(the Hunley has been recovered and taken to Charleston Tuesday, 8 August 2000, see notes at the bottom.)

Despite what you may have read or been told about our "non-industrial," "illiterate," "Plantation South," the Confederacy produced the world's first successful submarine, the first to sink an enemy ship in war, the Hunley, and it was both in appearance and function very similar to modern day submarines.  No submarine sank an enemy vessel again until World War I!  I never read this in any of my history books, but then I suspect most of those were written by Yankees!  We shall endeavor to correct some of this.

The Confederate Submarine Fleet.  The South actually had something of a fleet of submarines (ok, ok, we had at least four, -grin- and one of those just a proof of concept, but plans for more, and the torpedo boats were pretty remarkable in themselves.).  The C.S.S. Hunley was the third (not counting the submarine of unknown history now in the LSU museum), and there were plans for many.  The Hunley handled well, and made many trips out towards the Union blockade ships, but they were generally so far out to sea that she was unsuccessful at making a kill.  At first, she was towed out by a steam powered David class torpedo boat, which was similar to the Hunley, but did not submerge.  The Hunley at first drug an explosive charge along behind, but this proved dangerous.  While being towed out to sea, at least once the towing vessel stopped, and the towed charge floated up between the two, and became entangled, threatening both.  A crewman jumped overboard and miraculously unentangled the charge, and gently pushed it away.  The kill was to be made by the Hunley diving beneath the enemy, dragging the explosive charge into contact with the enemy's hull. The union ships placed nets and chains around their ships to render this difficult.  The Hunley made many trips out into the cold Atlantic dragging such a perilous charge, but had difficulty covering the distance to the Union blockade ships.  Recall, dear reader, that the Hunley was powered by men turning a huge crankshaft!

Next, Lt. Dixon placed a two inch iron pipe 20-25 feet long, on the front of the submarine, and attached the explosive to this pipe.  This was the configuration the night of the kill (note my sources are ambiguous here on whether this was an iron pipe or wooden spar).   The Union had gotten brave, and had placed a ship very close in, to try to catch blockage runners, who were slipping into Charleston. On 17 Feb. 1864, the Confederate submarine, H. L. Hunley, "torpedoed" (more on this later) this Union blockade ship, the USS Housatonic, about four miles from Charleston Harbor. Unfortunately, the Hunley sank before returning to harbor, and all on board were lost. The present location of the Hunley on the floor of the Atlantic was discovered in 1995, and efforts are underway to recover it and place it on display in Charleston.  She lies beneath only about 30 feet of water and was brought to the surface 8 August 2000.

Construction of the Hunley was financed by Captain Horace L. Hunley, a New Orleans lawyer, and sugar planter, and after whom the submarine was known, and several others.

The Hunley engine was an eight man hand crank, much like a modern day automobile crankshaft, except people replaced the pistons. Is this the worlds first "straight eight?" The Hunley weighed 7.5 tons, was just under 40 feet long, just under 4 feet wide, and 4 feet 3 inches high! No claustrophobes need apply here! The surface speed was about 5 mph (4 knots), and the Captain rounded out the nine man crew. The Hunley had a snorkel, which reputedly never worked, for drawing in fresh air when the submarine was near the surface. The hatch cover weighed in at 145 pounds (makes our aircraft emergency exit doors featherweights!).

The Hunley had an oxygen sensor in the form of a candle (not quite as sophisticated as the ones on our cars today), also the only source of light. When it went out, about 25 minutes after the hatch was closed, the crew had to blow the bilge tanks (with manual pumps) and surface.

The Hunley sank twice during training runs in Charleston harbor in 1863, with considerable loss of life, five men the first time, and eight the second.  The second deadly sinking occurred when the Hunley was literally driven straight into the mud on the bottom of the harbor!  Both were deemed due to pilot error, not mechanical flaws with the submarine itself. Through unfortunate error, the submarine also sank once by accident with no one on board.  General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was in command of the defense of Charleston, refused to let the submarine sail again, because he deemed it more dangerous to the crew than to the enemy!  He only agreed to permit it to sail a third time if all volunteers were thoroughly acquainted with the dangers.  This link is to lists of the Hunley Crews.

The image is from "Submarine Torpedo Boat H.L. Hunley Dec. 6 1863" by artist Conrad Wise Chapman (The Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. Photograph by Katherine Wetze), on the cover of the SCDAH South Carolina Highway Historical Marker Guide.  Used with permission (Your tax dollars in action!).

