The H. L. Hunley

The H. L. Hunley - Stories


An American First

    At approximately 8:45 PM, just outside of Charleston Harbor, near Sullivan’s Island, Dixon spotted the USS Housatonic waiting for blockade runners and Hunley began closing in for the kill. The Union ship’s Officer of the Deck noticed the approaching vessel and called for reversing the engines to maneuver,but it was too late, the torpedo containing 70 – 90 pounds of explosives had penetrated the her hull near the after magazine and exploded. USS Housatonic became the first vessel to fall victim to an attack by a submarine.

    From its earliest beginnings, the world’s militaries have sought ways to explore and exploit the oceans’ surface and depths to gain advantage over their adversaries. These included improving on designs for people to go under water for prolonged period. The well-known sketches of Leonardo DaVinci included such ideas. During the American Revolution, David Bushnell created a submersible named Turtle, attempting to sink a British Man of War by attaching an explosive charge to its hull; an attempt that failed. But it was Horace Hunley and his associates who produced the first militarily successful submersible during the American Civil War. While other designers and builders, such as John Holland and Simon Lake would improve upon the designs and later builders would perfect them, Hunley, remarkably, was the first the have a design sufficient to sink a major man-of-war and insofar as it is possible to ascertain, escape enemy retaliation.

    The project to design and build a submersible boat capable of attacking a surface ship started in February 1862 when a group of New Orleans businessmen became inspired by the concept of a combat submarine presented to them by James McClintock and Horace L. Hunley.

    Using their own money as well as monies from investors, McClintock and Hunley began construction of the submersible in New Orleans. As Southern patriots, they wanted to help the Confederacy break the blockade of southern ports by sinking or capturing Union blockaders and, as businessmen, earn a profit doing so. Thus it came about that the first operational attack submarine would be a “privateer”.

    McLintock and Hunley’s first attempt resulted in a craft they called Pioneer. After several successful trial runs in Lake Pontchartrain, Pioneer showed that she was capable of diving and moving underwater, however several significant defects made her unsuitable for the mission. As Union forces were moving to capture New Orleans, Pioneer was scuttled in a deep cut of the lake to keep her from being taken by the enemy. The project to build a submarine moved to Mobile, Alabama. This area was relatively safe from Union forces in part due to the natural protection afforded by Mobile Bay. At Mobile, they obtained the services of a machine shop owned by Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons. Fortune was in their favor. Two of the men working in the Park and Lyons shop were William Alexander a master machinist and George Dixon, a recently promoted Lieutenant in the Confederate Army whose mechanical talent was noted by his superiors who sent him to work at the shop building new weapons.

    The second boat had improved features over the first since Mclintock had noted every defect of the Pioneer and made corrections to the design to overcome the defects. The second boat named American Diver made several trial runs in Mobile Bay that encouraged the builders to plan an attack on Union ships off Sand Island, outside the Bay.

    To expedite the trip to their target, American Diver was to be towed to a point near Sand Island and then submerge for the attack. The kill method was an explosive charge on a rope trailed behind them on the surface. The idea was to pass under a Union ship thus pulling the explosive charge against the Union ship.

    Unfortunately, as Diver was being towed to a position closer to the target, it suddenly submerged and sunk. Thus, the second attempt to build a successful submarine had failed. But McLintock and Hunley did not give up.

    As the story unfolds, the project persisted to build a third and more successful model called Fishing Boat or Porpoise which incorporated sleek lines and improved engineering in its design. This was the boat destined to add a new and terrifying chapter to the history of naval warfare. The boat was renamed H. L. Hunley after the designer-builder died in the second sinking of this boat in Charleston Harbor.

    In February 1864, the Union naval blockade was strangling the Confederacy and, as a major port, Charleston, South Carolina, was a primary point of embarkation and debarkation for the Southern blockade runners. Food and other commodities including weapons and ammunition were in short supply.

