In the Waves

My Quest to Solve the Mystery of a Civil War Submarine

Available Now from Dutton Books

A Scientific American “Recommended Book”
An Amazon “Best Book of the Month” for History

The diminutive, hand-powered HL Hunley was the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship in combat, and it did so in 1864 during the heated final years of America’s bloodiest war. The little Confederate submarine disappeared immediately after its historic victory, leaving behind only a few muddled eyewitness reports and not a single physical clue to the cause of its own demise. It was recovered from beneath the ocean floor centuries later, in the year 2000, but the puzzle of its disappearance only deepened when the hull was opened to reveal that the remains of the crew were still seated peacefully at their battle stations, and seemed to be unharmed.

While a PhD student at Duke University, blast and ballistic trauma researcher Rachel Lance read about the mysterious crew deaths and decided to investigate. To her, the most likely suspect was the massive black powder bomb that the men set off only a few feet from their own bow.

This book tells the story of the science behind the explosions, gunshots, asphyxiation, and myriad other physiological insults that could have affected the crew of the Hunley that cold night in February 1864, all connected by the tale of the submarine and now-Doctor Lance’s mission to complete the experiments. And most importantly, it finally answers one of American history’s most haunting questions: What sank the HL Hunley?

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In the Waves is one part science book, one part historical narrative, one part memoir. The author vividly describes the physics and physiology of explosions, shock waves and asphyxiation, often addressing morbid topics with bemused detachment…. harrowing, and inspiring.”

The Wall Street Journal

“Surprising new facts about the first submarine to destroy an enemy ship. Lively… An entertaining account of research that solved a historical mystery.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Lance debuts with a thorough and persuasive account of her efforts to solve the mystery surrounding the February 1864 sinking of the Confederate submarine… [S]he has a firm command of both the scientific and historical subject matter and writes with flair. Her richly detailed account appears to definitively solve this Civil War–era mystery.”

Publishers Weekly

“Lance recounts her efforts to unravel the mystery in a lively, entertaining, novelistic style that carries the reader along with all the verve of an Agatha Christie whodunnit—only this is a real-life ‘whatdunnit.’”


“A page-turning tale of personal obsession to solve a great historical mystery frozen in time. Rachel Lance dives deep into an era during the Civil War when combatants took almost unimaginable risks, then uses a thrilling combination of creativity, ingenuity, and curiosity to answer questions long thought lost beneath the waves. A wonderful adventure told by that rarest of breeds—a scientist who writes beautifully and won’t relent until she knows.”

—Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers and Rocket Men

In the Waves draws the reader deep into a layered mystery, rich with explosive experimentation, Civil War history, and the engaging personal narrative of a young scientist. As persuasive as she is passionate, Rachel Lance expertly unravels the tragedy of the Hunley, complete with its scientific and historical context. Yet Lance’s book reveals more than torpedo blasts and shock waves: it is an inspiring look at what is possible when devotion and science are joined.”

—Nathalia Holt, author of Rise of the Rocket Girls

In the Waves is a thrilling expedition into one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Civil War. Harnessing the revelatory wonders of the digital age and her own undersea expertise—along with gritty determination and persuasive powers—Rachel Lance has delivered a mesmerizing tale of science, history, tragedy and adventure!”

—Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls

“Ever since the Confederate submarine H L Hunley was brought up from the ocean floor in 2000 with the skeletons of its eight crewmen still at their posts inside the intact hull, conservators and historians have speculated about their fate. Were they drowned by water pouring in from damage by the torpedo explosion that sank their target the USS Housatonic? Were they asphyxiated by lack of oxygen and carbon dioxide poisoning? Or did they die from some other cause? In this enthralling account based on extensive research and testing, the US Navy blast-injury specialist Rachel Lance solves the mystery in convincing fashion and offers an important contribution to Civil War literature.”

James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

“They were the first crew of a submarine to sink an enemy ship, but did they ever have a hope of coming home? To find out, Rachel Lance brings together an unlikely mix of old style weaponry, modern science and people who love to make things go bang. This is her determined search to uncover the truth about an impossible mission. It is a great read!”

—Sherry Sontag, co-author of Blind Man’s Bluff

“Rachel Lance’s In The Waves is a captivating magic trick of a book: part detective story, part scientific mystery, and part personal essay on the challenges—and triumphs of—researching stubborn history. Lance weaves these threads with astonishing aplomb, and the devastating denouement will haunt you long after you’ve turned the final page.”

—Karen Abbott, author of The Ghosts of Eden Park and Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

“Anyone who enjoys reading outstanding narrative nonfiction will absolutely love Rachel Lance’s In the Waves. Reading it is like watching Sherlock Holmes investigate a murder mystery—if ‘Sherlock’ were an exquisite writer, a woman, and had to solve the mystery while battling petty academic jealousies. Lance unravels the science and medical hypotheses with engaging observations, venturing from Kurt Vonnegut and the allied bombing of Dresden to Senator Strom Thurmond. And this storytelling ‘Sherlock’ also packs a genuine sense of humor.”

—Gary Kinder, author of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

In The Waves—a perfect title for Rachel Lance’s captivating tale documenting her obsession with solving the Civil War mystery about a tiny Confederate submarine that successfully blasted apart a Union ship in the Charleston harbor and then disappeared without a trace for 131 years. With determination and a knack for story-telling, Dr. Lance recreates the daring mission of the HL Hunley and her demise, using precision-based, bio-medical expertise to solve the mystery of how her eight-man crew died.”

—Ann Blackman, author of Wild Rose, Civil War Spy

“When we brought the Hunley up in 2000, we were shattered with exhaustion and had put everything we had into prying the Hunley from the mud of Charleston Harbor, but the recovery team assumed that the scientists and researchers who came after us would bring the same passion to the science and the story of Hunley as we had. We were not wrong. Dr. Lance brings a razor sharp mind and an equally sharp wit to the greatest remaining mystery of the Civil War—how and why did Hunley sink? Her rigorous and highly accessible science, leavened with more than a few lovingly described characters and wry observations of graduate student life makes In The Waves a compelling explanation and a rollicking good read!”

—David L. Conlin PhD, Hunley Recovery Team Field Director and Chief Archeologist at the National Park Service