Thousands of men in Confederate gray and Union blue, alongside women in black hoop skirts and veils, escorted the crew of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, the first sub in history to sink an enemy warship, to their final resting place Saturday.
In what was called the last Confederate funeral, the coffins of the crew members, draped in Confederate flags, were first taken to Charleston’s Battery and placed in a semicircle, a wreath set in front of each.
Then, a column of the uniformed re-enactors stretching a mile and half took the crew of the Hunley, which sank outside Charleston Harbor, to their final resting place in Magnolia Cemetery, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) north. It took the column more than an hour to file into the cemetery.
After horse-drawn caissons brought the coffins to the breezy, oak-shrouded plot, rifles crackled and cannons rumbled across the marsh.
“These men taught us and they will teach future generations the meaning of words like honor,” said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, the chairman of the South Carolina Hunley Commission. “Their spirit will live beyond the horizon of time.”
Accompanied by controversy
Commission member Randy Burbage said it was a testimony to the crew that so many people had come to pay tribute to “eight Americans who died for a cause they believed in so long ago.”
“There are some who have scoffed at our efforts to pay tribute to these men saying that because they were Confederates, they don’t deserve so high an honor,” said Ronald Wilson, the commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “It is our duty to respect and remember these individuals.”
Fourteen Southern governors were invited to the ceremony, but declined to attend. Most cited scheduling conflicts, but some observers speculated they may be wary of the political implications of attending an event with thousands of Confederate re-enactors.
Hunley's role in history
The hand-cranked Hunley made history on Feb. 17, 1864, when it rammed a spar with a black powder charge into the Union blockade ship Housatonic.
“These eight men would change the world,” said McConnell, noting that 50 years passed before a second submarine sank an enemy warship.
But Hunley never returned from the mission. It was found off the South Carolina coast nine years ago and was raised in 2000 and brought to a conservation lab at the old Charleston Naval Base.
About 40 relatives of Hunley crew members were in Charleston Saturday.
Emma Busbey Ditman of Silver Spring, Md., said she learned about 12 years ago that she had a relative aboard the Hunley. She is the great-grandniece of crewman Joseph Ridgaway, who was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“It’s been very emotional. My father died when I was a little girl, and I knew almost nothing about father’s family when I was a child,” she said. “For me, it’s finding my family.”
Three crews died
The crew buried Saturday was the third crew to die aboard the submarine.
The first crew drowned in the fall of 1863 when waves from the wake of a passing ship flooded the sub at its mooring. A few weeks later a second crew, including designer H.L. Hunley, died during a test dive.
The members of the third crew were being buried next to the other crews in a plot shaded by oaks and palmettos.
Rebecca Farence of Harrisburg, Pa., said crewman Frank Collins was her great-grandfather’s half cousin.
“These are just extraordinary men, brave and strong, who did a marvelous thing,” she said.