The H.L. Hunley was one of the great engineering wonders of the U.S. Civil War and the first submarine ever to to sink an enemy ship. Such a feat was not repeated for another fifty years, when a German U-boat sank the HMS Pathfinder with the first successfully deployed self-propelled torpedo at the start of World War I. Notwithstanding this notable success, the Confederate Hunley is arguably best remembered for its failure to return after its first and only wartime mission, having vanished into the depths of Charleston Harbor.
By the late summer of 1863, the Civil War had been tearing up the country for nearly two and a half years, and besieged Charleston itself was a year into a sustained bombardment by Union shells that would eventually last 545 days and all but utterly destroy the city. Worse for the Confederacy as a whole was the Union naval blockade closing off Charleston and other Southern ports to shipments of food, weapons and supplies. The South had very few ships capable of going head to head with a Union warship, so the Confederate navy had to rely primarily on torpedoes. But these were not the sort of self-propelled torpedoes one imagines today; their explosive charge was enough to destroy a ship, but in order to work they often had to be anchored to the bottom of harbors and rivers and detonated with an electric cable running to shore when an enemy ship was spotted passing near the anchor point. Often the explosion came too early or too late to cause any major damage. Alternately, some torpedoes were left to float freely on the water and would explode if bumped by a passing ship. The most accurate delivery method was by means of Confederate David boats, cigar-shaped wooden vessels armored in iron and powered by steam that would ram a breakaway spar into an enemy ship’s hull and leave behind a torpedo triggered by pulling a lanyard once the David backed safely away. The problem with David boats, though, was that in daylight they were easily spotted and at night their engines were audible enough to alert Union lookouts and allow the targeted ship to move off while opening fire on the Confederates.
The obvious solution to this problem was a submarine, but although the idea was not new, no previous underwater vessel had ever managed to successfully sink an enemy ship. Enter Horace Lawson Hunley and James McClintock, who came to Mobile, Alabama, in 1862 with just such a plan in mind. The blockade had been preventing Hunley, a plantation owner, lawyer and customs officer in New Orleans, from shipping his cotton and sugar out of the country. After first captaining a blockade running ship, Hunley eventually wanted a better solution to his problem, and he and McClintock (who had the necessary machine-shop expertise) teamed up to build a submarine. Their first two models–the Pioneer and the American Diver–were too slow and too easily swamped, respectively. Their third effort, however, the H.L. Hunley, was given a test run in the summer of 1863, and it was a complete success, diving below a ship and blowing it to pieces by dragging a torpedo on the surface behind the submarine.
The Hunley was nearly 40 feet long, tapered at each end like a fish, and it moved through the water entirely by man-power–a captain directing a crew of seven to hand crank a shaft running straight down the middle of the ship to turn the propeller at the rear. It was equipped with two conning towers–fore and aft–so that the captain and the second in command could sight their course as the submarine skimmed just below the surface. Maneuverable dive planes on the hull helped the Hunley descend and surface as it moved forward, and when a full dive was ordered, the seacocks of two ballast tanks could be opened to take on water that was then expelled with hand pumps when it was time to surface. If a speedy surfacing was needed owing to some emergency circumstance, detachable iron ballast weights could be dropped from the outside of the sub’s keel by removing their bolts within. There was even a snorkel system that could be deployed to let in fresh air without having to fully surface and open the conning tower hatches through which the crew entered and exited the Hunley.
But space was tight–the crew’s compartment was only four feet high and three and a half feet wide, with just enough space for the crewmen to squeeze past the crank handles onto the wooden bench on which they sat shoulder-to-shoulder while onboard. When at the surface, a series of deadlights above their heads would let in a little ambient light, but once the submarine dove, the crew would’ve had to work in near-total darkness. The captain could light a lone candle when absolutely necessary, but this would’ve been used sparingly, as the flame consumed precious breathable air. The cramped quarters was one of the major risks of operating the Hunley, a risk that would lead to disaster on more than one occasion and doubtless ultimately contributed to the Hunley‘s doom.
