I am hardly the first to point out the similarities between Charleston and Mobile, Ala. Both are deep Southern coastal towns, old and proud, and full of history, live oaks, and grand houses. And they have something else in common: the CSS Hunley.
Yes, you probably know the Confederate submarine was built in Mobile, then brought by rail to Charleston. Here it had a short, ill-starred career before sinking a Union ship and disappearing mysteriously beneath the waves off Charleston Harbor. And you might have assumed that once it left Mobile, it was out of sight and out of mind. Like me, you would be wrong.
The city on the Gulf thinks of itself as the birthplace of submarine warfare. Not only was the Hunley built in Mobile, but so was the Pioneer II, an earlier submarine. The Pioneer II is still somewhere on the bottom of Mobile Bay.
In fact, the Hunley was first launched in Mobile in May 1863. But the owners thought she would have better hunting in Charleston Harbor, and so they packed her off to the Holy City. Mobile still grieves the loss.
Starting with the discovery of the little sub in the Charleston mud in 1995 through the arduous task of raising her to the surface, excavating her interior, recovering the human remains, and preserving the craft, Mobile has followed every step of the CSS Hunley story on the pages of the local daily, the Press-Register. Many of those stories bore the byline of Charleston AP correspondent Bruce Smith. On that day in August 2000, when the Hunley was hoisted out of the ocean, the Press-Register sent its own reporter to Charleston.
The state of Alabama dispatched its chief medical examiner to Charleston to conduct postmortems on the nine crew members, since they were residents of the state. Dr. James Downs told the Press-Register he would "complete postmortem examinations" with an open mind, not assuming that drowning was the cause of death.
In truth, Mobile's fascination with the Hunley — one that borders on obsession — rivals that of Charleston. Not only does Mobile claim the Hunley as its own, it claims the crew as well, something Charleston cannot do. Many of the men who died on the three occasions the sub sank in Charleston Harbor had Mobile ties, including its chief investor and namesake, Horace L. Hunley.
Another was Lt. George Dixon, of the 21st Alabama Infantry, commander on the submarine's last mission in February 1864. Legend has it that Dixon's sweetheart, Queenie Bennett of Mobile, gave him a $20 gold coin to carry as a good luck charm before his regiment marched out of the city. At the battle of Shiloh, a minie ball struck him in the left thigh, but the coin absorbed much of the impact, saving his leg. He carried the caved-in coin with him for the rest of his short life. Archaeologists found it with his remains inside the Hunley, seeming to confirm this romantic and improbable tale.
I never heard the story of Queenie Bennett and the gold coin until the Hunley was raised and archaeologists started digging through the silt and mud. But Mobilians have been writing and telling this story for generations. After all, it was about them.
Mobile has been memorializing the Hunley and its crew longer than Charleston. There are two stone monuments in Mobile's Magnolia Cemetery to the three crews who died aboard the sub.
There is a historic marker on Water Street in downtown Mobile, observing the former site of the Hunley Building, the machine shop where the craft was built in 1862. A local artist recently completed a dramatic and chilling mural depicting the inside of the Hunley and the faces of its crew as they awaited a slow death on that last fateful mission. It will go in the Maritime Museum, now under construction, along with a reconstruction of the Hunley Building. And just as the Holy City has a Hunley replica on the grounds of the Charleston Museum, the Alabama port city has a Hunley replica of their own on the grounds of the Mobile Museum.
This city rivalry — if you want to call it that — almost got out of hand after the sub was first located in the 1990s. Some Mobilians thought that they had a legal claim to it and wanted to bring it "back home." As it turns out, possession really is nine-tenths of the law. The issue has long since been resolved in Charleston's favor.
Perhaps the one thing that sets Charleston apart from Mobile in all things Hunley is Sen. Glenn McConnell: politician, Confederate re-enactor, Hunley champion, and general embarrassment. Glenn, you're a piece of work. Mobile has nothing to compare.