Confederacy’s Secret Weapon aka Sweaty Death-Mobile

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One of the greatest challenges of making this film was using dramatic recreations to illustrate the different scenarios that may have led to the loss of the Hunley and her crew.  There are about a half-dozen theories that we chase down in the show, and each one had to be re-enacted, in part, inside an accurate reproduction of the famous sub. 

So I had to stuff eight actors into a 4 X 4 foot round tube, where they would spend the next 12 hours laboring under my direction, with little reprieve.  In fact, it was probably twice the duration of a typical test run the original Hunley crew made more than a century ago. You have to understand how the Hunley worked.  For all its advanced design features, the famous submarine was basically an iron tube driven by manpower.  Seven guys sat on a bench, hunched over a hand-crank that they turned to drive a propeller.  An eighth man, the commander, sat up front and piloted the vessel with joysticks.  There was no periscope, just glass viewports that he looked through to help navigate.  There was no wiggle room in the Hunley; all the guys were packed like sardines, glued to their stations.  It’s not a situation you want to be in when things go bad.

I had one day to shoot all the recreations in the sub mock-up.  It was August and temperatures in Charleston were spiking around 95 degrees.  We moved the sub into an enclosed cargo area of the Hunley lab so we could control the light.  The actors were clad in period wool uniforms.  We had air conditioning, except when we were shooting.  Once we powered up the lights, it really started heating up.   Ironically the Hunley made its historic mission in the dead of February, on one of the coldest nights recorded in Charleston.   Eight woolen bodies, shoulder to shoulder, turning a heavy crank shaft in a stifling metal tube.  It was a method actor’s dream. 

Removable side panels allowed us to shoot through the starboard side of the sub.  All the crewmen sat facing the same way, which made it easy for me and my DP, Rob Case, to get the shots we wanted.  Needless to say the guys worked up a good sweat, as one would do if you were cranking your way four miles out to sea to ram a Union warship. It was hard to change up the sequences, since the men never moved from their spots while operating the sub.  We did dramatize different versions of how they might have died (drowning, suffocation, panic, concussion) but otherwise we had to really be creative with angles, close-ups, and dolly moves. 

In the end, we got a surprising amount of mileage out of the scenes, thanks to the unyielding patience and professionalism of the actors and my crew.   Twelve hours later, the guys pulled themselves out of the sub, exhausted, sore and dripping with sweat.  They got a small taste of what it was probably like for the real Hunley crew.  I wonder if their commander was as demanding as I was.  When I returned to Charleston a couple months later, I ran into one of the actors.  He said he enjoyed working on the project, but he had three words for me that described his experience in the Hunley mock-up:  “sweaty death-mobile.”  It was short and to the point — and in many ways it was an accurate, albeit somber, description of the real Hunley itself. 

Alan Martin 

Producer, Director, Writer

Be sure to tune in to Secret Weapon of the Confederacy Thursday at 9P et/pt.


  1. chris rucker
    September 16, 2011, 3:55 am

    I enjoyed this show, and applaud the researchers for their "hands on" approach to confirming that a .58 caliber minie ball could have fractured the iron in the forward conning tower, possibly contributing to the loss of the sub.

    Unfortunately, the show made a huge mistake. It prominently displayed a blue lantern several times, and emphasized the importance of the purported signal sent by the Hunley to shore, and reported by the Housatonic lookout. The blue lantern is a myth which was invented by modern authors, based on their ignorance of the 1864 meaning of "blue light." It has been parroted by all of the published popular and academic authors, unquestioned and unsubstantiated. The latest research proves that "blue light" in 1864 meant a pyrotechnic signal in long use by the US Navy, in common use by the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and familiar to any military man of the time. It was not a blue lantern. Only two historic citations of "blue light" exist in the Hunley saga: one during sworn testimony by Robert Flemming, Jr., the African-American lookout on the Housatonic, and one by a post-War correspondent named Jacob Cardozo. Both say "blue light" and not "blue lantern." Period dictionaries and military manuals give the definition of "blue light" and it was a pyrotechnic composition used for night-time signaling. The use of such "blue light" is documented in the logs of the vessels in the blockading vessels. No historical citation of a blue lantern exists. The bullseye lantern recovered from the Hunley, shown several times in the program, obviously has a clear glass lens, not a blue one. For all of these reasons, the blue lantern myth needs to be put to rest. It might make for a romantic image, but it’s poor scholarship, poor research, and not worthy of the National Geographic.

  2. z9y8x7
    July 2, 2012, 2:16 pm

    I also think there were mistakes.
    First, the sub was more or less submerged when the lanyard was pulled setting off the mine/torpedo. The shock wave could have weakened the cast iron. Second, the weather was the coldest in a long time, also weakening the iron (remember the Titanic?). Third, possibly a long shot, but those ships frequently used swivel cannon. Is it possible one hit the sub from either the prey ship or the one coming to its rescue, and not reported?
    Either of the 1st two scenarios are untested by the crew on the show but should have been. My bet is a larger piece of broken cast iron !
    Other than that, great show, thanks.