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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1093066-Letter-from-a-Ghost
by Dave
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Ghost · #1093066
The ghost speaks his mind.
To the Editor, Daily Gazette:

I feel compelled to respond to the letter you published in last week’s paper portraying the crew of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley as a bunch of “hoodlums and terrorists.”

Lt. George Dixon and his crew of eight, of which I was a proud member, were brave and dedicated men. We were all well aware of the unfortunate results of prior attempts to execute the desperate enterprise on which we were about to embark. Twice before the little submarine had been sunk, and the crew drowned by careless handling. Each time, the submarine was dredged up, and the grisly task of extricating the crew from their watery coffin effectuated with much grief and revulsion. The bodies were grappled together in all manner of tortuous postures in a grotesque danse macabre. Bloated carcasses had to be dismembered for extraction. Blackened faces reflected their torment and despair as they struggled to escape their watery grave. The submarine had acquired the reputation of being an underwater death trap.

You may ask why anyone would embark on such a dangerous mission. Some of the men were ardent believers in the cause while others simply craved adventure. As for me, I wanted the reward money to provide a nest egg for me and my lovely Becky to settle down and raise a family after the war.

While the winter weather churned the ocean into seas too heavy to mount an attack by the little submarine, we spent weeks of practice maneuvering the submarine with its hand-cranked propulsion system in the calm backwaters of Sullivan’s Island, testing the submarine’s performance, the operating procedures, and our endurance. Turning that heavy iron crankshaft for hours while wedged shoulder to shoulder sitting on a wooden bench in that dark, cold, cramped hull was demanding work indeed.

At night, Lt. Dixon would lay in the sea grass on the sand dunes observing the enemy warships as they took up their positions for the night to intercept any vessel that might attempt to breach the blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. Night after night he watched the Union sloop-of-war USS Housatonic riding in heavy seas as it guarded Rattlesnake Shoals, only four miles off the coast of Sullivan’s Island against blockade runners. He could see members of the crew, who had been warned about the existence of the “infernal diving torpedo,“ trying to sleep on the cold deck around their loaded cannons as lookouts strained their eyes and raised the alarm at the sight of any driftwood on the water or the sounds of porpoises surfacing for air. The smoke furling from the warship’s stacks told him that sweaty sailors in the engine room were shoveling coal to keep the furnaces stoked and fired so she could move at a moment’s notice. The crew below decks who were not on watch probably spent many sleepless nights under the threat of being hurled from their hammocks at any second and scrambling through cold rising sea water to the nearest hatch.

Finally, on February 17, 1864, the weather subsided. In spite of an ominous, bright full moon foreboding deadly danger, Lt. Dixon decided we could wait no longer. As each man stepped onto the slick iron hull, the little submarine gently bobbed and rolled under his weight. When we were all inside, Lt. Dixon gave the order to start cranking the shaft that turned the propeller, and the H. L. Hunley slipped away from its moorings at Battery Marshall on Sullivan’s Island. With a turn of the rudder the submarine glided out through Breach Inlet with the help of the ebbing tide to meet its destiny. Lt. Dixon used the diving planes to settle the submarine beneath the dark surface of the water, resurfacing periodically for fresh air and to check his bearings. When we had approached the Housatonic as close as he dared without being detected, Lt. Dixon slipped the little “fish boat” under the surface one last time and gave the order for us to crank the propeller shaft as fast as we could. The muscles in our arms and backs, conditioned by the weeks of training, were pushed to the limit as we all strained against that iron shaft in unison. The rhythmic breathing and the occasional grunt of exertion were the only sounds that could be heard until muffled shouts of recognition were heard from above. Then we heard bullets from a barrage of small arms fire ricocheting off the submarine’s iron hull. Next we felt the jolt that confirmed the ramming of the torpedo’s barbed metal head into the timbers of the Housatonic’s hull below the water line. Thereupon we started to crank the propeller shaft in reverse to back off from the Housatonic’s hull and detonate the torpedo charge.

The concussion of the explosion in the water shook our little underwater shadower with the power of an earthquake, knocking us against each other and the bulkheads, but it withstood the shock and remained intact. We could hear muffled cries for help from above along with the sound of rushing water and crashing timbers and metal. After we backed off to a safe distance, Lt. Dixon surfaced the submarine long enough to survey the damage and send the agreed upon signal of success to the lookouts on the shore with a blue lantern light. He told us the Housatonic had settled on the bottom in shallow water and he could see sailors scrambling into long boats and that part of the ship’s rigging which remained above the surface.

There was nothing left for us to do but settle under the surface and wait for the tide to turn so we could return to shore. As we waited, I thought about my Becky and the life we had in front of us now that the deed was done and the reward would be ours. Eventually, we all slipped quietly into the dark euphoria of eternal sleep as the air inside the hull expired.

For 131 years the world searched and speculated about what happened to the Hunley. Meanwhile the iron coffin with its brave crew was swallowed by the shifting sands of the cluttered Atlantic seabed. Along with the sunken hulks of ancient warships, slipped anchors, abandoned buoys, fishing tackle, and other maritime refuse, it was caught up in the constant tidal patterns and moved about by the unstoppable force of ocean currents and hurricanes.

Presently the watery coffin with its ghastly cargo once again was located and dredged up. As scientists excavated the iron hulk and pored over the remains trying to unravel the secrets of the Hunley’s disappearance, the friendly spirits of Lt. Dixon and his brave crew inspected the Honor Guard that stood watch over their skeletal remains as they awaited final burial, occasionally making adjustments to the accoutrements on their Confederate uniforms.

Now there are people raising a hullabaloo over the ceremonies and memorial services surrounding the recovery and burial of our mortal remains. Hogwash! We earned the right to have a decent burial for our bones in Magnolia Cemetery, where our spirits can now wander freely.

Yours truly,
Frank Collins
Seaman, Confederate States Navy


*Star* This is a fictional rendering of an actual event. For those not familiar with American Civil War history, here are some links that provide the background details.






© Copyright 2006 Dave (drschneider at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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