The Weird Story of the Confederate Submarine H. L. Hunley

Reuters
December 23, 2019 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ConfederacyCivil WarAmericaUnionH. L. HunleySubmarines

The Weird Story of the Confederate Submarine H. L. Hunley

Mixed success.

Another sea trial took place on October 15, 1863. The inventor was aboard the vessel to ensure its proper operation. This time the vessel was scheduled to make a practice dive underneath a stationary Confederate receiving ship, the Indian Chief, anchored in Charleston Harbor. Although it successfully submerged, it failed to return to the surface. Hunley and the crew members all perished in the botched trial. The eight crew members, as well as Hunley, were laid to rest in a plot called “Hunley Circle” in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston. The Hunley’s run of bad luck earned it the nickname “floating coffin.”   

At that point, Beauregard was ready to scrap the program, but Lieutenant George E. Dixon, who was knowledgeable in the operation of the Hunley, convinced Beauregard to allow him to continue the trials. During the next trial, a cable to which the contact explosive was attached became entangled in the rudder of a ship towing the Hunley.

To remedy the entanglement problem, the vessel was outfitted with an alternate torpedo system. A spar torpedo was installed to be used when the submarine was six or more feet below the water’s surface. The explosive system consisted of a copper cylinder packed with 90 pounds of black powder attached to a 20-foot-long wooden spar mounted on the bow. The crew would ram its barbed tip into the target. Once the torpedo was affixed to the enemy ship, the crew would back away to a safe distance. Then the crew would activate the torpedo with a mechanical trigger. At this point, the Hunley was moored at the Battery Marshall dock on Sullivan’s Island.

The Confederates were finally ready to use the Hunley against a ship in Charleston Harbor. The Union fleet, though, had learned from deserters and spies that an effort was going to be made to destroy one or more of its vessels using a submersible. Although the Union ironclads that were stationed closest to shore took precautions to prevent a torpedo attack, wooden vessels that were farther out in the harbor took no such precaution in the mistaken belief that they would not be targeted. Dixon decided to attack one of the wooden ships.

During the interim period before the attack, the Hunley underwent more sea trials. During one of the trials, the vessel was successfully submerged for two hours and 35 minutes. Lieutenant Dixon and his crew waited for the optimal conditions to carry out their attack. They got their opportunity for a completely flat sea on the cold and windless night of February 17, 1864. The vessel departed from Breach Inlet, a passage noted for its strong current. Within 300 yards of his target, Dixon brought the Hunley to the surface to make one last observation.

Dixon had singled out the USS Housatonic, which had been on station for nearly a year and a half. The 207-foot-long, steam-powered, propeller-driven Union sloop of war mounted 12 cannons. Captain Charles Pickering, the commander of the ship, had orders to keep a sharp eye out for blockade runners. For that reason, he had the vessel’s fires stoked so that she could make steam on a moment’s notice.

As the Hunley approached the Housatonic, Dixon paused the vessel long enough to take in fresh air through the open hatchway and confirm his bearings. He then gave the order for the Hunley to proceed on its mission.

At 8:45 pm acting Master John K. Crosby on the deck of the Housatonic spied something in the chilly, dark waters of the harbor. After initially believing he had seen a porpoise, Crosby decided instead that it might be a Confederate torpedo boat. He sounded the alarm. Since the mysterious vessel was directly beneath the towering, three-masted sloop, the Union cannoneers could not depress their guns far enough to fire on it. Instead, the Union sailors began firing on the vessel with muskets and shotguns in a futile attempt to stop it. The bullets ricocheted off of the Hunley’s armor. The crew rammed the barb of the spar torpedo into the Union ship’s hull. The torpedo struck the Housatonic’s starboard side near its powder magazine. The crew of the Hunley then reversed the propeller as fast as they could crank the shaft.

The muffled explosion tore a hole in the Union ship. A geyser of water erupted into the air alongside the Housatonic, and then water began pouring in through the breach. Just three minutes had passed between the time the submarine had been sighted and the point at which the torpedo detonated. The Housatonic took on water quickly and slowly began to sink. Those who were able scrambled into hastily launched lifeboats, while the remainder climbed the rigging toward the starry sky. Since the vessel was in just 27 feet of water, the top of the rigging stayed above the surface of the water as the ship settled on the bottom. The USS Canandaigua dispatched rescue boats to pluck the men from the rigging and take them to safety. Because of these factors, the Union loss of lives was greatly minimized. Only five Union sailors perished in the ordeal. The Hunley never returned to the wharf on Sullivan’s Island; it went to the bottom, taking its crew with it.

In the final analysis, the Hunley killed far more of her own crew members than enemy sailors. Despite its tragic sea trials, the Hunley played a crucial part in the development of underwater warfare vessels. The Hunley has the distinction of being the first American submarine to sink an enemy warship in battle.

Efforts to find the Hunley began immediately after it sank. Union sailors dragged the waters around the Housatonic, hoping to find the Confederate submarine. It was believed for more than a century that when the Housatonic was scrapped the submarine was inadvertently demolished along with it. But evidence existed to contradict this assumption. Survivors of the Housatonic testified to the U.S. Navy in 1894 that after the explosion occurred light signals were exchanged between Confederates on the shore and a vessel in the water. This was confirmed by a Confederate officer who stated that he had answered a signal from the Hunley on its return from its mission.

The Hunley was eventually located seaward, not landward, of the Housatonic. Its location was unknown for 131 years because those searching for it had been looking between the Housatonic and the shoreline. The searchers assumed the submarine had gone to the bottom while attempting to return to shore. Of course, the reason it was seaward is unknown. 

The salvage team found a softball-sized hole in the Hunley’s forward conning tower, which led some experts to speculate that small arms fire from the sailors on the Housatonic shattered cast iron, allowing water to flood the Hunley. Other experts speculate that the crew ran out of air and succumbed to anoxia.

A private organization, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, spent 15 years trying to find the Hunley. Using a magnetometer, members of the organization finally located a large metal object in 1995 four miles off the coast of Sullivan’s Island. The vessel was located in 30 feet of water obscured by three feet of sediment. The salvagers raised the Hunley on August 8, 2000. It is now exhibited in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina. It is on display in a specially designed tank that holds 90,000 gallons of fresh water necessary to preserve it.

This article originally appeared in 2019 on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia.