UT Scientists May Help Unravel Hunley’s Mysteries

KNOXVILLE –- A team of scientists from the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y12 National Security Complex left Sunday to inspect the Hunley to see if they can help unravel the mysteries of the Civil War submarine that sank off the Charleston, S.C., shore 142 years ago.

The local scientists’ involvement has grown out of the relationship between UT and best-selling author Patricia Cornwell.

“Ms. Cornwell has been a strong supporter of UT and the National Forensics Academy for the last four years,” said Mike Sullivan, director of the Law Enforcement Innovation Center (LEIC), part of UT’s Institute for Public Service.

Cornwell recently donated $500,000 to help scientists solve the lingering mystery surrounding the loss of the Hunley and its crew.

Her donation is being used to ensure Hunley scientists have the latest forensic technology as they try to determine what caused the demise of the Confederate submarine. The Hunley disappeared after it successfully sank the USS Housatonic, a Union ship that was involved in the South Atlantic blockade off the Charleston shore. The sunken Hunley and the remains of its crew were discovered in 1995 and raised in 2000, but scientists are still trying to determine why the vessel sank and how its crew died.

In February, at a press conference in Charleston announcing her donation, Cornwell said the Hunley’s sinking is “a 19th century crime scene, where evidence has been corrupted by its underwater environment. We will need to push modern technology to the limit to extract the information that is needed to discover what happened to the Hunley.”

Sullivan said Cornwell recently contacted him to see if scientists from UT, ORNL and Y12 might be able to help with the Hunley.

Cornwell regularly visits UT to talk with crime scene investigators attending training programs at LEIC’s acclaimed National Forensics Academy. NFA instructor Jamie Downs is the medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Hunley case.

“About a month or so ago, I took Patricia Cornwell to Oak Ridge National Laboratory to help her get acquainted with the tremendous forensic science capabilities there,” Sullivan said.

Knowing that Hunley researchers are struggling to examine the submarine’s sediment-encrusted hull to determine what caused the vessel to sink and what killed its eight crewmen, Cornwell asked Sullivan if local scientists might be able to help by lending their expertise on metals and metallurgy.

Sullivan said he thought local scientists could help.

“At UT, ORNL and Y12, we have some of the world’s leading experts in metals and metallurgy,” he said.

Cornwell and Maria Jacobsen, an archaeologist from Texas A&M University who is leading the Hunley excavation, recently came to Knoxville to visit scientists from the three institutions. They invited the scientists to travel to Charleston to view the Hunley.

The group will be in Charleston through Tuesday examining the submarine to determine if they can help researchers peel away the built-up sediment on the vessel’s hull. Researchers want to see the damage on submarine’s metal surface, figure out what caused it and determine, if possible, what caused the vessel to sink and what killed its eight crewmembers.

On the evening of Feb. 17, 1864, the Hunley became the world’s first successful combat submarine when it sank the Housatonic. That night, after the Hunley’s crew signaled to shore that the mission had been accomplished, the submarine and her eight-man crew vanished. Lost at sea for over a century, the sunken Hunley was located in 1995 by Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency. The hand-cranked vessel was raised in 2000 and delivered to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, where an international team of scientists is trying to preserve the vessel.

A bestselling author in more than 35 countries, Patricia Cornwell is a New York Times best-selling author of both fiction and non-fiction. Her most recent No. 1 New York Times bestsellers include the novels “Predator” and “Trace,” and her non-fiction book, “Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper — Case Closed.”

Cornwell published “The Body Farm” in 1994, which attracted worldwide media attention to UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, where scientists and law enforcement personnel study the decomposition of the human body under various conditions. Her new novel, “At Risk,” will be published by G.P. Putnams Sons on May 23.