The Civil War submarine “H.L. Hunley” is important because it was the first submarine in the history of the entire world to sink an enemy ship. Who discovered it is important because the discovery of the “Hunley” has been described by government officials as the most important underwater archaeological discovery of the 20th century. I (E. Lee Spence) discovered the “Hunley” in 1970 (and I have lots of documentation to prove it). Unfortunately, there are some others, for reasons that they should explain, who claim that fiction writer Clive Cussler and NUMA found the wreck in 1995. I don’t dispute that an expedition funded in part by NUMA and/or Cussler dug it up in 1995, but I absolutely disagree that what they did was discovery. I disagree because I had already published the wreck’s correct location and it was no longer lost to be discovered.
The Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley is important because it was the first submarine in the history of the entire world to sink an enemy ship.
WHY THIS ARTICLE?
Periodically I get a question relating to my discovery of the wreck of the Confederate submarine Hunley and novelist Clive Cussler’s claims that his group (NUMA) discovered it in 1995. The question is: “Who found it first?” My answer is: “I did.”
The answer is important because the discovery of the Hunley has been described by government officials as the most important underwater archaeological discovery of the 20th century.
I say that I (E. Lee Spence) discovered the Hunley in 1970 (and I have lots of documentation to prove it), while some others, for reasons I wish they would fully explain, claim that fiction writer Clive Cussler and NUMA found the wreck in 1995. I don’t dispute that divers funded by NUMA and/or Cussler dug it up and took the first photos of it in 1995, but I absolutely disagree that what they did was discovery. I disagree because I had already found and published the tiny submarine’s correct location and it was no longer lost to be discovered.
Cussler’s claims that his organization NUMA discovered the Hunley in 1995 seem absurd to me since I discovered the wreck in 1970 and my discovery was documented and well known. I had already published the wreck’s correct location in one of my books that came out shortly before NUMA’s alleged discovery. The map was there for anyone to use. The map was in my chapter about my discovery of the Hunley and was marked with the word “it” in quotes and an arrow pointing to my “X.” The center of my “X” marked the actual location of the Hunley.
WHAT IS DISCOVERY?
So how could we both have discovered it? Since I hadn’t subsequently lost the Hunley’slocation, I say we couldn’t. By my definition of discovery, I was the discoverer and not Cussler. Cussler’s claims were made a quarter of a century after I found and reported it. The main character in his books is a marine archaeologist and I believe his claims were meant to add to his own credibility and thereby help him sell more books. In other words, I believe Cussler was trying to blend fact and fiction. Perhaps Cussler’s claims are best explained by his definition of discovery. During a sworn deposition in a lawsuit relating to his discovered the Hunley, Cussler was asked what constituted a discovery. Cussler answered something to the effect that if he went out into the hall and saw a water-fountain he would have discovered it, and that everyone else who came along afterwards would also discover it. Cussler appears to believe that thousands of people could make sequential discoveries of the same thing, even if it was never lost. That does not fit with my definition of discovery and I doubt that it does with that of most people.
I found the Hunley in 1970 while diving from the commercial fishing vessel Miss Inah and immediately reported my discovery to the proper authorities. The owner and captain of the Miss Inah was Captain Joe Porcelli of Charleston, South Carolina. Porcelli’s then brother-in-law, Troy Clanton III, was also aboard the boat. I describe what I did as a true “discovery” because the Hunley had been lost without a trace in 1864 and, although many people had searched for it, it had never been found until I actually saw and touched the partially exposed wreck in 1970. Enough of it was exposed that I had absolutely no doubt that I had found the Hunley. In fact, when I realized what it was, I went racing towards the surface literally screaming that I had “found the Hunley.” I had no camera with me, nor did I even own one at that time, which could have taken a picture in the poor visibility that blanketed the site. From the relative lack of recent growth on the exposed portions of the hull, the wreck had clearly just been exposed by shifting sands. My being there that particular day was a lucky break,
I say lucky break because that day had been planned solely for fishing not diving. Our day was to be spent trapping black sea bass. the traps were about 18″ cubes made of chicken wire weighted with rebar. They were much like the traps normally used to catch Atlantic blue crabs.
