LANCE: In The Waves (2020)

In the Waves: My Quest to Solve the Mystery of a Civil War Submarine by Rachel Lance. Dutton Books, 2020. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1524744151. $28.00.

On a calm, cool February night in 1864, the USS Housatonic lay at anchor just outside of Charleston harbor. One of many Union ships blockading one of the Confederacy’s few remaining major deep-water ports, Housatonic’s 150-man crew remained vigilant for small, hostile vessels possibly carrying explosives. Shortly before 9:00pm, they spotted a long cylindrical shape moving toward their ship. It was assumed to be a porpoise or marine creature; the danger was not realized until it was too late. The approaching Confederate submarine designed by Horace Lawson Hunley, and bearing his name, was nearly unknown to the Union Navy. Crewed by one officer that controlled the vessel and seven men who provided propulsion through means of turning a large hand crank, the Hunley placed and detonated its deadly spar torpedo against the Housatonic’s hull. The blast killed five men aboard the Union ship, and within minutes it had sunk— the first victory for a submarine in history. However, the experimental Hunley did not return. The fate of the submarine remained unknown until the 1990s, when it was discovered near the wreckage of the Housatonic. Even after its discovery, the reason for the Hunley’s sinking has been as unclear as the murky waters that concealed the vessel for over 130 years.

Rachel Lance’s exciting new book In the Waves is neither a straightforward history of the first successful submarine attack, nor a dive into the naval technology that made the Hunley possible. It is frankly not at all what most people will expect when they first open it. This book forms the biography of a scientifically based research project on the Hunley. It tells the story of how the project was formed and executed; the theories that it disproved; and the conclusions it reached. It comes complete with a careful detailing of the obstacles faced, scientific and human, and how they were overcome. Spoiler: many bags of potato chips were consumed in a tiny office on Duke University’s campus over late nights of data entry to make this book possible.

Lance is a biomedical engineer by training and studies the effects of underwater explosions on the human body. She also has previous experience working for the U.S. Navy as a civilian engineer, designing rebreather systems for navy divers. These two skill sets come together almost perfectly for understanding the Hunley. Her book takes the reader through the world of scientific study. Readers will learn the detailed effects of asphyxiation and carbon dioxide poisoning. Fluid dynamics of how air and water interact under pressure are explained and exampled. This book also provides detailed descriptions of how explosions in air and under water work, and what they do to the human body in both mediums. This is not a book for the faint of heart, the descriptions are vivid and backed by historical examples from the late eighteenth century to today. All of this is to ultimately focus on the human element of the story: the eight men who propelled their fated vessel through the salt waves and how they met their end that February night over 150 years ago. After all, this is where the major interest and debate over the Hunley lies.

In the end, Lance arrives at her major finding: that the men inside the Confederate submarine Hunley died the instant their spar torpedo detonated against the hull of the USS Housatonic. The submarine’s hull was unlikely punctured by the explosion; rather, the shockwaves traveled through the water and entered the air-filled interior of the submarine, where they caused massive internal injuries to the men inside. The submarine then drifted slowly on the tide and settled on the bottom of the entrance to Charleston Harbor, roughly 300 meters to seaward of the wreck of the USS Housatonic.

Rachel Lance’s book is wholly convincing. What is most remarkable is how she has skillfully presented complex science and woven it into a compelling narrative that is easily accessible to a general audience. This book is a real page turner. Most people with interests in the Civil War, naval history, or the history of science and technology can read this book cover to cover in one afternoon. It is highly recommended.

J. Ross Dancy is the author of The Myth of the Press Gang (2015).

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