The Story of The H.L. Hunley: Civl War Submarine

The story of the H.L. Hunley is not only  about the technological innovation of one of America’s first submarines, but the story of the people surrounding its construction, its mission, and quick demise.  By the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, things for the Confederacy had turned for the worst and the Union was successfully blockading Confederate supply routes more than ever.  Earlier on in the war the Confederacy had tasked marine engineer Horace Lawson Hunley with developing submarines for the Confederacy.  The idea of a submarine wasn’t new, in fact the first combat submarine, The Turtle was used during the American Revolution.  However, its attempt to attack a british frigate in New York Harbor was met with disastrous consequences, as the small submarine managed to blow itself up without inflicting any harm on it’s enemy shortly after being spotted.

The Idea

After developing 2 other subs, H.L. Hunley and his architects had the newest submarine ready for demonstration by July of 1863 where the submarine successfully attacked and sank an old coal flatboat that the developers used as a prop strictly for testing in Mobile Bay, Alabama.  Over the course of the testing the Hunley failed twice, leading to loss of life, including the life of her creator, HL Hunley.  Both times the submarine was salvaged and put back to use by the Confederacy.  In order to successfully attack its enemies, the Hunley had a 22-foot wooden spar connected to its bow upon which it had a spar torpedo attached at the end.  The Hunley would then ram the spar into the enemy ship, thus jabbing the torpedo into the ship’s bow.  The Hunley would the retreat before the detonation occurred.  Maneuvering the vessel required the presence of a 8 man crew, 7 to help turn the propeller and one to guide its direction.

Into Combat and the loss of the Hunley

After only one successful demonstration the Hunley was shipped by rail to Charleston, South Carolina where it began its short lived career in combat.  The Union, like it had done to many other Confederate areas had successfully blocked Charleston Harbor.  In order to contribute towards breaking the Union’s blockade on Charleston, the Hunley made its first and only attempt to attack an enemy ship on the night of February 17, 1864.  The Union ship was the USS Housatonic, a large vessel that weighed 1,240 tons and had 12 large cannons.  First Lieutenant George E. Dixon, in command of the Hunley was a young 23 year old engineer who had spent time in New Orleans, Louisiana before beginning duty of the Hunley.  Dixon had also been previously injured at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and it’s said that only the fact that a coin given to him by his lover was in his pocket when he was shot saved his life.  The rest of Hunley’s crew included 3 american-born men and the 4 european-born men.

As the Hunley approached USS Housatonic, Housatonic’s crew spotted the Hunley upon close approach.  In a state of disarray and surprise, the Housatonic’s crew were unable to successfully defend themselves from the attack and Hunley’s torpedo quickly jammed in the Housatonic’s hull, resulting in it’s detonation.  Five minutes after the blast it was apparent that Housatonic began taking on water and it’s crew rushed to their lifeboats.  Five crew members of the Housatonic went down with the ship as it quickly sank into the depths Charleston Harbour.  After the successful attack the Hunley surfaced and made lantern signals indicating the submarine would start it’s return to the confederate base.  The signal was witnessed by the confederate base and even by some of the crew members of the Housatonic who were awaiting rescue in their life vessels.  The Hunley never returned to its base.  It’s probable that the sub incurred damage from it’s own torpedo explosion.  Despite the loss of the Hunley, the small submarine would go down in history as the first underwater vessel to successfully sink a ship.

Rediscovery of the Hunley

The wreck of the Hunley was found in 1970 laying in silt on it’s starboard side in 27 feet of water.  The Hunley’s contents were predicted to be worth over 40 million dollars.  In 2000, Naval Historical Center’s Underwater Archaeology Branch took on the task of raising the submarine after careful investigation.  Harnesses were slipped underneath the sub and Hunley was slowly raised until she saw the first light of day in 136 years.

The Hunley was later placed in a fresh tank of water at Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston.

The remains of Hunley’s crew were later identified and received proper burial with full military honors in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery.  First Lieutenant George Dixon’s life saving coin from the battle of Shiloh was found among the Hunley’s contents, thus affirming an old legend.  Today the Hunley can be visited at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, where archaeologists continue to study the famed submarine during the weekdays.

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