I had been searching for the Hunley but had not found it in the expected return corridor between the wreck of the Housatonic and Sullivan’s Island. I had taken a break from my search and no diving had been planned. The Miss Inah wasn’t my boat. I was merely a guest and I didn’t have any of my dive gear with me. I borrowed Porcelli’s gear to make the dive and I came close to not diving at all.
I made the dive for several reasons. While anchored and pulling in a fish trap, the trap hung up on something. Yet nothing should have been there. I knew the entire seafloor for miles around that area was a plain sand desert with no natural rocks or coral reefs. There wasn’t even eel-grass or seaweed growing on the bottom. The bottom should have just been shifting sand ripples with nothing for the trap to to get caught upon. I immediately started speculating that we had snagged a wreck. I convinced Porcelli and Clanton to stop trying to pull it loose. I asked Porcelli where we were. He got out a chart and placed his finger on a spot in 27′ of water off Sullivan’s Island (using the fathometer and allowing for the vessel’s draft and the effect of tide, I figured the actual low water depth at 29′, which may explain why part of the wreck was exposed).
From my archival research I now recognized that we were in the general location of the wreck of the Housatonic and I suspected we had snagged whatever was left of her. I had never searched at or immediately around the well-recorded historic location for the Housatonic. I hadn’t searched there because I didn’t think there would be anything there to discover. According to official records, the Navy had searched for the Hunley for 500 yards around the Housatonic. So I had seen no reason to look for the Hunley in that area. And, postwar salvagers had scrapped theHousatonic, so I hadn’t expected much to be left of it.
THAT FIRST DIVE
Porcelli had a set of dive gear aboard that he loaned me. However, his mask fit me poorly and I couldn’t even get into his wetsuit or fins. It was late autumn and diving in the bone chilling cold, limited visibility water would be extremely dangerous. I knew that it could easily cost me my life. But, I have an inquisitive streak and I wanted to know what we had snagged. Was it part of the Housatonic? Or, was it another wreck that my research had missed? Stripped down to my underwear and wearing Porcelli’s set of twin air-tanks and a double-hose regulator, I dropped over the side and down into the numbing water. I followed the traps’s line down to the bottom. The fish trap was resting at an angle on what first appeared to be a marl or limestone ledge partially uncovered in the sand. Bait was spilling from the trap, I wondered if the bait might attract sharks. Visibility was too poor to see if any were already nearby. I stared at the “ledge” puzzled, as I knew that the sand was far too deep for the marl or limestone bedrock to be exposed. Any bedrock should have been at least a hundred feet below the sand.
I looked at the “ledge” closer, examining it carefully. I suddenly realized what it was. It wasn’t a natural ledge at all. It was heavily encrusted iron. Fortunately, I already had an enormous amount of experience diving Civil War wrecks in almost zero visibility. I could now pick out a distinct curvature and other features, that had first looked natural. It was all of that prior experience that suddenly came together and allowed me to recognize what I was seeing. I now knew exactly what it was. Ignoring all safety rules, I went racing to the surface, literally screaming through my regulator: “I’ve found the Hunley, I’ve found the Hunley.”
RECORDING THE LOCATION
The boat had neither radar nor loran and GPS had not yet been invented. We were a little over three and a half miles from shore in the open-ocean and about 1,200 yards north of the shipping channel. Fortunately, I had studied deduced (d’ed) reckoning. I had also learned to use houses, trees and lighthouses on shore as ranges. By today’s standards, it’s a primitive form of navigation, but it can work with amazing accuracy. Even before I dried off and dressed in my dry clothes, I took magnetic bearings to a channel buoy and other obvious landmarks. I noted the ranges so I could later return to the site and properly map its location. When we pulled anchor and headed home, I noted our speed, heading and time that it took us to get to the bouy.
Using my ranges and bearings, commercial diver Jim Batey, accompanied by the late Ron Reneau, dove on the wreck the same week and confirmed that what I had found was indeed the Hunley. Batey later gave a sworn statement about his dive.
