CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) â€” On the night of Feb. 17, 1864, a weird-looking vessel, the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley, slipped through the waves toward the picket line of Union ships blockading Charleston Harbor.
The hand-cranked vessel, crafted of locomotive boilers and carrying a crew of nine, rammed a spar with a black powder charge into the wooden hull of the Union blockade ship Housatonic. A crewman set off the charge and history was made.
The Hunley â€” named after New Orleans lawyer Horace Lawson Hunley, who financed it â€” became the first submarine to sink an enemy warship. But after signaling to shore, the sub also sank, coming to rest on the muddy bottom off Sullivans Island outside the harbor's mouth.
Now the Hunley is coming home.
A dive team funded by author Clive Cussler found the Hunley in 1995, intact, save for some minor damage. Later this month, work begins to raise the sub from its watery grave.
South Carolina has earmarked $3 million, with $2 million more from a Defense Department program, to help bring the Hunley back to shore and start restoration work. The total cost of recovering and preserving the sub is estimated at $17 million.
``We're going to try to bring up a ship totally intact with a human crew aboard and bring it up in the exact position it was sitting on the bottom,'' said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the state Hunley Commission overseeing the project.
Officials plan to mark the start of the expedition Friday, with the first boats heading to the recovery site a few days later. The plan is to raise the Hunley by July 17, before the height of the hurricane season.
The wreck is covered by about three feet of sediment in about 30 feet of water. It weighs an estimated eight tons with sediment inside and came to rest at a 45-degree angle. It will have to be raised at that angle to keep it from breaking apart.
Divers working in water with near-zero visibility first will sink hollow pilings on either end and attach a steel truss lengthwise above the 40-foot-long vessel.
As the sub is uncovered a section at a time, belts attached to the truss will be slung beneath the Hunley every two feet.
Liquid foam cushions will cradle it in the slings and then the entire steel superstructure, with the Hunley beneath, will be raised, put on a barge and pulled up the Cooper River to a 46,000-square-foot conservation building at the old Charleston Navy Base.
``It's really a daunting task to raise a vessel intact,'' said Maria Jacobsen, head archaeologist.
The sediment covering has helped preserve the sub and previous dives indicate the wrought iron plates appear to be in good shape, chief conservator Paul Mardikian said.
McConnell said tests show the hull is a uniform half-inch thick. A small window is broken, which allowed the sediment in, but that was the only major damage readily apparent, he said. Why the sub sank remains a mystery.
Divers found seams on the submarine were flush, not overlapping, indicating ``construction far more advanced than anyone thought,'' McConnell said. ``We're dealing with a submarine that was very hydrodynamically designed and 50 years ahead of its time.''
Raising money for the complete restoration has stalled for now. Friends of the Hunley, which had raised about $2.1 million in cash and other donations, recently suspended fund-raising while debate raged in the Legislature about the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina Statehouse.
In that climate, businesses felt donations to help raise a Confederate submarine ``might be misinterpreted,'' spokesman Mark Regalbuto said.
The conservation building, part of which became a sound stage for last year's television movie ``The Hunley,'' could be the submarine's home for as long as a decade. Once it gets there, the Hunley will immediately put in a tank of chilled water to prevent corrosion and deterioration of any remains inside.
``The key thing is to very quickly, within 12 hours of raising the sub, bring it here and put it in the tank and seal it with water,'' Mardikian said. ``Then you can breathe and say, 'We've got time to see what we've got.'''
Any crewmen's remains will be buried with military honors in the Hunley plot of Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery near the graves of two other crews who died during the sub's testing.
Once preserved, the Hunley will be displayed in a new wing at the Charleston Museum, a few miles from where the Civil War began with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
On the Net: Official site: http://www.hunley.org
South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology: http://www.cla.sc.edu/sciaa/hunley1.html