Turn the crank.

Oh brave!  

So Brave ... (Haiku)

The kill was made by pilot Lt. George Dixon and his eight man crew during the night of 17 February 1864.  The crew of the Hunley approached the Union blockade ship, the Housatonic, which was powered by steam and conventional sail.  On the front of the Hunley was a 22 foot long wooden tip (spar), with a 135 pound "torpedo"  (an explosive charge) stuck on the end, and attached via a rope.  The Hunley rammed the torpedo inside the hull of the Housatonic below or right at the waterline.  Then the "straight eight" reversed direction and backed away from the doomed Union vessel. When the rope reached its limit, it jerked a mechanism that activated the "torpedo," and blew a hole in the side of the ship, and set the entire ship on fire.   The Housatonic burned and sank three minutes later.  All aboard were rescued with the exception of five men.  The Hunley flashed a pre-arranged signal indicating success, then disappeared until 1995.  No one knows for sure (yet) why the Hunley sank a third time.  Speculations are: the sub was too close to the explosion and the hull was damaged; other Union ships racing to the sinking Housatonic may have created waves that swamped the submarine while the victory light was being waved through the open hatch; one of the other Union ships may have accidentally struck the Hunley; or gunfire aimed at the sub when it was discovered may have knocked out the glass in the conning tower, perhaps striking Lt. Dixon in the head, creating massive confusion amongst the crew in the crowded quarters below.

Thus the "torpedo" used to destroy the Housatonic is seen to be an explosive device on the end of a long stick, automatically activated by a clever trip rope mechanism, not exactly the self powered device used in Word War  I & II that moved under water by itself.

The Hunley was located in 1995 on the floor of the Atlantic. It was lifted from the floor shortly before 9 AM on 9 (or 8?) August 2000 and placed on a barge for a short trip to a conservation lab at the former Charleston Naval Base.  It is anticipated that it will be seven years before it is placed on display at the Charleston Museum.  There was a hole in the side and a broken window in the observation tower.  Further analysis will probably shed light on why it sank.  The remains of the crew will be buried with full military honors once they are recovered from the inside.

The Hunley is Now On Display!

"Display has first submarine to sink warship

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) #151; As of Saturday, the public is getting an up-close look at the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley as the state began tours of the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship. Visitors will be able to see the Hunley on weekends in its North Charleston conservation center. The tours, to be held for at least five weeks, will be run from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturdays and from noon until 5 p.m. on Sundays.

The Hunley, a hand-cranked submarine fashioned of locomotive boilers, sank the Union blockade vessel Housatonic in February 1864. The sub and its crew of nine went down off Sullivans Island shortly after completing its mission.

The vessel was raised to a tumultuous welcome in August and brought to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at the old Charleston Navy Base.

During the 20-minute tours, visitors will be able to see the submarine, which rests in a tank of 50-degree water, and hear a brief program on the submarine’s history and historical significance, officials said. Tickets will cost $10 and are available by calling (888) 202-3849 or go to www.etix.com."

This article appeared in the Nashua (NH) Telegraph, Sunday 15 Oct. 2000

You can read about the recovery on the Hunley web site. (offsite)


Highway Marker: 10-27 CS H. L. Hunley.* Poe Ave., Sullivan's Island, near Ft. Moultrie

(Front) The CS H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy warship, left from a point near here on the evening of February 17, 1864, and proceeded out Breach Inlet toward the USS Housatonic, anchored nearby. The Hunley rammed a fixed torpedo into the Housatonic's hull below the waterline, sinking it within an hour with a loss of 5 Union sailors. The Hunley itself sank as well about 3.5 mi. offshore with its entire 9-man crew of Confederate volunteers.

(Reverse) The Hunley, named for Horace L. Hunley (1823—1863), an early promoter of Confederate submarines, had already lost a 5-man crew in August 1863 and an 8-man crew, including Hunley, in October 1863 during trial runs in Charleston Harbor. Its last crew, commanded by Lt. George E. Dixon of the 21st Alabama, included Fred Collins, James A. Wicks, C. Simkins, Arnold Becker, and Ridgeway of the Navy, C. F. Carison of Wagner's Co., S.C. Arty., — White, and Miller. Erected by Palmetto Soldiers Relief Society—1997 (SCDAH, South Carolina Highway Historical Marker Guide 1998, used with permission.)


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