The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

9 August 2003

The half-hour is at hand

As a lede for a story, this is hard to top:

Now we may know why the South lost the Civil War: Confederate time was about a half-hour slower than Yankee time.

I'm sure there was more to it than that, but here's the backstory:

In 1864, the Confederate States of America was not doing as well as it had hoped, and Charleston Harbor had been effectively blockaded by Union forces. In response, the Confederacy had developed a submarine. CSS Hunley looked something like an old boiler converted for marine use, largely because it was. Its armament was equally low-tech: a front-mounted harpoon which would ram enemy vessels, leaving behind enough of an explosive charge to blow them up while the Hunley, they hoped, would back away in time.

It worked well enough in its one and only test: on 17 February 1864 the Hunley took out the Union blockade vessel USS Housatonic. The Hunley resurfaced briefly, but never returned to port, and lay on the bottom of Charleston Harbor for over a century. In 1995, divers found the sub, and in 2000, it was raised from the sea and sent to a laboratory near Charleston for study.

Which brings us to that time difference. The study team is trying to figure out how long the Hunley might have survived after the attack. Survivors from the Housatonic — only five sailors were lost to the Union — reported that the attack came between 8:45 and 9 pm. One of the artifacts recovered from the Hunley was the pocket watch carried by Lt. George Dixon, the sub's commanding officer. It's frozen at 8:23, presumably by the action of seawater.

The Confederacy, it seems, operated on local sun time; at the time, all US naval vessels were synchronized to sun time at Washington, DC. The difference between the two is about twenty-six minutes. The attack on the Housatonic took at most five minutes; if it began at 8:45 Union time — 8:19 local Charleston time — it's possible that the Hunley was so heavily damaged itself by the attack that only the one brief surfacing was possible before the sub was dragged off to Davy Jones' locker.

It's probably more than 26 minutes too early to say for sure, but this explanation seems plausible enough, unless perhaps you're a descendant of Lt. Dixon or one of his crewmen.

Oh, and standard time zones were implemented across the States in 1883.

(Suggested by Fark)

Posted at 11:34 AM to Dyssynergy