The "Anaconda" — that was the plan: Union forces during the Civil War would encircle the South by blockading Southern ports, sending gunboats down the Mississippi, and marching land forces into and across enemy territory. "Once thus invaded and constricted," Tom Chaffin writes in The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy (Hill and Wang), "the Confederacy, denied its economic lifeblood, would soon perish." And in 1865, the Confederacy did.
Fast-forward 141 years. An anaconda — that's what Chaffin called the shape of his brain tumor, which doctors discovered in the summer of 2006 after the author suffered a seizure in his Atlanta home.
Chaffin has written about that diagnosis, his surgery, and his months of recovery in The New York Times Magazine and in the Oxford American, where he described the brain scan that showed a three-inch tumor in the shape of a snake and the "logic" behind it: "invasion and constriction."
Unlike the Confederacy, however, Chaffin didn't perish. He survived the surgery, but he suffered for months from aphasia, which affected his ability to express himself in sentences. He also experienced temporary paralysis along the right side of his body. But thanks to months of rehab, Chaffin — a journalist turned historian now teaching at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville — made his deadline: The first draft of his fourth book was finished on August 12, 2007, the eve of the first anniversary of his seizure.
As Chaffin told the Flyer following a recent Memphis booksigning, the book was his "way back to the world" after the "cognitive Bermuda Triangle" he found himself in after surgery: He worked 12-hour days of research then writing, seven days a week, for 12 full months. He also called his seizure, surgery, and rehab "a season in hell," but, as he admitted, "So much of this was dumb luck" — luck that his tumor was benign and luck that he made such a successful comeback. "Luck, more than any moral virtue on my part," Chaffin added.
How about also "a willingness of the heart" on Chaffin's part? That's the phrase F. Scott Fitzgerald used of the men who died at Shiloh, and it's a phrase Chaffin borrows in his book to describe the courage it must have taken to be a member of the second and third crews of the H.L. Hunley.
The first of those crews lost five men when the Hunley, on a trial run, sank in Charleston Harbor in August 1863, but the Hunley was recovered. The second crew (eight men in all, including the commander, Horace Lawson Hunley) died when the Hunley, on another trial run, sank in October, but again it was recovered. As for the third crew: mission accomplished, then disaster.
The Hunley, working for the Confederate cause, became the first submarine in history to torpedo and sink an enemy ship, the USS Housatonic, in the waters off Charleston. The date was February 17, 1864, but the manually propelled Hunley — 40 feet in length; a mere four feet in height — never surfaced, the reason for the submarine's disappearance after the explosion, even its exact location on the ocean floor, an abiding mystery until the sub's sighting in 1995 and recovery five years later.
It's now the focus of scientific study at Clemson University's Warren Lasch Conservation Center, just as it has continued to fascinate students of the Civil War, from academics to buffs.
Chaffin's an academic but no buff. He's a practiced reporter careful to get the details right. Where Chaffin encountered legends and half-truths (what he called "the "barnacles of accumulated lore") attached to the rich history of the Hunley, he "unceremoniously cast [them] overboard."
"The story of the H.L. Hunley has ebbed and flowed in the public memory," Chaffin said. "What I wanted were the basic facts supported by primary sources. And though I was aware of the contours of the story when I started, I soon found it to be a more complicated story, animated by more nuances, than I'd imagined. After my recovery, however, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd started on this book prematurely. Paradoxically, that led me to be even more aggressive at fact-checking."
Let one fact speak for itself: The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy is narrative history at its most readable and remarkable.
The Hunley: recovered. Tom Chaffin too.