Once the Hunley was completed, it was brought to Charleston harbor, where the need for such a ship was arguably greatest. Things immediately started to go very wrong. The first test run on August 29, 1863, never even saw the Hunley leave the wharf. One Lt. John Payne had been ordered (over Hunley’s and McClintock’s objections) to captain this test run. According to some accounts, as Payne was climbing down into a conning tower, he made a misstep, becoming fouled by the hawser and then stepping onto the lever controlling the dive planes in an attempt to get free; the sub began to dive while the hatches were still open, leading to the deaths of five men who had already climbed within and who were unable to escape as the water came flowing into the tight space. The vessel was raised, and Horace Hunley was given command of the second test run, during which the submarine successfully dove under a friendly ship. But then it failed to surface, and all hands drowned in the flooded vessel, including Mr. Hunley himself. The entire secret Hunley initiative was going to be scrapped until Confederate Lieutenants George E. Dixon and William Alexander examined the recovered vessel and determined pilot’s error and not mechanical error had caused the mishap–Horace Hunley, stationed at the captain’s position, had opened the forward seacock to flood the ballast chamber for a dive but had seemingly failed to monitor the rising water so as to close the seacock before the ballast tank filled and overflowed into the crew compartment.
General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, then stationed in Charleston and in command of coastal defenses in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, grudgingly allowed the Hunley‘s mission to go forward, but he ordered that the submarine would have to deliver its torpedo without making a full dive, which he felt had proven too risky. The Hunley was fitted with a spar on its nose, much like one of the Confederate David boats, but it would have the advantage of being able to ram its payload home while skimming just under the water’s surface, without the visibility or noise of a David. Command of the vessel went to Lt. Dixon, and (astoundingly given its recent track record) he had no problem finding seven volunteers to serve as his crew. Training vigorously throughout the winter, the crew made numerous successful practice runs from Sullivan’s Island not far from Charleston. In particular the crew practiced diving to the bottom (which might have proved necessary as an evasive maneuver), and they were consistently able to surface without incident … but for one occasion during which seaweed had gotten sucked into the ballast pumps and the crew’s air supply was nearly exhausted before the clog could be cleared by hand from within.
For weeks in January and February of 1864, the crew waited for strong winds to abate, not wanting to take any chances rough seas could sink the Hunley. At last, on the night of February 17, the weather calmed, the crew boarded, and the Hunley moved out into Charleston harbor in search of an enemy target. At approximately 8:45 pm, Dixon spotted the USS Housatonic, a Union steam sloop that formed part of the blockade. The captain ordered his crew to crank away, and the Hunley rushed toward its target. Moments before impact a lookout onboard the Housatonic spotted the Hunley, allowing a few bullets to be fired ineffectually at her iron hull. Then, with the explosive charge successfully embedded in the Union ship’s belly, the Hunley crew reversed their cranking and backed the submarine off, allowing the lanyard attached to the torpedo to spool out until it drew taut and ignited the charge. The resulting explosion rocked the Housatonic, tearing a hole in her hull and sending her to the bottom of the icy cold harbor within minutes. Astonishingly, nearly all of the Union crew–some 160 officers and enlisted–managed to escape in lifeboats or by climbing the ship’s rigging until rescued; only five Union crewmen died.
With that, the Hunley had earned her place in history as the first submarine to sink an enemy ship. The Confederate men waiting back on Sullivan’s Island saw the Hunley‘s pre-arranged blue-light signal flash over the harbor, indicating success, but as they waited through the night and on into morning, it became clear the Hunley was not going to return. Something had gone horribly wrong, and the submarine had sunk to the bottom of the harbor. This time, although there were many attempts to locate it in the years to come, the Hunley could not be found, and the cause of her demise remained a mystery. In a grimly poetic twist, exactly one year to the day after the Hunley‘s doomed mission, the Confederacy ordered the evacuation of beleaguered Charleston; Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had taken Columbia, flanking Charleston and rendering any further resistance futile. By the morning of February 18, 1864, the battered remains of Charleston were in Union hands.
But what of the Hunley? After lying hidden for 131 years at the bottom of Charleston Harbor, the wreck of the submarine was at last discovered in 1995, and the delicate process of raising her began. She was brought to the surface in 2000, with all eight crewmen’s remains rather amazingly well preserved due in large part to the anaerobic conditions in the submarine as it slowly filled with a fine silt carried by water through what appears to have been a lone breach at the forward conning tower. As for the mystery of what caused the Hunley to sink, forensic and archaeological investigations are still ongoing, but among the likeliest working theories is a sudden inundation of freezing water owing in part to a damaged forward conning tower window that may have been breached by small arms fire from the Housatonic. The bodies of all eight crewmen were laid to rest in 2004 with full military honors in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery.
For more on the Hunley and the latest archaeological discoveries visit Friends of the Hunley.