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CSS H.L. Hunley crew finally layed to rest

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Hundreds watch somber ceremony

BY BRIAN HICKS

Of The Post and Courier Staff

They left their Mount Pleasant boarding house quietly more than 140 years ago, setting out on a secret mission and a date with history.

Their return on Monday was met with considerably more attention.

More than 500 people watched silently Monday afternoon as eight Cadillac hearses delivered the final crew of the H.L. Hunley to Patriots Point, where they will lie in state on the aircraft carrier Yorktown until 10 p.m. tonight.

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Confederate re-enactors line up Monday as they carry the crew of the H.L. Hunley Confederate submarine onto the aircraft carrier Yorktown in Mount Pleasant, where they were to lie in state before funeral ceremonies Saturday.

Their arrival, the first ceremony in a week of funeral rituals, went off with military precision. Three blasts from a cannon announced the hearses, and once they were parked, a bugler played taps while re-enactor pallbearers stood solemnly at attention.

The Confederate sailors returned to a world much different than the one they departed on Feb. 17, 1864, after sinking the USS Housatonic. Their hearses, parked under two-dozen fluttering American flags, each had more room than their warship.

A reminder of their legacy -- a 325-foot World War II-era submarine -- was moored within sight of the procession.

The men arrived in the order they sat on the Hunley with Lt. George E. Dixon, the sub's captain, in the first car.

Re-enactor Charlie Hiers, a volunteer on the Hunley project, served as one of Dixon's pallbearers and said it was like participating in history.

"I was very humbled," Hiers said. "They never got a proper burial. I believe they deserve this."

The crew of the Hunley was separated from the submarine for the first time in more than a century early Monday when the hearses left the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. For the archaeologists and other scientists who have studied the men for more than three years, it was a surprisingly emotional goodbye. By late afternoon, the lab felt like a family home with all of its children gone.

The hearses were parked at the Mount Pleasant National Guard Armory briefly Monday, officials not tempting fate with Cooper River Bridge traffic -- something that wasn't an issue in Civil War-era Charleston.

As a result, the vehicles arrived promptly at 5 p.m. The 48 pallbearers removed the coffins from the hearses simultaneously before marching them into the Yorktown. The pallbearers for the man history records as C. Simpkins were dressed in the uniform of the CSS Indian Chief, his assignment before he volunteered for the Hunley.

Inside, their simple oak coffins, draped in the Second National Flag of the Confederate States, were placed beneath a model of another pioneering craft: the Wright Brothers plane.

"It was extremely emotional," Belinda Wilkins of St. Matthews said.

"This is long overdue," said Elaine Gunter of Lexington.

The men will lie in state in three churches around Charleston on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, but the Hunley Commission -- in charge of funeral details -- said that was to touch base with a variety of religious denominations and to give more people a chance to honor them. No one church could handle the flow of people. In the first hour of visitation Monday night, several hundred people filed through.

Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, was first to sign the register book.

"There are moments that evoke emotion, and this is one of them," McConnell said. "It was somewhat sad to see them leave the lab, but they are headed to their rightful resting place."

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