The shifting sands quickly recovered the wreck, but I had taken accurate bearings to channel markers and lighthouses so I knew its position.
In early 1971, the late Mike Douglas and David McGeehee, both then of Pensacola, Florida, went to the site with me prepared to photograph it. We quickly relocated the wreck with a McDowell proton magnetometer, but like all other times I went to the site, except for that first day, it was completely buried. McGeehee has since given a sworn statement about our work that day. The last that I heard, McGeehee was doing similar type magnetometer work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In 1979 and early 1980, Captain Jack Parker helped me reconfirm the Hunley’s location using a Fisher Proton One magnetometer, and has likewise given sworn statements about our work.
In 1972, in an effort to get permission from the United State’s General Services Administration (GSA) to raise the wreck, I helped create the Sea Research Society (a non-profit educational research organization) and became its president. The Society wanted to raise the wreck and donate it to the State of South Carolina. I mention our wanting to donate it because it was valued at many millions of dollars and some people have thought I planned to sell it. That was never the case and, as explained in more detail below, I actually did donate my rights to it to the State in 1995. (Note: Today the Society has more than 10,000 members. To join Sea Research Society through Facebook go to http://www.facebook.com/groups/searesearchsociety/. For more on the Society go to http://www.searesearchsociety.org or http://www.searesearchsociety.com.)
Although considerable effort was made in attempting to secure permission to raise the wreck, and although the Society had the support of certain historians and underwater archaeologists with the National Park Service (NPS), GSA did not issue the final permit required to do the work, as there was simply no applicable rules and regulations in place that would have allowed GSA to do so. This was despite the fact that I, as president of the Society, had furnished the specific location of the Hunley to various government offices and we had received clearances from both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do the work.
ANNOUNCING MY DISCOVERY
Perhaps it should be noted that between November of 1970 and June of 1975, although in frequent contact with various government officials relative to my efforts to get permission to savage the wreck, I kept my discovery entirely secret from the media. The fact that I kept it secret and applied in conformity with government regulations, clearly shows that my claim was not some sort of misguided publicity stunt. I did not release anything to the media about my discovery until half a decade had passed and I realized that, without public interest and pressure, GSA would never issue the necessary permit.
PLACEMENT ON NATIONAL REGISTER
In 1976, the Hunley was officially nominated by the National Park Service for placement on the National Register for Historic Places. The nomination referenced the Hunley’s discovery as reported by the Sea Research Society. The NPS reported the location as they interpreted it from my map that I had filed with them in 1974. In 1978, the Hunley was officially approved for inclusion on the National Register. A shipwreck site cannot be placed on the National Register unless its actual location is known. The placement of the Hunley on the National Register was only approved because the NPS was convinced that I had discovered it and that I had accurately mapped its location.
FIGHTING FOR CREDIT
My case in federal district court against Cussler and NUMA (it was actually a countersuit as NUMA had filed first) was eventually dismissed. The judge was clearly sympathetic to me and my claims, but he ruled that the statute of limitations had passed before I filed. My attorneys fought to get my case re-instated, but had no success. Cussler’s attorneys dropped NUMA’s case against me only after it became clear that the judge was going to allow me to introduce evidence of my discovery of the Hunley as defense against NUMA’s claims that I had slandered NUMA and that I had falsely advertised that I was the discoverer of the Hunley. Even though a loss on my part could have cost me millions of dollars, I was willing to risk it and did not want NUMA’s case dropped. But there was no legal way to force Cussler to continue it. A win in court for either party would have settled the matter. I firmly believe I had the necessary evidence to win and that was exactly why I wanted a jury to hear the case. A win on my part would have discredited Cussler’s claims and would have effectively credited me with the discovery. My assumption is that Cussler and/or his attorneys thought it was not in Cussler’s best interest to have a jury see and hear my evidence and then decide the case. I think Cussler and/or his attorneys believed that NUMA would have lost. Most of the evidence that I planned to use is a matter of public record and has been for many years. You might want to look at it.
