Hunley Lantern’s Surprises:
Lens Is Not Blue, Body Was Fragile
By Scott C. Boyd
(July 2012 Civil War News)
At left is the famous lantern as it was found during excavation of the H.L. Hunley’s interior. It had to be detached from the side of the hull to which it was fused due to corrosion. At right is how it looks after two years of conservation and removal of concretion. (Friends of the Hunley)
CHARLESTON, S.C. – The famous lantern of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, which is said to have signaled the vessel’s successful attack on the USS Housatonic, has completed conservation.
One surprising discovery is that the one 3-inch diameter lens is clear, despite accounts that the submarine flashed a blue light signal after its history-making attack as the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel in combat on Feb. 17, 1864.
The lantern was displayed for the media on April 19. It is not on public display at this time, according to Friends of the Hunley Executive Director Kellen Correia.
The lantern was found during excavation of the submarine’s interior, chief conservator Paul Mardikian said in an interview. It was fused by corrosion to the vessel’s hull.
The lantern was an “extremely inexpensive and easily available” type, Mardikian said. Ships would have normally had a sturdier lantern, made of brass, he said.
The only brass object found in the Hunley, however, was the oil can, according to Mardikian. There were also some buttons from the crew’s clothing and parts of the sub’s compass that were brass.
The lantern body was made of tin-plated iron, “the most fragile material you could have on a boat” due to the corrosive power of seawater, according to Mardikian.
Tin-plated iron is “fragile, unstable and corrodible,” he said.
With the Hunley’s lantern, “you’re looking at a ghost artifact,” he said. “It was corroded through, filled with sediment, and extremely heavy, with a massive lens. The only dense areas were where the solder was.”
Mardikian said the lantern had the “consistency of a biscuit” and could not be handled unless there were some kind of backing material inside, or the fragile metal would crumble.
The total treatment time for the lantern was two years. The manual work needed to remove the concretion totaled about three weeks, requiring a scalpel used under a microscope to lift off the concretion.
Mardikian said, “The lantern is probably the most complex artifact ever conserved for the Hunley.”
The conserved lantern is not “restored,” he noted. A large hole in the lantern was covered with a strong, synthetic fabric to give it “a natural, normal appearance.”
“The goal was to make it appealing to the viewer without making it tell a lie,” he said. “You want to know what is original and what’s not when you look at it.”
Although Mardikian believes the lantern was an inexpensive, common type for the era, he has not found anything “strictly similar” to it. Many people have contacted him to claim they have a lantern just like it, but none have convinced him.
“The top of the lantern – the baffle – is particularly different from what you typically find,” he said.
Regarding the lens color, Mardikian said he can only judge based on what he sees. “I never found evidence of anything ‘blue’ about it. Based on the material evidence, there is nothing ‘blue’ about the object.”
He said “blue light” may refer to a signaling technique common at the time rather than to the color of the light. He used the analogy of French fries. “There’s nothing ‘French’ about them,” the native of France said.
“I would have loved to see something blue, but I deliver what I find.”
The next conservation projects include the aft hatch, grapnel anchor and compass. Mardikian said plans for 2013 include de-concreting the spar that held the sub’s torpedo.
Discovered underwater in 1995 just outside the mouth of Charleston Harbor, the 40-foot-long Hunley has been at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at the former navy base in North Charleston since it was recovered intact from the sea on Aug. 8, 2000.
In 2004, the remains of the eight men discovered when the sub’s interior was excavated were buried with full honors at Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery.