Sunday, October 12, 2008

Chaffin: "The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy"

[The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy by Tom Chaffin (Hill and Wang, 2008). Hardcover, maps, illustrations, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 285/352. ISBN: 978-0-8090-9512-4 $26]

Numerous books have been written about the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, and one might rightly question the need for another overview treatment, but Tom Chaffin's new book The H.L. Hunley is worthwhile for its comprehensive focus and for its exploration of the latest archaeological findings. Chaffin places the Hunley within the larger historical context of the movement to create underwater fighting ships (before, during, and after the Civil War), as well as the evolution of the controversies attached to the development and use of such "infernal machines".

With a fast paced narrative, mostly light but sufficient on technological detail, the author provides a complete history of the Hunley as well as biographical sketches of the individuals involved in its financing, design, construction, and operation. There are some illustrations, but, while the endpapers are comprised of schematic 'blueprints' of the Hunley [see also title link above], I would like to have seen some detailed smaller scale nautical maps of the areas where the submarine operated (and was lost).

Utilizing a variety of published and unpublished source materials, as well as interviews with the Lasch Conservation Center archaeologists tasked with the vessel's excavation and preservation, Chaffin also dispassionately examines the many myths and mysteries surrounding the Hunley. The relative viability of competing theories, among them inquiries into the mythical "blue light", the location of the wreck, how the submarine was lost, etc. is addressed, often raising more questions than answers. With well supported conclusions and appealing writing, The H.L. Hunley will serve as a fine introductory book for the interested general reader, as well as a handy resource for the more dedicated students of the Civil War navies.

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