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Kunstler Painting To Show Hunley Crew For First Time
By Bill Bleyer
Feb./March 2004

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 flesh.

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 the Hunley.

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 remains.

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 Cussler.

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 night."

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 Charleston.

"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," Kunstler said.

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," he said.

"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 recovered.|

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."

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