What some people do not know is that scientist Kevin Remmington at the University of South Carolina used GIS computer technology to compare the State’s official position for the Hunley with my plotted my location for the Hunley, as shown on a map that I had furnished the state in 1974, and as marked by the “X” on my annotated map in my bookTreasures of the Confederate Coast (Narwhal Press, 1995) that had been published several months before divers funded by NUMA went to the site. My position for the Hunley had been calculated using a magnetic compass and a sextant, while the State’s was obtained with enhanced GPS satellite technology. My plots of my location for the Hunley varied slightly, but in both cases Remmington found my mapped locations to be approximately 52 meters from the State’s position. That is less than the length of either the salvage vessel or the barge used in raising the Hunley. If my two plots of my position for the Hunley and the State’s coordinates were marked on the standard chart of the area (NOAA chart “Charleston Harbor & Approaches”), all three positions would fall within a circle 21-thousandths of an inch in diameter. That is the approximate diameter of the small circle used to show a buoy’s position on NOAA charts, which by law must be accurate, and is well within the accuracy and tolerances used by NOAA in the plotting the position of shipwrecks on navigational charts. NOAA typically represents a wreck’s location by a symbol that is approximately a quarter of an inch in length. I hope you don’t believe that I should be held to a higher standard, or that I merely guessed the location (as suggested by Cussler). If I was that good of a guesser, I would be gambling in Las Vegas.
NUMA’S AND SCIAA’S ROLE
NUMA is a non-profit organization that was named for a fictional government agency in Clive Cussler’s novels. In 1995 a dive team,consisting in part of Ralph Wilbanks, dug up the wreck of the Hunley and photographed it. The dive team was part of an expedition that was partially funded by NUMA and/or Cussler. Shortly afterwards and on the basis of that work and funding, Clive Cussler announced that NUMA had discovered the wreck.
The press instantly credited Cussler with the discovery. However, the press was ignoring the facts. The dive team was officially part of the 1994/1995 Hunley Expedition, which was organized and directed by Dr. Mark Newell, not Clive Cussler. Newell is an underwater archaeologist, who was then with the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology & Anthropology (SCIAA). Newell, who had been researching the Hunley for many years, had come across documents and maps in SCIAA’s files relating to my 1970 discovery. He realized that SCIAA had never checked out my claims. Based on his research, my location wasn’t where he would have thought to look, so he initially thought I was wrong. But he still thought he should check out my site. If my site wasn’t the Hunley, he wanted to locate the sub himself.
Knowing that Cussler and NUMA had unsuccessfully searched for the Hunley in 1980 and 1981, Newell approached Cussler for some of the funding he needed for an expedition. Cussler agreed. That funding was important and necessary, but the fact remains it was Newell, not Cussler, who was the instigator, organizer and director of the expedition. Newell’s expedition was officially a SCIAA expedition, but because it was partially funded by NUMA, it is sometimes referred to as a joint SCIAA/NUMA expedition. If it had truly been a NUMA expedition, as some would have you believe, it would have been required by law to have a permit to do the initial excavation, which it absolutely did not have.
Newell has a personal stake in seeing the 1994/1995 Hunley Expedition credited with the discovery. As both the originator and official director of the expedition, Newell could claim credit, but only if his expedition discovered it. Since they didn’t discover it Newell doesn’t claim credit for the discovery. Nor does Newell credit Cussler and/or NUMA with the actual discovery. Instead, Newell credits me. Newell has given sworn testimony on at least three separate occasions that he used my maps to both plan and direct the expedition. He says he considers me to have been the original finder of the Hunley and that what his 1994/1995 expedition effectively did was to verify that the object that I had found in 1970 found was indeed the Hunley.
