Here's What You Need to Know: Despite being plagued by misfortune, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley became the first underwater vessel to sink an enemy warship.
At the start of the American Civil War in April 1861, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that he planned to blockade the Confederacy by stationing warships in waters off its shores. This entailed guarding 3,500 miles of coastline along the Atlantic seaboard and Gulf of Mexico. The primary targets of the blockade were the 12 largest ports.
The Confederate Navy endeavored to break the Union blockade, but it was seriously inferior to the vastly larger U.S. Navy. The Confederacy ruled out constructing a comparable fleet because of a shortage of funds. A partial answer to the blockade lay in the privateers’ use of steam-powered ships that could run the Union blockade. Yet the privateers met only a fraction of the Confederacy’s need in regard to getting sufficient exports of cotton to foreign markets and importing enough munitions and other war materials. The Union blockade quickly slowed the Confederacy’s exports and imports to a crawl.
Southern inventors sought to develop a weapon that could counter the blockade fleet. The Confederate government offered private contractors a bounty of 20 percent of the value of any warship sunk by a licensed privateer. Inventors put their minds to developing an underwater vessel that could attack the blockading ships.
The idea of submersibles was not a new one. Inventor David Bushnell had introduced the submarine Turtle during the Revolutionary War. The Turtle had conducted an unsuccessful attack in September 1776 against the British 64-gun Eagle anchored in New York Harbor. Most of the work related to submersibles during the late 18th century was theoretical rather than practical, though.
Three visionary naval engineers—Horace Hunley, James McClintock, and Baxter Watson—gathered in New Orleans in 1861 to build an underwater vessel that might serve as a much-needed nautical weapon against the Union blockade. The U.S. Navy also was at work on a submersible to use against Confederate ships. In November 1861 the U.S. Navy entered into a contract with French inventor Brutus de Villeroi, who lived in Philadelphia, to develop a hand-cranked, screw-propeller submarine. The U.S. Navy ultimately purchased the vessel, named the Alligator, when it was completed in June 1862. It met a swift demise when it sank in rough seas in April 1863.
Horace Lawson Hunley was the most influential and resourceful of the trio of Southern inventors. A native of Tennesee, he attended the University of Lousiana. He went on to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1849. Hunley amassed considerable wealth as a sugar and cotton planter in Lafourche Parish during the 1850s. In 1857 he was appointed to serve as a clerk in the U.S. Customs House in New Orleans. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Hunley was a special collector for the Port of New Orleans, which made him an agent of the Confederate government.
The three inventors built a prototype submarine they named the Pioneer. In February 1862, they tested the vessel in the muddy waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. But the Union advance on New Orleans the following month prompted the men to scuttle the Pioneer in the New Basin Canal on April 25, 1862.
The men resumed their work in Mobile, Alabama, where they teamed up with Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons to develop a second vessel, the American Diver. The design team received substantial assistance from the Confederate Army. Lieutenant William Alexander of the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment stepped in to oversee the work. In the course of its construction, the marine engineers experimented with electromagnetic and steam propulsion before deciding on a simple hand-cranked propulsion system. The American Diver underwent trials in Mobile Bay in January 1863. The trials revealed that its propulsion system was too slow to be practical. An attack by the American Diver on Union vessels the following month was unsuccessful. The submarine sank in Mobile Bay during a storm and was never recovered.
After the loss of the American Diver, work began on a new vessel known as the H.L. Hunley. The third vessel was primarily Hunley’s project. He constructed his crude, hand-powered submarine from a 25-foot-long cylinder boiler that was 48 inches in diameter. He cut the boiler in half lengthwise and installed two half-inch iron straps on each side.
Next, Hunley extended the structure by fitting it with a tapering iron section both fore and aft that extended it to 40 feet in length. The resulting underwater vessel was four feet wide and five feet deep. He then installed water tanks outfitted with a stop-cock, an externally operated valve, that permitted water to flow into a tank to submerge the vessel. He also installed a pump to empty the tanks for raising the boat. To assist the pilot in determining the depth, Hunley installed a mercury gauge. He also installed a shaft, controlled by a lever amidships, to raise or lower the fins.
