
The Hunley crewmembers–eight volunteer soldiers (oddly, not sailors) under the command of Lieutenant George E. Dixon–perished 140 years ago while conducting a seaborne special operation off the South Carolina coast. The submarine itself was the object of the Confederate navy’s ambitious attempt to break the federal blockade of the Southern states. Though occasionally outrun by swift-moving privateers, the blockade was never broken. But on the night of February 17, 1864, the Hunley attempted to do so, and, in the process, took its place as a first in world Naval history.
Just before 9 P.M., the 40-ft.-long submarine–powered by a crew-served handcrank running the length of the vessel–approached the Union sloop-of-war, USS Housatonic just outside Charleston harbor. Spotting the Hunley, watch-standers sounded the alarm. The Housatonic’s skipper ordered his crew to “general quarters.” Within seconds, sailors and Marines were racing toward the small-arms compartment while others were pouring rifle and pistol fire into the approaching vessel.
Traveling at approximately 3 knots, about 3.5 mph, the sub rammed the Housatonic and pierced the warship’s hull with a forward-mounted torpedo spar tipped with 90 pounds of explosives encased in a copper barrel.
The Hunley then quickly reversed course and backed away. Moments later, the torpedo detonated, and in less than three minutes the federal ship was resting on the bottom of the Atlantic.
According to reports, members of the Hunley’s crew opened a hatch and waved a blue light–a signal that their mission had been accomplished–at a Confederate shore battery. Then, for reasons unknown, the submarine sank.
In August 2000, after years of searching the waters beyond Charleston harbor, the Hunley was raised from the deep some four miles off the coast. Since then, the submarine has been housed in a conservation lab in Charleston, while unrelated controversies have continued to swirl around the public displaying of Confederate symbols throughout many Southern states.
Like it or not, the night the Hunley sank, America was comprised of two nations: both at war with one another. Fortunately, the war ended the following year, slavery was abolished, and the Union was preserved. Unfortunately, deep-seeded animosities continued–and still exist–between countless descendents of Confederate veterans, descendents of Union veterans, descendents of African slaves, a few misguided segregationists hiding behind the mantle of heritage, and scores of politicians who struggle with the sensitivities of all.
Politics aside, those Confederate submariners who perished in the cramped hold of their submarine will always be part of America’s military history. They were indeed American heroes, every bit as much as the courageous federal sailors and Marines they attacked.
American warriors have not always fought in popular wars. But like so many Americans, before or since, the men of the Hunley risked and ultimately sacrificed their lives for their country. They served during a time when service to one’s country was considered to be one’s ultimate duty, and loyalty to one’s state (defined in a period dictionary as “a nation; an independent country.”) superseded all other allegiances. They became the first American submariners to sink an enemy warship in combat, and that alone is what they should be remembered for.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.