The Confederate States Ship (CSS) H. L. Hunley was a submarine of the Confederate
States Navy that demonstrated both the advantages and the dangers of undersea warfare.
Hunley was the first submarine to sink a warship, though the sub was also sunk in
It was a hungry time in Charleston, South Carolina, those early months of 1864. Bombarded
by land and blockaded by sea, the city that cheered the opening shots of the American
Civil War remained proudly defiant, but its Rebel defenders were looking mighty pinched.
Salt pork, corn, boots, blankets, lead for musket balls, and most everything else
the army needed was in critically short supply. The Union Navy's chokehold on the
city's harbor would have to be broken soon, and the best hope for doing that lay
with a strange and secret new weapon—a "diving torpedo-boat" christened the H. L.
Privately invented and paid for, by Horace Lawson Hunley and built in 1863 by Park
and Lyons of Mobile, Alabama, Hunley was fashioned like a cylindrical iron steam
boiler, which was deepened and also lengthened through the addition of tapered ends.
The Hunley was designed to be hand powered by a crew of eight: seven to turn the
hand-cranked propeller and one to steer and direct the boat. As a true submarine,
each end was equipped with ballast tanks that could be flooded by valves or pumped
dry by hand pumps. Extra ballast was added through the use of iron weights bolted
to the underside of the hull. In the event the submarine needed additional buoyancy
to rise in an emergency, the iron weight could be removed by unscrewing the heads
of the bolts from inside the vessel.
On August 29, 1863 five of a crew of eight was killed during a training attack, when
the skipper accidentally dove with the hatches still open. On October 15, 1863 the
Hunley failed to surface during a trial dive, killing its inventor Horace Lawson
Hunley and seven other crewmen. In both cases, the Confederate Navy salvaged the
vessel and returned it to service.
Shortly after sunset on the night of February 17, at a dock on nearby Sullivans Island,
eight audacious Confederates squeezed inside the claustrophobic iron vessel and set
out on a quixotic mission. Affixed to the boat's bow was a 22-foot long spar tipped
with a deadly charge of 90 pounds of black powder. At the helm was Lt. George Dixon,
a bold-hearted, battle-scarred army officer. Behind him, wedged shoulder to shoulder
on a wooden bench, sat seven crewmen whose muscles powered the sub's hand-cranked
propeller. As the crew began turning the heavy iron crankshaft, Dixon consulted a
compass and set course for a daunting target—the steam sloop U.S.S. Housatonic, 1800
tons with 12 guns, stationed four miles (six kilometers) offshore. The Rebels' plan
was to run about six feet (two meters) below the surface until they neared the blockader.
But in order for Dixon to take final aim, he would have to resurface just enough
to peer through the sub's tiny forward viewport.
At 8:45 p.m. John Crosby, acting master aboard the Housatonic, spotted something
off the starboard beam that looked at first like a "porpoise, coming to the surface
to blow." There had been warnings of a possible attack by a Confederate "infernal
machine," and Crosby was swift to sound the alarm. Sailors rushed to quarters and
let loose a barrage of small arms fire at the alien object barely breaking the surface,
but the attacker was unstoppable.
Two minutes later the Hunley rammed her spar into the Housatonic's starboard side,
well below the waterline. The explosives were embedded in the sloop's wooden side
and were detonated by a rope/trigger, as the Hunley backed away. The resulting explosion
sent the Housatonic with five crew members to the bottom of Charleston Harbor, in
five minutes. The Hunley also sank, moments after signaling shore, possibly because
of the blast, although this is not certain. The entire crew died, but the H.L. Hunley
earned a place in the history of undersea warfare as the first submarine to sink
a ship in wartime.
The search for the Hunley ended in 1995, 131 years later, when best-selling author
Clive Cussler, and his team from the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA)
discovered the submarine after a 14-year search. At the time of discovery, Cussler
and NUMA were conducting this research in partnership with the South Carolina Institute
of Anthropology and Archaeology (SCIAA). The team realized that they had found the
Hunley after exposing the forward hatch and the ventilator box (the air box for the
attachment of a snorkel). The submarine rested on its starboard side at about a 45-degree
angle and was covered in a 1/4 to 3/4-inch encrustation of ferrous oxide bonded with
sand and seashell particles. Archaeologists exposed a little more on the port side
and found the bow dive plane on that side. More probing revealed an approximate length
of 40 feet, with all of the vessel preserved under the sediment.
Archaeological investigation and excavation culminated with the raising of the Hunley
from its watery grave on August 8, 2000. A large team of professionals from the Naval
Historical Center's Underwater Archaeology Branch, National Park Service, the South
Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, and various other individuals
investigated the vessel, measuring and documenting it prior to removal. Once the
on site investigation was complete, harnesses were slipped underneath the sub one
by one and attached to a truss designed by Oceaneering, Inc. After the last harness
had been secured, the crane from Clarissa B (a U.S. Navy barge) began hoisting the
submarine from the mire of the harbor entrance.
On August 8, 2000 at 8:37 a.m. the sub broke the surface for the first time in over
136 years, where it was greeted by a cheering crowd lining the shore and in hundreds
of nearby watercraft. Once safely on its transporting barge, the Hunley finally completed
its last voyage back to Charleston. The removal operation reached its successful
conclusion when the submarine was secured inside the Warren Lasch Conservation Center,
at the former Charleston Navy Yard in a specially designed tank of freshwater to
Apart from the commander of the submarine, Lt. George Dixon, the identities of the
volunteer crewmembers of the Hunley remained a mystery. Douglas Owsley, a physical
anthropologist working for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural
History examined the remains and determined that four of the men were American born,
while the four others were European born, based on the chemical signatures left on
the men's teeth and bones by the predominant components of their diet: four of the
men had eaten a lot of corn, indicating that they were likely Americans, while the
remainder ate mostly wheat and rye, indicating that they probably originated in Europe.
By examining Civil War records and conducting DNA testing with possible relatives,
forensic genealogist Linda Abrams was able to identify the remains of Dixon and the
three other men: Frank Collins, Joseph Ridgaway, and James A. Wicks. Identifying
the European crew members has been more problematic, but was apparently solved in
late 2004. The position of the corpses indicated that the men apparently died at
their stations, and were not trying to flee the sinking submarine.
On 17 April 2004 the remains of the crew of the H. L. Hunley were interred in Charleston's
Magnolia Cemetery with full military honors, and attended by as many as 10,000 civil
war re-enactors and well wishers.
Hunley herself remains at the "Lasch" conservation center, for further study and
conservation. There have been many surprising discoveries over time, including the
complexity of the sub's ballast and pumping systems, steering and diving apparatus,
and its construction and final assembly. Another surprise occurred in 2002, when
a researcher, examining the area close to Lieutenant Dixon, found the famous gold
coin, long thought to be a myth, which his girlfriend had given to him. Legend had
held that Dixon had the coin with him at the Battle of Shiloh, where he was wounded
in 1862. A bullet, which would have probably cost him his leg and possibly his life,
struck the coin in his pocket. The coin was badly bent but saved Dixon from injury
and was later engraved by him to mark the occasion.