Book Review: In The Waves

In The Waves: My Quest To Solve The Mystery Of A Civil War Submarine, by Rachel Lance

This book’s appeal rests in the intersection of naval engineering and Civil War history in which the author represents someone who is a bit of an outsider and a renegade when it comes to the Friends of the Hunley. A great deal of this book consists of the author’s personal discussion of her research and her fears about not graduating in time given the pressure she was under to finish graduate school in five years, as well as her efforts to solve the riddle of the destruction of the Hunley, the first ever submarine vessel to successfully sink a surface ship. The author has a lot to say about her relationship with her now husband, and her fretting over the grind of research and being a workaholic, and her struggles to understand the scientific problem of the Hunley and how to adequately test given the vagaries of black powder and the effect of shock waves on people inside of submarines with very thin walls. By and large this book is a success, and if it is more casual than I would prefer, this book certainly has mass appeal, it must be admitted.

This book is between 250 and 300 pages, and is divided into eleven chapters. After a prologue, the author discusses how she became interested in the Hunley as a way of exploring wounds and the damage of pressure waves (1). This leads to a discussion of the theory that the crew of the Hunley died because of suffocation (2). After this comes a discussion of fish boats from the Confederacy (3), later called torpedo boats, as well as the fury beneath the waves in spar torpedoes (4). This leads to a discussion of the anatomy of the explosion (5). After this there is a discussion of the preparations that were made by the author to study now the explosion happened and its results (6) as well as some stories of the crew members of the Hunley (7). This is followed by a discussion of the traces of pressure that could be found (8) from tests and research as well as the perspective of the Housatonic (9), the Union ship sunk by the Hunley. The book then ends with two chapters, one on the blast (10), and another on a reconstruction of the attack of the Hunley (11), as well as the epilogue, as well as an author’s note, acknowledges, notes, bibliography, credits, and an index.

This book is properly speaking a personal quest, and a rather entertaining one, even if the author does not include all of the details that would flesh out this particular quest. The author, for example, keeps the math relatively limited and spends a fair amount of time talking about an imaginary personal unit of force known as the Rachel, as well as cutting out details about how she created her black powder spar torpedo and who all was involved in the testing of the CSS Tiny, her model of the Hunley, to show the pressures that resulted from the explosion of a spar torpedo given the location of the torpedo relative to the ship target as well as the submarine the spar was connected to. The author points out the ways that the Hunley was built in such a way that its demise was certain, and points to the desperation of the Confederacy in seeking infernal weapons that would turn the tide given their logistical weaknesses compared to the Union. The author manages to be sympathetic to the individual Confederates who died, giving some of them some detail concerning the knowledge that we have of them, without being at all sympathetic to the cause of the Confederacy. And this, I think, is quite the right approach to have in these matters.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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