Hunley: The Submarine That Wouldn’t Come Up

Mar 30, 2021 0 comments

On 17 February 1864, the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley attacked and sank a 1,240-ton United States Navy ship, the USS Housatonic, and entered history books as the first combat submarine to sink a warship. Shortly after, the Hunley itself sank and disappeared from existence. But it wasn’t the first time the submarine had sunk.

1864 painting of H. L. Hunley by Conrad Wise Chapman

1864 painting of H. L. Hunley by Conrad Wise Chapman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hunley was one of three submarines that Horace Lawson Hunley built for the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War. The first was Pioneer, a prototype built in early 1862 and tested in the Mississippi River, and later in Lake Pontchartrain. After only a short month of tests, the Pioneer was scuttled by the Confederates to avoid capture by the approaching Union army. The Pioneer was followed by the American Diver. The plan was to power the American Diver using some sort of an engine, like an electric motor or a steam engine, but they were unable to produce enough power to propel the craft. Eventually, they decided to stick to conventional hand-cranked means of propulsion that had powered the Pioneer.

The American Diver was an ungainly vessel and too slow to be practical. Nevertheless, it was decided to deploy the submarine and in 1863, while towing the American Diver down Mobile Bay, in the Gulf of Mexico, in an attempt to attack on the Union blockade, the submarine foundered in the heavy seas and sank. It was never recovered, but the lessons learned from Pioneer and American Diver gave Hunley and his team enough confidence to create a third vessel that would succeed. Hunley named the vessel after himself.

Drawing of Hunley

Drawing of Hunley from Popular Science Magazine, circa 1900. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hunley, the submarine, was about 40 feet long and less than four feet in diameter. Inside that terribly small space, eight burly men sat side by side along the length of the vessel and hand-cranked the crankshaft that turned the propeller. Each end of the submarine was equipped with ballast tanks that could be flooded by opening valves, or pumped dry by hand pumps allowing Hunley to submerge and surface. The craft was also weighted down with additional iron weights screwed to the bottom. In the case of emergencies when the submarine needed to rise up quickly, these weights could be unscrewed from inside the cabin. The Hunley could remain submerged for two excruciating hours before having to surface for fresh air. A single candle provided light, while also functioning as an indicator to the quality of the air inside the vessel—if the flame flickered and died out then there was too little oxygen left.

The Hunley was originally designed to dive completely below her target while towing behind a floating torpedo at the end of a long rope. Once the submarine dove and passed under the keel of her target, she would resurface on the other side, causing the torpedo to be drawn against the targeted ship and explode. In July 1863, the Hunley made a successful demonstration of its attack capabilities by sinking an old coal-hauling barge in the middle of the Mobile River. But more tests were to follow before the Hunley could be readied for war.

A life size model of the CSS Hunley on the grounds of The Charleston Museum

A life size model of the CSS Hunley on the grounds of The Charleston Museum, Charleston. Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

On 29 August 1863, Hunley was preparing to make a test dive in Charleston, when the captain inadvertently stepped on the diving controls while the hatches were open, and the sub sank killing all five men aboard. Only the captain escaped. The submarine was retrieved and prepared for another mission. This time Horace Hunley himself insisted on captaining the sub on another test demonstration. On 15 October 1863, the Hunley dived underwater and plummeted bow-first to the ocean floor. All eight men, Hunley included, perished.

After the two tragedies, the Confederate General Beauregard was reluctant to put the Hunley back in service. Yet, there were many who believed that the Hunley could successfully break the blockade on Charleston Harbor. However, they agreed that the Hunley had to be modified if she were to succeed.

Towing an explosive device was abandoned because of the difficulty of safely maneuvering the submarine between the keel of the ship and the ocean bottom. Additionally, the towed line could foul Hunley's screw or drift into the submarine herself. A more direct approach was adopted. The Hunley was fitted with a spar torpedo—a copper cylinder packed with black powder attached to the end of a long pole, mounted on Hunley’s bow. The Hunley would ram the side of the target’s ship with 135 pounds worth of explosives. Metal pins on the leading face of the bomb would penetrate the wooden hull, securing the charge in place. Hunley’s crew would then reverse power the sub to distance themselves from the impending explosion, letting out 150 feet of coiled rope as they did so. Once the entire length of rope had been let out, the taut rope would pull the bomb’s trigger.

Drawing of the Hunley

Drawing of the Hunley. Wikimedia Commons

On 17 February 1864, the Hunley made her first and only attack on an enemy vessel—a 1,240 long tons, wooden-hulled steam-powered sloop-of-war called USS Housatonic, stationed at the entrance to Charleston harbor, about 5 miles offshore. The Hunley went stealthily towards the ship and pressed its torpedo snugly against the Housatonic’s side. But the trigger mechanism malfunctioned and before the crew of the Hunley could escape, the charge exploded taking down both the Housatonic and the Hunley.

The disappearance of the Hunley was a great mystery, because it was initially thought that the submarine had survived the torpedo attack, based on a report by the commander of Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island that he had received prearranged light signals from the sub an hour after the attack. Perhaps she collided with another ship, or was hit through one of the view ports by a Union soldier, shattering the glass and sinking the sub.

USS Housatonic

USS Housatonic. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

136 years after it sank, the Hunley was found on the seabed in 1995, almost completely intact. Five years later, it was brought to the surface. Analysis of the remains of the crew members still at their position suggested that they died from the shockwave of the explosion, the pressure wave of which travelled the short distance between the bomb and the sub, then through the hull of the sub without damaging it, until it hit the men like an out-of-control semi-truck speeding down a highway. Death was instantaneous.

In 2004, the remains of the crew were laid to rest at Magnolia Cemetery, in Charleston. Tens of thousands of people attended the burial. The recovered Hunley is on now display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.

interior of the Hunley

The interior of the Hunley. Photo: Randall Hill/Reuters

submarine H. L. Hunley in its conservation tank

The submarine H. L. Hunley in its conservation tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. Photo: US Navy

life size model of the CSS Hunley

A life size model of the CSS Hunley on the grounds of The Charleston Museum, Charleston. Photo: DrStew82/Wikimedia Commons

# Rachel Lance, The New Explosive Theory About What Doomed The Crew Of The ‘Hunley’, Smithsonian Mag
# Ron Soodalter, The Confederate Submarine, The NY Times
# Wikipedia


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