Now it may be that the crew, found at their seats when the sub was raised with no evidence of an attempt to abandon ship, may have been knocked out by the concussion of an explosion so close by, said Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a member of the South Carolina Hunley Commission.
"I think the focus now goes down to the seconds and minutes around the attack on the Housatonic," he said. "Did the crew get knocked out? Did some of them get knocked out? Did it cause rivets to come loose and the water rush into the hull?"
The final answers will come when scientists begin to remove encrustations from the outer hull, a process that will begin later this year. McConnell said scientists will also arrange to have a computer simulation of the attack created based on the new information. The simulation might be able to tell what effect the explosion would have on the nearby sub.
Maria Jacobsen, the senior archaeologist on the project, said small models might also be used to recreate the attack.
Ironically, the crucial information was literally at the feet of scientists for years.
The spar has long been on display to the public in a case at Clemson University's Warren Lasch Conservation Lab where the Hunley is being conserved. With other priorities on the sub itself, it wasn't until last fall that Mardikian began the slow work of removing encrustations from the spar.
Scientists X-rayed the spar early on and found the denser material that proved to be the cooper sleeve. But Jacobsen said it had long been thought it was some sort of device to release the torpedo itself.
Finding evidence of the attached torpedo is "not only extremely unexpected, it's extremely critical," she said. "What we know now is the weapons system exploded at the end of the spar. That is very, very significant."