Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXV: Of Fish And Men


One of Mankind's defining characteristics, I think, has been a state of constant rebellion. Call it rebellion against God if you like, or rebellion against Nature, but Man has never been one to accept the limitations placed upon him by evolution. In time immemorial, he rebelled against not being able to swim as well or as far as whales, so he built boats. He rebelled against not being able to fly like birds, so in time he built the hot-air balloon. And he rebelled against not being able to dive to the depths of the sea -- again, like whales -- and so he tried to build submersible craft ... with somewhat uneven results.

Moving across open water was one thing. Floating in the air yet another. But in both of these media, Man could count upon breathing the air around him. When he sought to go under the waves, though, he had to contend with the sad and sorry fact that no, he cannot breathe water. His Savior could walk upon it, but the record is silent on the breathing thing.

The first attempt to build a submersible water craft that we have reliable information about was in the 17th Century, when a Dutchman under contract to King James I of England had a go at it. Going up and down wasn't much of a problem, but lateral movement proved to be a real problem, one that the technology of the 17th Century was not up to solving. So, the matter was shelved for a while. In the late 18th Century, necessity drove an American, David Bushnell, to try to build a military submersible, called the Turtle. It ... didn't work very well. But it worked well enough for its time, and was the first submersible able to move under its own power while underwater. It failed utterly as a practical weapon, though.

Necessity is a harsh taskmaster, though, and the problem of breaking a blockade from within is one that would come up again and again in naval warfare. Which brings us to the story of one H. L. Hunley, who was practicing law in New Orleans when the balloon went up at Fort Sumter.

You may say that a New Orleans lawyer was no expert in submarines. Well, that's okay. No one else was, either. Hunley saw the need, and aimed to meet it.

His first attempt might have succeeded, and might not have. We'll never know: it had to be scuttled when Union forces took New Orleans in 1862. The second attempt ended with a prototype sinking in Mobile Bay. But as they often say, the third time's the charm, and Hunley financed that third attempt on his own. The result was a vessel that would bear its inventor's name: the H. L. Hunley.

Hunley would kill its first two crews. Building a submarine is one thing, operating it was a whole other ball game, and much like there were no veteran submarine engineers in 1863, there were also no veteran submarine sailors then, either. And nautical knowledge must be paid for in blood. All sailors know this. Mr. Hunley himself would be one of those casualties, in the second sinking of the Hunley.

The third crew was either luckier or more skilled, it's hard to say which. But they managed to practice the tricky maneuver of sticking a barbed explosive torpedo into an enemy ship, then backing up to fire the device, often enough that their commanders felt confident enough to risk a real target. And so it was, on February 17 of 1864, Lieutenant George Dixon took her out to engage the Union steam sloop USS Housatonic.

The record becomes somewhat confused at this point, for reasons we'll see shortly.

What is indisputably true is that an enormous explosion tore a hole in Housatonic's hull, sending it to the bottom of Charleston harbor in just five minutes. From this, we must conclude that Hunley's mission was a success.

Except ... that no one ever heard from Hunley, or Lieutenant Dixon, ever again.

A number of legends would attach themselves to the Hunley and her crew over the years. One of them was that Dixon, a Confederate Army officer at Shiloh, carried a gold dollar given him by his sweetheart. The dollar was struck by a bullet during the fight, probably saving Dixon's leg. He'd carry the coin ever after as a good-luck charm.

Time passes.

In time, nautical technology would become advanced enough that the wreck of the H. L. Hunley could, and would, be found. It would eventually become advanced enough that it could, and would, be raised. Analysis of the wreck would reveal that, most probably, the sub was too close to its target when the torpedo exploded, knocking the crew unconscious -- a fatal wound, for a hand-cranked sub with no on-board air supply. Another find would prove more surprising.

The legendary coin we talked about earlier? It's real.

While Hunley, man and ship, came to bad ends, they earned their place in the history books: for the first time ever, a submarine craft sank a surface craft. Hunley was the first. It would not be the last.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Election 2014: Texas Goober Primaries

Yes, it's that time again, when Texans go to the polls to begin the process to elect another Governor, though no one's entirely sure why. I mean, the Texas Governor is extraordinarily weak to the point that your average night-shift convenience store manager has more actual authority within his sphere of competence. Still, this is something we've become accustomed to doing, so here we are.

Pity it's such a dull year.

A few years back, we had a grand old time, with Kinky Friedman on the ballot, and Carole Keeton Strayhorn running as an independent candidate, apparently for the sheer joy of poking a sharp stick in Rick Perry's eye. Now, that was fine sport.

The Democratic primary features Wendy Davis, and a bunch of people who aren't Wendy Davis. The Republican primary features Greg Abbott, and a bunch of people who aren't Greg Abbott.

Mainly, Davis seems to be running against Ray Madrigal, who has been running for the Democratic nomination so long that he's forgotten why. But since hardly anyone has ever heard of Mr. Madrigal, his chances of success are somewhere on the same order of magnitude as the number of R's in "Fat Chance". So, it's safe to say that Wendy Davis will end up the Democratic nominee for Governor after the March 4 primary.

Abbott is running against a veritable Cast of Thousands for the Republican nomination. Said cast includes a right-wing radio host, a secessionist, and a former Univision host who's evidently forgotten that in Texas "G.O.P." stands for "I Hate Mexicans." So, Greg Abbott will probably wind up as the Republican nominee after the March 4 primary, provided that the secessionist doesn't pull enough support to force a runoff. That's a distinctly non-zero probability, given the amount of free-roaming crazy loose in the Republican primary electorate these days.

As to who will win, it's anyone's guess. Pollster says that Greg Abbott sits at 40%, Wendy Davis at 34%, with "We're having an election?" bringing up the rear at 26%.

Early voting starts on February 18, and runs through the 28th. The Primary Election is on Tuesday, March 4th. Vote early, and vote often!