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The Mysterious Pyrrhic Attack of the Confederate Submarine in 1864

Updated on August 28, 2017

The world's first combat submarine was a Confederate creation in an act of desperation to break the Union ship blockade during the American Civil War. The Confederates believed in slavery and white supremacy over other races, while the Union, opposed this with Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. President.

The design of the submarine had begun a few years earlier and after some success and failure during the test stages (where many were killed) it was decided that the submerged version be abandoned due to it was hard to control under water. Earlier versions had the submarine drag a torpedo-like device to be placed under a target, but again, this made it difficult to use in an attack because the submarine was to be submerged. The final version was to have the explosive device attached to a 16 foot extension in front of the submarine making it easier to target and place it under a ship.

The H.L. Hunley was commissioned for this one desperate attack, as the end of the long Civil War closed. Its target was the iconic USS Housatonic, one of the Union's new ships. The submarine with its small crew that hand cranked the propeller for power in a 3 ft. wide x 4 ft. high x 40 ft. long iron cast submarine, would travel six kilometers to its target at night near Charleston, South Carolina. When it reached its target, the submarine's conning tower could be seen and was thought to be a large whale by those who saw it. However, within seconds, rifle fire began and then the 135 lb. bomb exploded blasting a huge hole in the ship and it began to sink. At the time of explosion, the submarine was just 16 ft. or so away.

With the submarine weighing nearly 20 tons, it was woefully under powered by the eight men who sat hand cranking the propeller. The tremendous blast's impact on the submarine may have caused the demise. But it seems, for a short while, the submarine was able to move submerged before it sank itself some four miles off Sullivan Island.

It was not until May,1995, that the submarine and its crew were found and not until 2000 when it was lifted up from the bottom. After several years of cleaning and study, the mystery of what happened remained until just a few years ago.

After the Hunley had attacked, the explosion that sunk the target had also sent a deadly shock wave into and through the submarine. It was calculated that the submarine when submerged, had enough oxygen for two hours, more than enough time to return. Inside the submarine, the crew member skeletons were all sitting in their cranking positions, seated. None of the skeletons showed signs of trauma or bullet holes. No signs of desperation (as if someone was in panic and trying to escape). The two holes found in the submarine were later determined to have occurred long after the attack. The bilge pumps to pump water out were not set and the ballast weights remained attached. Both conning towers were closed tight. These are all indications that whatever happened inside, happened quickly, too fast to surface, set pumps, etc.

From all indications, suffocation or bullets piercing the submarine were not the cause of the demise. However, after conducting tests on a replica of the submarine and simulated explosion, it was determined that the close proximity of the submarine to the blast created a shock wave into the sub causing a 85% chance of pulmonary death and had anyone survived it and tried to escape, skeleton remains should indicate this. This was not the case. The bomb that sunk the Housatonic had created at least 1100 psi blast. Pressure that would cause lungs to fail and rupture instantly. This pressure wave would not be deflected by the submarine's hull and being instantaneous, none of the crew had any time to react. It just happened.

Assuming the submarine did travel a 1000 feet after the explosion, as some say, that only means that some men did survive a few minutes after the blast before they died of injury. There was only a 1% change that any man could escape uninjured. Once the injury turned fatal, the submarine simply sunk to its grave.

Mystery solved, over 100 years later!

One of the few photos of the submarine in 1864
One of the few photos of the submarine in 1864
The Torpedo
The Torpedo
How it looked in 2000
How it looked in 2000


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