The submarine was outfitted with a hatchway fore and aft. The hatches were sealed with rubber gaskets and bolted from the inside. Each of the vessel’s hatches had an eight-inch-high combing. Glass was installed in the sides and ends of the combings to allow the crew to see outside of the vessel. The designers made an opening in the top of the boat for a lever-operated air box outfitted with another stop-cock to admit air. Because of its long, slim shape it was dubbed the “Fish Boat.”
The Hunley was operated manually by a commander and eight crew members. The commander navigated the vessel by looking through glass viewing ports in the hatch cover. He controlled the submarine’s depth with a handle that operated the dive planes, and he steered the Hunley with a lever that operated rods and cables that turned the vessel’s rudder. The eight crew members operated the hand-cranked propeller shaft. The propeller revolved inside a wrought-iron ring to guard against it being fouled. The shaft and cranks took up much of the space inside the vessel, making movement next to impossible. Besides being cramped, the vessel was also dark. The only light came from a candle the commander used to read the depth gauge. The crew could operate the Hunley underwater, but the vessel required calm seas to run successfully.
The Hunley’s armament originally consisted of a floating explosive charge that used a contact fuse attached to the end of a 200-foot-long rope. The intent was to have the Hunley dive under its intended target and then surface once it had passed by it. The vessel would pull the torpedo against an enemy ship to make it explode.
The first trial with the newly constructed submarine took place with mixed results in Mobile Bay in July 1863. The Hunley submerged well enough but could not return to the surface. Nevertheless, the underwater vessel received the support it needed to go into action from Admiral Franklin Buchanan, the Confederate naval commander in Mobile and former commander of the CSS Virginia. In response to inquiries by General P.G.T. Beauregard, the commander of Charleston, South Carolina, Buchanan sent him a written endorsement in which he praised the Hunley’s potential.
Beauregard subsequently arranged for the Hunley to be shipped by rail to Charleston. The Hunley arrived on flatcars on August 12. Inventor-turned-captain James McClintock, the first commander of the Hunley during its Charleston deployment, was reluctant to engage the Union ships. Beauregard quickly grew impatient with McClintock’s timidity. Beauregard decided that the only way to get the vessel into action was if Confederate military forces owned it. He therefore convinced the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia, to acquire the vessel. By late August, McClintock had been sacked. He was replaced by Lieutenant John Payne, who took charge of the vessel’s volunteer civilian crew.
The Hunley was plagued throughout its development with problems associated with its submerging capabilities. While the boat was tied to the wharf at Fort Johnson on James Island, a passing steamer swamped it, sending it to the bottom. The men aboard the vessel at the time perished. Payne escaped because he was able to get out of a hatch. As soon as the vessel was raised, Payne and another crew volunteered for service. When the boat set out on a trial run, Payne became tangled in the Hunley’s internal equipment and inadvertently made the vessel dive while the hatch covers were open. Water swept into the vessel as the crew tried desperately to evacuate. Although Payne, Lieutenant Charles Hasker, and two crewmembers escaped, the rest of the crew drowned. Hasker, who was not ordinarily assigned to the vessel, had joined it for the test. While Payne and the other two men managed to swim free before the vessel hit the sea floor, Hasker miraculously managed to free himself after going to the bottom of the harbor.
The vessel was successfully raised from the harbor floor and cleaned for another trial; however, by that time the Hunley had a reputation as a death trap. Because of that, it was difficult to find more volunteers. When Horace Hunley learned of the continuing fatal accidents, he was convinced that the crews were improperly operating the vessel. He journeyed to Charleston to instruct the next crew in the proper operation of the underwater vessel. Beauregard was heartened by Hunley’s willingness to personally train the new crew.