The Unlucky Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley
One-hundred fifty years ago on February 17, 1864, at about 8:45 PM, the most significant event in maritime history took place on that night. After about three years of fighting, Charleston, South Carolina was still in the hands of the Confederates despite the constant bombardments from the Federals of it surrounding area and itself. Federal Admiral John Dahlegren was determined to enforced his blockade in the port with his monitors and ironclade ships to break the grip of the Confederacy. There was one ship in particular in the blockade, USS Housatonic that was about to play a significant role in this historic event.
Acting Master J.K. Crosby, officer of the deck, noticed a disturbance in the water about 100 yards from the ship. Crosby thought it was a school of fish, a porpoise, or even a plank moving in the water. Crosby begins to realize that whatever it was it was coming toward the ship. He immediately gave order to slip the chain, call all hands on deck and call the captain. The Housatonic was about to become the first ship to be attack by a submarine and the only ship to experience a submarine attack during the Civil War.
It is by chance that the Confederate Ship, H.L. Hunley survived this long from its beginnings in late 1861 for this historic event to occur. The Hunley was known as the Fish, the American Diver, the David and nicknamed the Peripatetic Coffin. It had it beginnings after the fall of New Orleans. It builders, James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson were determined to build a submarine with private expenses to operate against the Federal blockade in the mouth of the Mississippi River. Also during the early part of war, Jefferson Davis, began offering monetary incentives to citizens to wage war against Union vessels. The builders of the Hunley knew a submarine will pay for itself if it was operated successfully in port without going out to sea to destroy these ships.
McClintock and Watson started building the submarine in late 1861. Eventually, other builders joined the project due to mounting expenses. One of the new financial backers was Horace Lawson Hunley, a New Orlean lawyer and state legislator. The first submarine named the Pioneer was completed and christened in the Spring of 1862. On it trial run in Lake Pontchartrain, the submarine successfully destroy a barge and plans were later laid to make an attempt to break the Union blockade.
n late April Farragut captured New Orleans. The Pioneer never made it to action. It sank either by accident or by design, and it was forgotten until it was found and raised many years later. After this turn of events, McClintock, Watson, and Huntley moved their team to Mobile, Alabama where they met another backer for their project, Major General Dahney H. Maury. He welcome the men and approved their plans for private funding. The boat was build in the machine shops of Parks and Lyons with the assistance of two young engineers from the twenty-first Alabama Infantry, Lieutenants George E. Dixon and William A. Alexander. The submarine was build and towed off Fort Morgan, but it sank before being manned. This was the second submarine the builders had lost.
The builders built their third submarine from an iron boiler as described here. The boiler was about twenty-five feet long and four feet wide. They cut it lengthwise, tapered both ends , inserted boiler-iron strips in the sides, and attached bow and stern castings. Water ballast tanks were placed inside the castings for use to lower or raise the submarine. Finally a strip twelve inches wide was riveted the full length of the boat and another ballast tank was added under the submarine fastened by bolts. This allow the men to drop the underside ballast tank in an emergency for a quick ascent to the surface. Sea cocks were installed in the water-ballast tanks with force pumps to eject the water.
The biggest problem the builders had to deal with was propulsion. Coal could not be burned underwater due to the limited supply of oxygen and plus a smokestack could not be added to the submarine. The builders tried to come up with other ways to propel the sub but settled on manual propulsion. They installed a propeller shaft the length of the sub with eight cranks spaces so that the crew can set and turn it, fins on the sides for depth control and a compass and a mercury gauge for the pilot to measure direction and depth. The sub was designed to carry nine men during it runs.
Finally, the builders installed two hatches with glass panes for seeing out of the sub. These hatches were eight inches above the flat deck one at each end of the sub for boarding it. They also installed an airbox between the hatches to let in air when the sub was on the surface of the water. After the sub was completed, the builders named the sub the H.L. Hunley, in honor of her chief financial backer. This sub was capable of going four miles per hours in smooth water and could stay submerged as long as the air lasted. It was determined that the air in the sub with nine men sitting still could last up to two hours and thirty-five minutes.
On it first trial run in the smooth water of Mobile River, the submarine performed as expected. The sub towed a floating torpedo, dived under a flatboat and successfully scored a hit, blowing the boat to pieces. However, when the sub was tested in rough water, it responded poorly and was in constant danger of flooding. It was at this point that the builders and others began to realized that the sub had a serious tendency to drown her crew. The sub eventually became known as the Peripatetic Coffin because of this problem. General Maury and it owners alike agreed that the sub's future in Mobile Bay was not a good one. They decided Charleston would be a better place to operate this sub especially since this port needed more help. During the summer of 1863, a land and sea attack was underway with threats from the Federals ironclad, specifically the New Ironsides. The owners knew this was a perfect opportunity to destroy this ship using the H.L. Hunley.
General Maury offered the Hunley to General Beauregard, commander of Charleston defenses and he accepted the offer. Immediately the Hunley was load on two flatcars and transported from Mobile, Alabama by railroad to Charleston. To Beauregard, the offer could not have come at a better time. Once the sub arrived, Commodore John R. Tucker took on the difficult task of finding volunteers to operate the deadly looking boat. Lieutenant John Payne immediately asked for the command. A crew joined him, and the Hunley was towed to Fort Johnson for trial runs.
