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Friday, July 13, 2007

Secrets of a Civil War Submarin

Walker, Sally M. 2005. SECRETS OF A CIVIL WAR SUBMARINE: SOLVING THE MYSTERIES OF THE H.L. HUNLEY. Minneapolis, MN: CarolRhoda Books, Inc. ISBN: 1575058308.

Sally Walker first unfolds the adventure of building the first submarine, and then the drama of it’s first three fatal attempts at sinking a Union ship—the purpose for which it was commissioned during the Civil War. First-person accounts from letters and memoirs of the sailors and engineers who built and manned the H.L. Hunley make this portion of the story come alive. The idea of buoyancy, and the science of floating, diving, ballast and air are discussed briefly but relevantly in this section.

In the following section, the impetus for finding the sunken H.L. Hunley submarine is explained, readers get to experience the excitement of her eventual discovery in 1995, 130 years after she was lost coming home from her first mission. Here, the challenges of raising the submarine from the floor of the bay are discussed, as well as the important roles that math, engineering, mapping and scuba diving played in that process.

Once the submarine was raised, a whole new adventure began, with a host of exciting questions—how did the crew die? Why did the submarine sink? Who were the members of the final crew, anyway? It turns out that some of the previous historical records—made by the men who originally worked with the H.L. Hunley—were inaccurate, even including the number of people in the crew and the location of certain machinery inside the hull. Specialists are needed to help interpret the clues—from forensic experts to determine the age and birth place of the crewmen to an expert on reading sediment layers for clues about the sequence of events and decomposition within the submarine. Even an expert on stopped watches is brought in—did the captain’s pocket watch stop because it was not rewound, or did it stop at the exact time that the compartment flooded with water, commemorating the very minute of these men’s death? Some questions may never be answered.

The author’s use of photographs, charts, maps and other visual information helps to clarify unusual concepts and to bring this exciting adventure to life for the readers. The mystery style of writing, along with sharp questions and detailed knowledge help to make each stage of this story exciting and relevant. A select bibliography, list of websites, glossary, and note from the author at the conclusion of the book add to a plethora of educational opportunities that this well-crafted book provides. An ambitious middle school reader, an interested high school student or an adult researcher could each enjoy and learn from this excellent record of history and it’s recovery. Each page has something unique to offer, and the long sections of prose are full of great information, great discoveries, and great references to important contributions from various scientific fields of work. A little bit of history mixed with a little bit of humanity goes a very long way in this short and dense work by Sally M. Walker.

Starred Review, School Library Journal: “Walker brings a little-known story of the Civil War to life in this fascinating book…. his is a finely crafted account of the Hunley from its inception to the modern archaeological quest to exhume her from the water. It is divided into chronological chapters complete with pictures, maps, and primary sources.”
Starred Review, BookList: “Thoroughly researched, nicely designed, and well illustrated with clear, color photos, the book will serve as an informative guide to anyone interested in the Hunley or intrigued by archaeology.”

==> Use this book as a jumping off point for research into lifestyles, military service, clothing, class distinctions, or any number of other interests relating to the Civil War Era.
==> Discuss the considerations that finally went into the construction of the H.L. Hunley. Why would drowning be better than suffocation? Were there other contingency or safety measures that could have been taken with the submarine in that time period? Do you think the results of the final mission were worth the lives lost in it’s execution? Remember the other two crews, and the now long and invaluable history of submarine use in battles resulting from this one event.
==> Check out MEETING THE SUBMARINE CHALLENGE: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE NAVAL UNDERWATER SYSTEMS CENTER by John Merrill and Lionel D. Wyld. Also, US SUBMARINES 1941-45 by Jim Christley. Follow up with a parent-approved viewing of the movie THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990), and discuss the considerations for safety that went into the Soviet submarine vs the US one in that time frame. Compare to those of the H.L. Hunley.

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