Wearing ragged beards and motorcycle jackets, cartridge boxes and frock coats, rebel-flag T-shirts and white cotton gloves, about 20,000 mourners poured into Charleston from across the South on Saturday to bury the remains of eight drowned Confederate sailors -- perhaps the final funeral of the Civil War.
The burial marked an end to the mystery of the H.L. Hunley, a hand-cranked submarine fashioned out of a steam boiler. On the night of Feb. 17, 1864, the Hunley blew a hole in the Housatonic, a Union warship -- the first successful submarine attack in history -- and then disappeared, trapping eight men in a cylinder so narrow they could barely move.
A decade ago, a team of enthusiasts sought to recover the bodies, finally locating the submarine buried in silt four miles off Charleston, the bodies and artifacts inside her still partially preserved after 136 years.
As an estimated 6,000 Civil War re-enactors marched in perfect half-step down the streets here, the ceremony gave politics a wide berth -- but friction tugged under the surface.
Organizers had invited several Southern governors to attend the ceremony, but all refused the invitation, including South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who said the event conflicted with his National Guard duty. Criticism had come from the head of the local branch of the NAACP, which warned that the ceremony would be shunned by Charleston’s blacks.
For the most part, though, Saturday’s activities focused on the pageantry and solemnity of burying eight men whose midnight mission became a bedtime story for children growing up in the South.
“As they walked through the night, they must have glanced at each other,” said state Sen. Glenn McConnell in a eulogy at Magnolia Cemetery. “They must have studied the faces of their comrades. These were ordinary men.... They probably did not imagine that they would leave such a footprint in the sands of time.”
At the service, marked by a 50-gun salute delivered by musket and cannon, the coffins were laid in a common grave in the order in which the crew sat in the submarine.
The re-enactors made a striking scene as they marched without smiling, their wood-soled boots grinding the pavement. Flushed and exhausted after the 4 1/2-mile procession, they sprawled around the cemetery, some smoking handmade pipes under oaks draped with Spanish moss.
Among them was a mechanical engineer from Georgia who had curled the tips of his mustache with beeswax; a Louisiana history majorwho rubbed grease on his weapon and cooked it an the oven to age it; and a Tennessee man, a professional shrink-wrapper, who trims his beard in imitation of an ancestor whose photograph he found.
Several re-enactors said the Confederate funeral was the most exalted moment of their lives -- with the exception, they hastily added, of the birth of their children.
“This is the Confederate mecca,” said Frank Lackman, 54, of Waynesboro, Ga., who served as a pallbearer. “This is the bull’s eye.”
On the streets of Charleston, the sight of the Confederate army, with flags flying, left some residents nonplused.
The procession’s route ran through several blocks of predominantly black housing projects, where children clustered by the road and adults hung back.
Lakesha Simmons, 24, said the reverence for the dead set a good example for neighborhood children, who know little about the war’s history. “They just know it’s a funeral for people from way back then,” she said.
Beside her, 24-year-old Shawn Kemp shook his head angrily at the expense of such a ceremony. And Maria Kelly, 46, called her grandson back from the parade, which he was watching excitedly. She watched the re-enactors pass with a quizzical look. “I keep telling my grandson, we’ll talk about it when we get home,” she said.
Not much farther down the road, Robert Sarco, an antiques dealer, held aloft the Second Confederate national flag, and marchers stopped to kiss or caress it. The Hunley, he said, should wake people up to the grandeur of Civil War history.
When eight men in a converted boiler took down one of the Union’s vaunted warships, it sent waves of inspiration through Charleston, he said.
The Hunley was powered manually by eight cranks that the crew turned feverishly while the captain steered, and a jagged 17-foot spar protruded from the front, allowing the boat to deposit and detonate a torpedo. Already, the experimental craft had sunk twice, killing 13 crew members; critics nicknamed it the “Peripatetic Coffin.”
Most of the Housatonic’s crew survived the attack, but the warship sank. For the Confederacy, “the morale boost was better than [defeating] 10 divisions.” Respect for the crew’s courage and achievement should transcend the politics of race, Sarco said.
“You’ve got to take politics out of it. There’s no way you could defend the politics of the Confederacy,” Sarco said.
The Hunley, he said, “showed Southerners did have the ability to generate abstract ideas. It also showed the desperation of the whole conflict. How you could make something out of nothing.”
The funeral Saturday was a powerful experience for Katie and Megan McMahon, the great-great-great-great granddaughters of Boatswain Mate James A. Wicks, who died aboard the Hunley. The sisters, 24 and 22, respectively, had grown up in Atlanta, and only in recent years had learned about their ancestor.
On Saturday, they suddenly found themselves treated like Confederate royalty. They rode to the ceremony in a limousine, and were shocked to be saluted by re-enactors. By the end of the day, a deep new understanding had been born, said Katie McMahon, who works in Washington for the Republican National Committee.
“I never really related to the Confederate flag,” she said. “Now I totally understand why people would fight for it.”