    Among the blockading ships was the USS Housatonic, a steam and sail driven man-of-war, launched in 1861, with a crew of 160. With a top speed of 9 knots, she weighed 1,240 tons with a length of 207 feet, a beam of 38 feet and a draft of 8 feet 7 inches. Housatonic’s armament consisted of 1 100-pounder Parrott rifle, 3 30-pounder Parrott rifles, 1 11" Dahlgren smoothbore, 2 32-pounders, 2 24-pounder howitzers, 1 12-pounder howitzer, 1 12-pounder rifle.

    The USS Housatonic: The First Ship Sunk by a Submarine

      During the Housatonic’s tour of duty with the Union blockade, she participated in shore bombardment of a number of Confederate installations and received credit for the capture of some Southern blockade runners and assisting in the capture or destruction of several others. Housatonic’s war record was a credit to her officers and crew, but her place in history was confirmed when she became the first ship ever sunk by submarine action.

      On the evening of 17 February, the Housatonic moved out of the line of blockading ships into shallow water off Charleston Harbor in order to catch enemy blockade runners. At approximately 8:45 PM, the Officer of the Deck, LT John Crosby, noticed something moving through the water towards the Housatonic and thought that it was either a porpoise or a log. By the time he realized his error, Hunley was too close to be engaged by Housatonic’s guns and, although evasive action was attempted, Hunley rammed its torpedo into Housatonic’s hull. Backing off, Hunley triggered the torpedo which set the Housatonic on fire setting off an explosion that blew off the aft starboard quarter of the ship, sinking the Union vessel within five minutes of the original attack. The Housatonic went down in about 27 feet of water with the loss of five crew members.

      According to various reports, Hunley then displayed a blue lamp towards shore signifying mission success and was returning to port. The Confederate lookout lit a bonfire to guide the victorious submarine home, but the H. L. Hunley disappeared in the night, not seen again for 137 years.


        To counter the Union blockade, the South had already constructed a small fleet of semi-submersible torpedo boats called “Davids” which sat very low in the water and attacked Union ships with varying success. Although there is no record of the Davids successfully sinking a blockader, these little craft and numerous ironclads (most famous of which is the CSS Virginia) attempted to clear the blockade in order to expand commerce with Europe.

        The plans for the submersibles called for either steam or battery driven engines, but the builders were unable to build an engine that would provide the necessary power and had to resort to manpower for propulsion. The first attempts, Pioneer and American Diver, ended in failure, the Pioneer scuttled in Lake Ponchartrain to avoid capture by Union forces and the American Diver sinking in Mobile Bay. The Diver was subsequently recovered, studied by Union forces, and then sold for scrap.

        One of the stories about the construction of the Hunley is that her builders used a railroad boiler 48 inches in diameter and twenty-five feet long. The boiler was cut in half lengthwise and two 12 inch boiler iron strips on either side increasing the diameter approximately 60 inches. She was lengthened by about five feet, tapered fore and aft with bow and stern castings attached. However, when the Hunley was raised in 2000, archeologists found that she was constructed of iron plates riveted to a purposely constructed frame tapered fore and aft to provide “streamlining” allowing her to move fairly easily under the surface of the ocean. The final configuration was about 30 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep. The plan to use steam or battery power was not realized and a hand crank was installed to provide propulsion. A tiller provided direction for the little ship. Ballast consisted of iron bars bolted to the bottom of the hull and tanks at either end which could be opened manually to allow Hunley to submerge. Hand operated pumps were used to expel water to allow her to surface. Her armament was a torpedo (also known as a mine) at the end of a 20 foot spar extending from the bow. The torpedo was placed by ramming the victim, penetrating the hull, then backing off, using a long cord to trigger the explosive.

        While the Hunley was being developed, General P.T.G. Beauregard the Confederate Commander of Charleston, SC was trying to clear the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor. He appealed for assistance and Hunley was dispatched to attack the enemy forces cutting off shipping.

