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A Short History of Revolutionary and Civil War Submarines

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When I hear the word “submarine,” I think of something out of The Hunt For Red October. Yet sub-surface warfare predates the Cold War by over a century. In fact, the first conflict to put military submarines in action was the Revolutionary War, and it was the American Civil War which saw the world’s first spurt of successful submarine combat.

Underwater Revolution

In 1775, Connecticut resident and Yale University science student David Bushnell constructed a one-man craft which was described as resembling “two upper shells of a tortoise joined together." Appropriately, it was dubbed the Turtle. An amazed George Washington called the project “an effort of genius.”

The Turtle was eventually lost when a vessel carrying it sank in the Hudson River, and when the War of 1812 cropped up, a new one-man submarine was crafted for the American cause by another Connecticut inventor named Silas Halsey. Halsey went down with his ship on the night of June 30, 1813. It wouldn’t be the last time a primitive submarine claimed the life of its builder.

Uncivil Ships

Submarine building continued during the Civil War. The Confederates’ first underwater attack vessel—the CSS Pioneer—was built in New Orleans in 1862, but was later dismantled prior to the Union’s conquest of the city. Though it was never used, the new ship had dwarfed its forebears at 30 feet in length and could hold a whopping two crewmembers. The Pioneer II (also known as the American Diver) had a more hydrodynamic design and featured an expanded interior built for four to five men. But the American Diver met a watery grave in Alabama’s Mobile Bay during a test-run in 1863 (though her crew was rescued).

Meanwhile, the North was busily working on its own submarine. A Union sub called the USS Alligator was built and tested in 1861. Its greatest innovation was a sealable hatchway that would allow divers to exit the vessel underwater. In 1863, the unmanned 45-foot ship was lost at sea while being towed to Charleston, and has never been recovered despite decades of searching.

Later that year, a vastly-improved ship named the H.L. Hunley was built. At nearly 40 feet in length and 7.5 tons in weight, the vessel was intended for a crew of eight: one man would steer while his companions would sit along a wooden bench and manually rotate a crankshaft that turned the propeller.

The H.L. Hunley sank twice during its training period, killing most or all of its crew on each occasion, including her designer and namesake Horace Hunley on the second attempt. But she was recovered each time, and finally embarked on her first mission on the night of February 17, 1864.

The task was to destroy a Union vessel in the blockade of Charleston’s outer harbor. To accomplish this, a 17-foot-long spar had been fitted to the Hunley’s bow, with a barbed container of explosives secured to its tip. The stealthy vessel deposited its torpedo upon the USS Housatonic, which sank after the resulting explosion—the first ship in world history to be capsized by a submarine attack. For unknown reasons, the Hunley herself also sank shortly thereafter.

The Hunley was eventually rediscovered in 1970. Thirty years later, after extensive archaeological analysis, she was finally brought back to the surface, and is undergoing further study in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. Plans for a permanent museum are currently being laid out.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing


1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.


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