Kunstler Painting To Show Hunley Crew For First
By Bill Bleyer
On Feb. 17, 1864, the H.L. Hunley became the first
submarine to sink an enemy vessel, but its eight Confederate
crewmen paid the ultimate price for setting the precedent. Now
the vessel has become part of another first in an unusual confluence
of history, archaeology and art.
Since the sunken submarine was raised from the bottom of the
ocean off Charleston Harbor in 2000, it has been yielding a
treasure trove of artifacts as well as the bones of its crewmen.
And now those discoveries have come together in what experts
describe as the first accurate image depicting the Hunley as
well as its crew.
That image is "The Final Mission," the latest painting
by Long Island historical artist Mort Kunstler, who specializes
in the Civil War and has been named official artist of the Hunley
preservation project in South Carolina.
While there was a remarkably accurate painting made of the sub
by Conrad Wise Chapman, who saw it during the war, and many
paintings done since then, no one ever got all the details right,
historians say, because no artist ever saw all of the items
carried on the final voyage or the crew, and there are no known
photographs of the men who were aboard.
What particularly sets the Kunstler work apart is that he has
painted the crew based on forensic archaeology recreations of
their faces by a team led by Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian
Institution in Washington. The team worked with the skulls recovered
in the Hunley and built them up with clay to represent the missing
And Kunstler included every artifact removed from the silt inside
the Hunley in his painting - with one exception: the gold coin
good luck charm carried by the mission commander.
"Mort's goal is to make the painting as accurate as possible,"
said Robert Neyland, chief underwater archaeologist at the U.S.
Naval Historical Center in Washington and the director for the
Hunley recovery and preservation project. "I can't think
of any other painting where people have actually gone back and
used archaeological information to create it."
The painting showing the submarine with most of its crew on
the adjacent dock is expected to eventually be displayed with
In the meantime, prints will be signed by the artist in Charleston
to help pay for the preservation work during the weekend of
April 17-18 when the painting will be officially unveiled and
an elaborate funeral will be held for the interment of the crew's
The Hunley's crew made history by hand-cranking its propeller
to carry the iron sub out from Charleston Harbor to the Union
sloop of war Housatonic. They rammed the metal spar mounted
on the bow into the Housatonic, attaching a 135-pound torpedo.
As the Hunley backed away, an explosion sent the federal warship
to the bottom with five of her sailors.
The Hunley surfaced long enough for the crew to signal its success
to shore with a blue light. But then the Hunley sank without
a trace until it was discovered intact in 1995 by author Clive
The head of the South Carolina commission overseeing the preservation
of the Hunley, Glenn McConnell, president pro tempore of the
State Senate, said that during a visit to Charleston last year,
"I took Mort to see the Hunley and then I took him out
to the site where the Hunley departed from and then took him
to the [planned] burial site. Once he saw the breadth of the
project, he told me 'This is something I have to paint.'"
"It's exciting because I haven't done a reconstruction
of a boat from scratch like this before," Kunstler said.
"It's challenging and the lighting effects are challenging,
too, with the moonlight, lantern light upon the dock and candle-light
coming from the sub."
After seeing the finished painting, McConnell said, "I
think he has captured both the reality and the feeling of that
Since the recovery in 2000, "we've pretty much completely
excavated it," Neyland said. "The bodies decomposed
and the bones separated so the bottom of this sub became a continuous
layer of bones. Interspersed with them are personal artifacts,
fragments of clothing, buttons, shoes, tobacco pipes, bits of
metal from suspenders and things that individuals would carry
in their pockets. Each individual had a canteen.
"There were also tools. We did recover a compass and a
wooden bellows that was used to pump air in and out of the submarine
through two iron snorkels."
"No one else has had the information I have," Kunstler
said. He worked from a model of the Hunley constructed by the
conservators in Charleston, drawings of the recovered sub, X-ray
photographs of parts of the sub and its equipment that are still
encased in concreted sediment and his examination of artifacts
such as commander George Dixon's pocket watch when he visited
"Their goal was to get as many of the artifacts coming
out of the boat into the painting as possible," Kunstler
said. "They discovered a caulking iron and a bucket recently
so I put them in the background. I have a compass and compass
box in the foreground. So far I've got everything they've taken
out of the boat in the painting except the gold coin, which
was too small to show and also would have been in Dixon's pocket,"
The gold coin was given to Dixon by his girlfriend Queenie Bennett.
It stopped a bullet that might have otherwise killed him during
the Battle of Shiloh. So Dixon had "My life Preserver"
engraved on the bent coin and always carried it.
The most unusual part of the research has been working from
photographs of the facial reconstructions of the crew. "That's
what makes it sort of interesting and mysterious," Kunstler
said. "I have a chart with each man's name, his height
and weight and anything else known about him and everything
that they found that belonged to him."
While the painting is complete, Owsley, head of the Division
of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum
of Natural History, said he and his team are in the final stages
of showing what the crew members looked like by blending forensic
archaeology and genealogy research, being conducted by Linda
Abrams. "Then we will be able to settle on who's who,"
"They are very distinctive. They do not all look alike.
One had a broken nose and broken cheekbone," probably from
a fight. But blood chemistry has already shown that some of
the crew were American-born and some immigrants, Owsley said.
And tooth wear shows who were the pipe smokers; four pipes were
Using all of the information, forensic sculptor Sharon Long
has used green clay to represent the missing flesh on casts
of the skulls. Still to come is adding skin coloring, artificial
eyes and hair, except for the Dixon who already has the blue
eyes and blond hair that records show he possessed.
Eventually, Owsley said, plaster casts of the faces will be
made for display at the Hunley museum planned in the Charleston
area. McConnell said he wants to raise money to purchase the
painting through the state commission or the Friends of the
Hunley group "because it's the first painting ever done
of the actual crew and the actual way the Hunley looks. One
way or the other, we want it at the museum."
After the crew is buried and the painting is unveiled, the focus
will return to preserving the Hunley and its artifacts, Neyland
said. The last section of the hull to be excavated was the ballast
tanks last year.
"There's still some artifacts in the sub," he said.
"All of the loose artifacts were removed during the excavation.
Some of them became entombed in an almost-concretelike substance
that formed around the iron in the saltwater environment as
the iron corroded. Some of these objects had to be chiseled
out of the bottom of the sub. And in the case of wooden objects,
the concretion becomes harder than the object itself.
"So it's a very delicate operation to get these things
out without breaking them."
"We have done some conservation on some of the small finds
like the buttons," Neyland explained. "And we're doing
some studies on the best methods of long-term conservation of
the hull." "It will be years before all the objects
are preserved and displayed but the more than 140 buttons made
out of brass, wood and bone and porcelain and rubber and things
like pipes should be on display soon," Neyland continued.
"We have to clean the textiles to free them from the sediment
and the mud. They're very very fragile. We have to determine
which is the best way to conserve them and then conserve them
because they can't support their own weight."