        To move Hunley, she was cut in half, loaded on railcars and camouflaged for the journey from New Orleans to Charleston to continue preparations and training to face the Union forces. One interesting point is that during her entire career, Hunley was operated by the Confederate Army (not the Navy) and in her short life, sank twice with the loss of most personnel even before meeting the enemy. The first sinking happened when she was swamped by a tender pulling away from the little ship. There were three survivors. The second accident took the lives of the entire crew including that of H. L. Hunley, one of her inventors, when she submerged, rammed the bottom of Charleston Harbor, and became stuck. Because of these two accidents and the loss of nearly two complete crews (approximately 16 men); General Beauregard placed restrictions on Hunley requiring her to operate as a surface ship.

        CHRONOLOGY: Confederate Naval Victories

          In 1864 when the H. L. Hunley sank the Union blockading ship USS Housatonic, the war was going poorly for the Confederacy. Union forces were slowly advancing on all fronts and the Confederate States were being squeezed into a smaller and smaller area of operations. Although the Union blockade of Southern ports against overseas commerce was fairly tight, the South was somewhat successful at sending fast cargo ships through the encircling warships and Confederate naval vessels scored numerous victories including those of the commerce raider CSS Alabama (69 Union vessels sunk or captured) until the USS Kearsarge destroyed her in June off Cherbourg, France. Among the Southern successes were:

          2 February, 1864

          Confederate boat expedition led by Commander J. T. Wood captured and destroyed USS Underwriter in the Neuse River, North Carolina.

          17 February, 1864

          Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley sank Union blockader USS Housatonic off Charleston -- the first submarine to sink a ship in combat.

          12 March, 1864

          Ships of Rear Admiral D. D. Porter's Mississippi Squadron moved up the Red River to commence the unsuccessful Army-Navy campaign to gain a foothold in the Texas interior.

          19 April, 1864

          CSS Albemarle, Commander J. W. Cooke, sank USS Southfield and forced the remainder of the Union squadron at Plymouth, North Carolina, to withdraw. Having gained control of the waterways in the area, the Confederates were able to capture Plymouth on 20 April.

          5 May, 1864

          USS Sassacus, Wyalusing, and Mattabesett engaged CSS Albemarle off the mouth of the Roanoke River as the Union sought in vain to regain control near Plymouth.

          6 May, 1864

          Confederate torpedo destroyed USS Commodore Jones in the James River, Virginia, one of several losses the Union suffered from torpedoes during the year.

          IN MEMORIUM

            A total of 21 sailors died in the three sinkings of the H.L. Hunley. The Union forces lost five sailors in the sinking of the USS Housatonic.

            The Hunley crew members are buried at the Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, S.C.

            Crew List for the H.L.Hunley****(Also listed are those who survived)****Sinking #1 - 29 August 1863

            Payne, Lt John - Commanding – survived
            Hasker, Charles - Seaman - survived
            Williams, Absolum – Seaman
            Cane, Michael – Seaman
            Davis, Nicholas – Seaman
            Doyle, Frank – Seaman
            Kelly, John – Seaman
            Sprague, Charles – Seaman – survived - (Some accounts list Sprague as the third survivor of this tragedy although other accounts state that this survivor was unknown.)

            Sinking #2 - 15 October 1863

            Hunley, Horace L. - Commanding and one of the builders
            Beard, Henry – Seaman
            Brookbank, Robert – Seaman
            Marshall, John – Seaman
            McHugh, Charles – Seaman
            Parks, Thomas W. - Designer and builder
            Patterson, Joseph – Seaman
            Sprague, Charles L. - Seaman

            Sinking #3 - 17 February 1864

            Dixon, Lt George - Commanding
            Becker, Arnold - Seaman
            Carlsen, J.F. – Seaman
            Collins, Frank – Seaman
            Miller, Augustus - Seaman
            Ridgeway, Joseph - Seaman
            Simkins (Lumpkin?), C. – Seaman
            Wicks, James A. - Seaman

            Crew Members Lost with the USS Housatonic

            Hazeltine, Ensign E. C. – Ship’s Officer
            Williams, John - Quartermaster
            Walsh, John - Fireman Second Class
            Parker, Theodore - Landsman
            Muzzey, Charles O. – Yeoman


              <a name="H"></a>Hunley may reveal secrets in year's time

              <div>By BRUCE SMITH, Associated Press Writer Tue Nov 21, 8:14 PM ET

              NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. - In a year's time, scientists hope to solve the mystery of why the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sank, the chairman of the South Carolina Hunley Commission said Tuesday.

