Lighting the Hunley
My local newspaper recently quoted Editor-in-Chief Edwin Grosvenor about his concerns that schools today were not adequately teaching the Civil War. My co-worker Fred Lutkus and I wanted to bring to his attention the work done by 12 of our students at the Hamburg Area High School in eastern Pennsylvania: over the 2009–10 school year we built four replicas of the lantern famously used aboard the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley. After sinking Union screw sloop Housatonic in 1864 to become the first sub to destroy an enemy warship, it mysteriously vanished off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Union and Confederate forces reported seeing a blue light from a lantern just before the eightman vessel sank.
Our class worked with curators at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, which houses the Hunley’s remains. Using plans and drawings provided by the center, our students spent five months building the four lanterns. We could not use the whale oil that the original lantern burned, so we developed a mixture of kerosene and paraffin oil. It was pretty exciting at the high school when we tested the lanterns and they worked. Archaeologists and conservators at the center are us ing thre e of the lanterns in their search for answers as to what caused the Hunley to sink. In 2012 the archaeologists will use two of our lanterns to reenact the signaling of the Hunley to the Confederate battery onshore, to determine if the lantern’s light can be seen from three miles offshore. The fourth lantern is at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on permanent display in its naval section.
We can tell you that our students learned an extraordinary amount about the Civil War from this hands-on project. Check out the students’ website at www.hunleylantern.com.