First-ever sub, Christmas past come to life at Averasboro.
By REECE MURPHY
Dunn Daily Record Staff
The Civil War has been called the first modern war.
Nowhere was that more evident than at the Averasboro Battlefield Museum this weekend during another of the museum’s famous living history exhibitions, this one featuring a fullsized replica of the Confederate submarine the CSS H.L. Hunley.
Hosted by the Averasboro Battlefield Commission, the event also featured re-enactors demonstrating Civil War-era life, and perhaps most fittingly for the season, showing what it was like to celebrate Christmas in the midst of the Civil War.
The event drew hundreds of people from across the area over the weekend and more than 500 students Friday from schools in Harnett and Sampson counties.
Dunn Middle School eighthgrader Journey Ruggles said that while she was most interested in the Civil War-era cannons and guns, she found the whole event fascinating because it brought history to life.
“I like it,” Journey said. “It’s our past and it’s fun and easy to learn about because you actually get to see the stuff for real.”
The desire to make learning fun, informational and interesting was exactly what motivated John Dangerfield of Charleston, S.C., and friends to build a replicaof the Confederate States Ship H.L. Hunley, the forerunner of the modern submarine.
An original member of the restoration team after the Hunley was raised from the bottom of Charleston Harbor, Mr. Dangerfield is a virtual storehouse of information on the world’s first successful submarine.
“The Confederate Navy called it ‘the infernal machine’ and a ‘coward’s way of fighting a war,’” Mr. Dangerfield said. “In a time where naval battles were still fought at broadsides, out in the open, side by side, they didn’t think using a submarine like the Hunley was ‘gentlemanly.’” Mr. Dangerfield said the Hunley was 40 feet long, 4 feet high and 3 1/2 feet wide, just a bit smaller than the replica. The sub was operated by an eight-man crew: Seven to operate the handcranked propeller, with one handling the back ballast, and a commander to navigate, steer and man the front ballast.
The submarine’s so-called torpedo, 90 pounds of explosives stuffed into a barb-pointed container set on the end of a 22-footlong wooden spar, had to be rammed into the side of a ship. Once set, the Hunley backed away until an attached cord grew taut and pulled the trigger.
The Hunley was built in Mobile, Ala., and completed in July 1863, the third prototype Confederate submarine. It was shipped to Charleston in August to help break the Union blockade of the harbor.
Doomed from the start, two crews died in accidents while testing the sub, including the inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley, during the sub’s second voyage.
The third voyage made the Hunley famous by sinking its target, the USS Housatonic. But the victory was bittersweet as on its way back to port, several miles out in Charleston Harbor, the Hunley signaled its return once and disappeared.
When the submarine was raised in 2000, it had been preserved by silt inside and out, the crew’s remains still at their battle stations.
“It was the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship and ushered in a new age of warfare world wide,” Mr. Dangerfield said. “New submarines are a symbol of a nation’s strength. Today’s submarines are nuclear-powered and armed with the latest technologyand it all started with the Hunley.”
Looking back on the Civil War, it is easy to see even though it was more than 144 years ago, things were in many ways the same on Christmas.
Re-enactor and Civil War expert W.S. Jackson of the Edenton Bell Artillery Battery said though there was little fighting during winter in the Civil War since both sides would have been would have bivouacked. Christmas would have come as a welcomed respite from fighting.
Mr. Jackson said the Christmas celebrations would have been simple. During the holiday season, he said, troops would have decorated the field headquarters with boughs of cedar and in North Carolina would have most likely decorated a small cedar tree with popcorn and holly berries.
After a year living on Army rations, fatback, beans, hardtack, salt and a small plug of cane sugar, troops would often welcome Christmas packages from home much as they do the care packages of today.
“They would have contained socks, sewing kits, food, anything the soldiers might have wanted,” Mr. Jackson said. “Most of the time they’d send them fruit, nuts, things like that, but sometimes family members would build a box big enough to send a turkey, sometimes with a bottle of whiskey hidden inside.
“On Christmas day they’d usually be released from duty and they’d sit around the fire, relax and play cards, that kind of thing,” he said. “And some of the commanders would let the men drink a little, so they’d have them some whiskey, some eggnog and just enjoy the day.”
Averasboro Battlefield Commission President Mac Williams said he thought the event turned out well and thanked the public, the re-enactors, Mr. Dangerfield and the many volunteers that made the event a success.
“We are what we are because of our past,” Mr. Williams said. “Good, bad or indifferent, what we are today is a result of what happenedin the past. “This is our heritage,” he said. “We have to realize, we can’t change the course of history, but we can learn from it.”