              "Between the science of archaeology and the science of conservation in that laboratory, they will solve the ultimate mystery," state Sen. Glenn McConnell said after a commission meeting. "I think it's reasonable to say we're probably within a year of solving that."

              The hand-cranked Hunley sank the Union blockade ship Housatonic in 1864, becoming the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship.

              The vessel has been slow revealing its secrets.

              There are generally two theories why it sank shortly after sending the Housatonic to the bottom. One is that it was damaged and took on water after the attack. The other is that the crew suffocated when they ran out of air.

              Scientists are removing the sediment that hardened on the inside of the sub. Next spring, they will begin removing the hardened sediment from the hull.

              "The exterior will be the real key to the thing," said Randy Burbage, a commission member. "You will be able to tell if another ship rammed it, which is a possibility, or if any other event may have happened."

              McConnell said that includes the possibility the Hunley's hull may have been damaged by rifle fire or debris from the explosion on the Housatonic.

              <a name="Hu"></a>Hunley is 'unstable' but conservators have a plan

              FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2006 7:23 AM

              BY BRIAN HICKS The Post and Courier

              The corrosive salt and underwater currents of the Atlantic Ocean inflicted more damage on the H.L. Hunley than the Yankees ever could have hoped to.

              According to the Hunley Conservation Plan recently approved by the Navy, the 143-year-old Civil War submarine is unstable, its cast-iron hatches,
              bow and stern dangerously fragile. Its wrought-iron hull was forged from "poor quality" materials, a confirmation of how perilously short on
              resources the South was by 1863 - even secret weapons got short shrift.

              Today, the Hunley's bow is damaged and might not even be the same shape it was when the sub sank the USS Housatonic in February of 1864.

              The 171-page conservation document, which conservators call a "textbook" to restoring the Hunley, paints a dire portrait of the first successful combat submarine's current condition. But it also offers what scientists call a conservative plan to restore it to museum quality, while Hunley and Clemson officials continue tests on a new method they hope could
              speed their timeline.

              Paul Mardikian, senior conservator on the Hunley project and an author of the document, says the plan, which calls for soaking the submarine in a chemical bath for three to five years, is not supposition but science. They aren't guessing what the coming work will do for the sub, they know.

              "It's very unstable, but it's not fragile," Mardikian said. "It can handle scientists working in it. She's been very kind to us, we've never
              had any problem with it. But cast iron is my big fear."

              The plans call for the submarine to be restored and ready for display by the end of 2013, a deadline the scientists say they set themselves without any input from politicians. What good is a museum, Mardikian
              says, if there is nothing to put in it?

              Until then, the submarine will undergo a lengthy series of work:

              --First, engineers must do a hull analysis to determine whether the submarine, partially on its side in a hammock for six years, can stand up on its own keel, which will make work easier.

              After that analysis, conservators will remove both ballast tank pumps, which the report says are made of iron, rubber, copper and other materials. Such a collection would not hold up well under the alkaline
              solution that will leech the salt out of the Hunley's hull.

              --Next year, scientists will remove all the concretion - hardened sand, shell and mud - that currently protects the iron. That will afford them a view of the Hunley's skin.

              Recently, Hunley experts have concluded that strong underwater currents whipping around the sub could have caused one or more of the three holes in the sub's hull. Two of the holes lie along a line on the hull that has been sanded smooth, eroding away some of the porthole rings and conning tower hinges.

              Even the sub's bow, originally considered to have been molded like an icebreaker, could just be the ocean's sculpting work.

              "There is evidence of scouring that leads us to believe the sub has been sanded by the currents," said Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission. "If you look at the sub from the bow, it seems that
              one side is slightly thicker than the other."

              Because of the sub's condition, and other historical considerations, the report makes it clear scientists will not take the submarine apart to conserve it.