During the court case about the Hunley, I furnished documents showing that diver Ralph Wilbanks had ordered copies of my book (with my Hunley location map in it) for the dive store that he worked with and that I had delivered the books at least a month prior to Wilbanks’ going out to the Hunley site. In fact, because I considered him a friend, I gave Wilbanks a copy that I had autographed and discussed my mapped location of the Hunley with him even though I knew Wilbanks was an associate of Cussler and was part of Newell’s then ongoing Hunley expedition. I even encouraged Wilbanks (who used to work for SCIAA) to explain my map to the other expedition members and get them to go to my site and check it out. My site had been ignored by SCIAA for too long and I wanted the State’s official verification of my discovery, but I certainly didn’t want Wilbanks, SCIAA or anyone else claiming that they had discovered it. Wilbanks is an intelligent and very capable person. I have great respect for his abilities. There would have been nothing illegal or unethical in Wilbanks using my map to go to the Hunley, just as there was nothing wrong with Dr. Newell’s using it to direct the expedition. To think that someone as competent as Wilbanks would not have carefully read my chapter on my discovery of the Hunley or would not have thoroughly examined my map (especially after our discussion), doesn’t seem reasonable or plausible to me. I give Wilbanks more credit than that. But, Wilbanks claims he didn’t use it. I wonder if that is because admitting to using my map would be tacit admission that I discovered the Hunley and that he played no role in the actual discovery but only in its verification. Do you think that might be the case? Wilbanks is now on NUMA’s Board of Directors. Do you think he would have been named to that Board and allowed to share the limelight with Cussler if he had told people that he used my map?
CUSSLER’S DESERVES SOME CREDIT
Although, because of Clive Cussler claims and the damage that he has done to my reputation and career, I neither respect nor like him as a person, I still believe he played a very important role with the Hunley (as did Wilbanks, Newell and many others). Had it not been for Cussler’s fame as a best selling novelist and Cussler’s ability to garner publicity (he used to work for an advertising/public relations agency), I suspect the Hunley would still be sitting buried in the sand off Sullivan’s Island. For that and for helping to fund the expedition that verified the Hunley’s identity, I give Cussler credit. However, I don’t think Cussler or Wilbanks, or NUMA, or SCIAA deserve any credit whatsoever for the actual discovery as they weren’t involved in it in 1970, I was. The only people who were with me at the time of the actual discovery were Joe Porcelli and Troy Clanton.
SPENCE’S RIGHTS TO THE HUNLEY
Many people are not aware of it, but, in 1980, I filed an admiralty suit (and thus my location) with the federal district court claiming ownership of the Hunley under both the law of salvage and the law of finds. Although both the State and the federal government had been served with proper notice and public notice was placed in the legal section of the newspaper, no one stepped forth to dispute my claim to have discovered the wreck. Nor did anyone dispute my ownership of the wreck and its contents. In fact, the U.S. Attorney claimed that the wreck was outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S. Marshals Service, which would not have been the case if the United States had a legal claim of ownership to the wreck. With no counterclaimants, I became the sole owner of the Hunley(at least that was the opinion of South Carolina Attorney General Charles M. Condon who looked into the matter on behalf of theHunleyCommission in 1995).
SPENCE’S DONATION OF THE HUNLEY
On September 14, 1995, on the recommendation of the South Carolina Attorney General, who’s office had researched both my discovery and my ownership claims, Senator McConnell, as chairman of the Hunley Commission, officially asked me to donate my rights to the Hunley to the State. I immediately agreed. Minutes later, South Carolina Attorney General Charles M. Condon and I signed a document transferring my rights to the Hunley to the State.
Perhaps it should be noted that early in the lawsuit between me and Cussler/NUMA, the Honorable Sol Blatt (Federal District Court Judge) ruled that, although I had donated my rights to the wreck to the State, I had not given up my right to claim that I had discovered the Hunley.
WHO WAS TELLING THE TRUTH?
Cussler muddled matters by misleading the media and the public about the Hunley’s location for over a year. Cussler had falsely claimed that it was in about 18 feet of water, which would have placed it well over a mile from my location, which was in about 27 feet of water several hundred yards offshore of the wreck of its victim, the USS Housatonic.
