Hunley Conservators preserve artifact recovered of the coast of France
For the past six years, Hunley conservators have been working to preserve two cannons recovered from the Alabama’s wreck site off the coast of France. With the work finally complete, one of the cannons was shipped Feb. 4 and arrived today at the Museum of Mobile, where it will serve as the centerpiece of a CSS Alabama display. Mobile is also the birthplace of the H. L. Hunley.
Head Hunley Conservator Paul Mardikian has worked on Alabama artifacts both on American and French shores. Though the cannons were preserved using effective methods, Mardikian is quick to point out that the “subcritical” conservation technique currently being developed, researched and tested at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center could have saved a substantial amount of time and dollars. “Perhaps in the near future, the subcritical testing we have been doing on a small scale will provide us the opportunity to treat similar cannons in a fraction of the time required for these. Soon, what took us 6 years may take us six months,” Mardikian said.
European waters may seem a strange place to find a confederate ship. A brief look at history, however, shows it not surprising. Having patrolled waters around the world, the CSS Alabama truly is the stuff of legends.
The ship was built in England in 1862 by British sympathizers to support the Confederacy’s strategy to block Union supplies from abroad reaching American shores. During the raider’s two years at sea, over 60 Union and merchant ships were intercepted by the Alabama and 600 million in prizes taken. Through all its adventure, not one of the Alabama’s crew – nor any of the ships it captured – were ever mortally wounded.
After such a successful run, the Alabama had suffered substantial damage. In June 1864, the ship’s captain, Raphael Semmes, requested to port in Cherbourg, France to make desperately needed repairs. Once there, Semmes quickly learned he was cornered by USS Kearsarge, a Union sloop-of-war that had been in pursuit of the infamous raider.
Though the odds were against the Alabama, Semmes refused to let his ship’s reputation be tarnished with surrender. On June 19th, the battered Alabama gave the Kearsarge a gallant fight, but already at a disadvantage, the Confederate’s most successful raider ultimately lost and succumbed to French waters. The courage of the against-all-odds battle earned Semmes and his ship an important place in Alabama history.
The wreck site would remain untouched for over 120 years, until exploratory and recovery efforts were conducted by a Franco- American expedition. The cannons were among many artifacts picked up from the site. Human remains were found fused to the cannon and were buried over a century later during a ceremony at Magnolia Cemetery in Alabama. “This is a beautiful gun with an incredible history. We are lucky it survived,” Mardikian said.
The completion of the preservation work on the cannons marks the first major artifacts finished by Warren Lasch Conservation Center. Clemson Professor Michael Drews, Director of the facility, says they are the first of many non-Hunley artifacts that will ultimately be conserved at the Center. “The lab has become internationally recognized in the fields of corrosion science and conservation. We intend to ensure the facility will continue to use its specialized skills to save other important aspects of our world’s history long after the Hunley has left and moved to a museum,” Dr. Drews said.
The Hunley Project
On the evening of February 17th, 1864, the H. L. Hunley became the world’s first successful combat submarine by sinking the USS Housatonic. After signaling to shore that the mission had been accomplished, the submarine and her crew of eight mysteriously vanished. Lost at sea for over a century, the Hunley was located in 1995 by Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). The innovative hand-cranked vessel was raised in 2000 and delivered to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where an international team of scientists are at work to conserve the submarine for future generations and piece together clues to solve the mystery of her disappearance. The Hunley Project is conducted through a partnership with the Clemson University Restoration Institute, South Carolina Hunley Commission, Naval Historical Center, and Friends of the Hunley.
Capt. Raphael Semmes, foreground, and Lt. John M. Kell
on board C.S.S. Alabama.