One of "The Most Fascinating Books WIRED Read in 2020"
"One part science book, one part historical narrative, one part memoir . . . harrowing and inspiring.”—The Wall Street Journal
How a determined scientist cracked the case of the first successful—and disastrous—submarine attack
On the night of February 17, 1864, the tiny Confederate submarine HL Hunley made its way toward the USS Housatonic just outside Charleston harbor. Within a matter of hours, the Union ship’s stern was blown open in a spray of wood planks. The explosion sank the ship, killing many of its crew. And the submarine, the first ever to be successful in combat, disappeared without a trace.
For 131 years the eight-man crew of the HL Hunley lay in their watery graves, undiscovered. When finally raised, the narrow metal vessel revealed a puzzling sight. There was no indication the blast had breached the hull, and all eight men were still seated at their stations—frozen in time after more than a century. Why did it sink? Why did the men die? Archaeologists and conservationists have been studying the boat and the remains for years, and now one woman has the answers.
In the Waves is much more than just a military perspective or a technical account. It’s also the story of Rachel Lance’s single-minded obsession spanning three years, the story of the extreme highs and lows in her quest to find all the puzzle pieces of the Hunley. Balancing a gripping historical tale and original research with a personal story of professional and private obstacles, In the Waves is an enthralling look at a unique part of the Civil War and the lengths one scientist will go to uncover its secrets.
Lance, a biomedical engineering researcher at Duke University, debuts with a thorough and persuasive account of her efforts to solve the mystery surrounding the February 1864 sinking of the Confederate submarine HL Hunley off the coast of South Carolina. Tasked with breaking the Union blockade of Charleston, the Hunley detonated its spar torpedo (a stationary bomb attached to the end of a long pole) against the hull of the USS Housatonic, becoming the first submarine to sink an enemy warship in combat. But the Hunley disappeared immediately after the explosion. When it was finally recovered from Charleston Harbor in 2000, it didn't appear to have been significantly damaged in the attack and each of its eight crewmembers "was still seated peacefully at his station." Lance offers a blow-by-blow account of "what it took to work through the puzzle" of the Hunley: recruiting colleagues with expertise in hyperbaric medicine, painstakingly reassembling the ingredients of the Hunley's torpedo, exploring the mechanics of how the device was delivered, and testing through trial-and-error a theory that the crew perished in a shock wave. Readers without an engineering background may struggle through Lance's number crunching, but she has a firm command of both the scientific and historical subject matter and writes with flair. Her richly detailed account appears to definitively solve this Civil War era mystery.