The purple area on this map indicates the only waters 18′ deep located between the wreck of the Housatonic and Sullivan’s Island. This is where Cussler claimed the SCIAA/NUMA expedition discovered the Hunley. That was not true. The Hunley was later determined to be in 27′ of water at the spot marked by the red dot in the yellow rectangle. My location, as I had plotted it on two different maps in the 1970s, falls under that red dot. In other words, I told the truth and correctly mapped the location.
There was no way we could both be telling the truth. Cussler had pictures and I didn’t so the press initially believed him. When the truth became clear and the wreck was verified to be in 27-29 feet of water a few hundred yards offshore of the Housatonic, Cussler finally admitted to a reporter that he had “lied” about the location. Unfortunately, by that time the damage had been done. It had been reported all over the world that Cussler had discovered the Hunley. It is impossible to “un-toll” a bell. His admitted lie has been repeated too many times. There will always be books and articles stating Cussler and NUMA discovered the Hunley.
Cussler used the word “lied” to describe to a reporter what he had done at his 1995 press conference when he told the press that his people had discovered the Hunley in 18 feet of water well in shore of the wreck of the Housatonic. That depth did not match Spence’s account of finding it in 27′-29′ of water and mislead people into thinking Spence could not have found it. Unfortunately, Cussler didn’t admit that he had “lied” until almost exactly a year had passed and his lie had been repeated by the media all over the world.
The truth is, Cussler was not on the boat the day that the SCIAA/NUMA expedition first dug up the Hunley, nor was Cussler the director of the expedition (remember Dr. Newell was the director), nor did Cussler ever dive on the wreck site a single time. The first time Cussler ever actually saw or touched the wreck of the Hunley was the day that the Hunley was raised in the year 2000. He saw it along with thousands of other observers and many millions more watching on TV around the world. That was approximately thirty years after I discovered it. In my opinion, what Cussler did was to popularize the Hunley and to bring attention to it, not to discover it.
I discovered the Hunley by researching it, searching for it, seizing a unique opportunity, diving on it, seeing a portion of it, physically touching it, realizing exactly what it was, properly mapping its location and informing the appropriate legal authorities in a timely manner. Although I admit I was quite fortunate, I would not have dived on it, nor recognized it for what it was, had I not done extensive research and already spent countless hours diving on other Civil War era wrecks in the same general area. I also donated it to the State so everyone, not just me, could benefit from my discovery.
THE ROLE OF OTHERS
I sincerely believe that there were many wonderful and competent people who participated in the raising of the Hunley, its conservation, preservation and display and in the burial of her crew. I also believe that many of those fine people were intentionally mislead about the facts by a small but influential group of people who had personal, financial and/or political motives.
CREDIT FOR DISCOVERY GIVEN TO SPENCE
Starting as early as 1974 various newspaper accounts and minor magazine articles had credited me with finding the Hunley, but the first major magazine article to credit me with the discovery of the Hunley didn’t appear until 2007. It was a cover story in U.S. News & World Report(published June 24, 2007). That article was thoroughly researched, which is important because it credited me by name with the discovery. Apparently dismissing Cussler’s well-known discovery claims outright or seeing them as of no-consequence, the article did not even bother mentioning Cussler or NUMA.
In 2011, John Christopher Fine, who is both an accredited journalist and an admiralty attorney (as well as an award-winning diver and expert on shipwrecks), wrote a series of magazine articles and newspaper features about my work, in each of which he credited me with the discovery of the Hunley. His newspaper features on me appeared internationally (even in Korea) and a large article that he did on the Hunley, crediting me with its discovery, was published in History magazine.
A Russian author recently contacted me to let me know he will be crediting me with the discovery of the Hunley in a book on submarines that will be published in Russia in 2012.
© 2010 by Edward Lee Spence. To quote more than a paragraph of this article you must first obtain written permission from Dr. E. Lee Spence. Contact him at HunleyFinder@Yahoo.com
To read more about the
Hunley see:N&W: TIME CAPSULE FROM THE SEA – US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT.
For more on Cussler’s other discoveries, please see:A Comment by Dr. E. Lee Spence on Dr. Clive E. Cussler and his Alleged Discoveries