The first tragic event struck a few nights later while in dock. The submarine sunk immediately with it crew when a swell from a passing steamer poured over the deck while the hatch was open. Payne escaped the sub since he was still standing in the hatch when it went down. The other eight crew members perished.
Payne raised the sub after this event and found another crew. After the sub was repaired, the trials were resumed alongside the wharf at Fort Sumter and history repeated itself. Again the sub was flooded and this time Payne and two other crew members escaped the sunken sub. In all fourteen men have lost their lives so far. At this point, Beauregard was beginning to wonder if this sub was worth it.
News of the problem with the sub sinking got back to Hunley in Mobile. He decided to come to Charleston himself with a volunteer crew to operate the sub because he believed all the previous commanders were operating the sub improperly. Once there, Hunley and his crew took the submarine on a successful dive and returned on the first trial run. But on a rainy October 15 Hunley and his crew took the sub out a second time for a dive and failed to return to the surface. The submarine had claim another nine lives, including its builder Hunley, for a total of 23 men drowned so far. After this tragic event, Beauregard called a halt to the experiments. He had witnessed the loss of those 23 lives.
Again word got back to Mobile, this time to the two engineers Dixon and Alexander who help build the Hunley. When they arrived in Charleston they pleaded with Beauregard to let them raise the sub again for another run. Beauregard was hesitant at first to allow the engineers to raise the sub. But with a suggestion from General Jordan, an agreement was made that they should use the sub as a boat moving just below the surface with a torpedo spar attached to it front end instead of as a submarine he finally allow the engineers to raise it. Later that agreement was soften and again the sub was operated underwater the way it was intended to with a torpedo spar attached to it bow.
The sub was repaired, and Dixon and Alexander went to General Jordan for a crew. The crew this time were experience navy men who had volunteered despite the fact that they were given a full account of the unfortunate lost of 23 lives on that boat. Everyone was skeptical about the sub initially, but it appear the jinx was broken after Dixon and Alexander with the crew made a serial of successful runs without incident.
By now it was November, plans were in place for their attack on one the ships in the harbor. The ships out at sea were too far for the crew to crank the Hunley out there and return safely. Also, the water was rough and the current was stronger out there. The ideal attack plan would be to go out with the ebb tide on a dark, calm night, strike and come in with the flood tide.
Meanwhile during the trial runs, secret of the Hunley had gotten back to Admiral Dahlegen from a Confederate deserter. Immediately he gave orders to drape netting on the sides of all his ships for extra protection. Then around January 1864 Alexander was ordered back to Mobile to work on a breech-loading repeating gun and Dixon had to find a new second-in-command.
Finally, on February 17 on a calm, bright moon lit, night; Dixon decided it was time to put his plan in action. At Battery Marshall, a signal was agreed on for his use in case the Hunley wanted a light to guide her back. The crew boarded the Hunley, closed the hatch and slipped quietly under the water to its target.
Acting Master Crosby noticed something moving in the water. He was not sure what it was and immediately sounded the alarm. The captain, officers, and men of the Housatonic all came on deck and noticed a light slowly moving near the ship. It changed direction and started moving toward the stern of the ship. By now the the cannons on the Housatonic were useless because the Hunley was now too close. Captain Pickering and several others on deck began firing their revolvers and rifles to stop it. After the chain was slipped, it was too late to move away. By the time the men aboard had realized what was happening, they were shaken by a large explosion. Timbers and splinters flew everywhere and men were knocked to the deck; the back end of the ship was destroyed. The Housatonic went down immediately. Despite the massive explosion only five men on the Housatonic died that night.
The first sinking of a warship by a submarine was witnessed. Another sinking of a warship by a submarine will not happen for half a century. Word did not come for a long time as to the fate of the crew on the Hunley. There were no news that the crew was captured and eventually Captain M.M. Gray, torpedo officer in the Office of Submarine Defense surmised the submarine went down with the Housatonic with a loss of another nine lives for a total of 32 lives lost.
After the fall of Charleston on February 17, 1865, divers went down and saw no trace of the Hunley. Many reports stated that the sub was found on May 3, 1995, in about 30 feet of water four miles offshore lying on the bottom of the harbor, still pointing toward the vessel she had sunk, but it was actually found in 1970 and placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Inside her still lay the remains of the last crew of the Peripatetic Coffin. Researchers are still not 100 percent sure why the Hunley sank, but in 2013 a new theory was made public based on the damage observed on the spar. Evidence indicates that the Hunley may have been less than 20 feet from the Housatonic’s hull when the torpedo at the tip of a 200-foot spar exploded. A shock wave from the explosion may have produced enough force to have knocked the crew unconscious and sent the submarine to the bottom.
One final note, a gold coin was found with the remains of Hunley commander George Dixon. This coin reportedly saved Dixon's life during the of Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 when it slowed down a bullet passing through his pants pocket. Today, this coin and other items, and the Hunley can be seen at the museum in Charleston, South Carolina.
© 2009 Melvin Porter