CSS H.L. Hunley


Oh-oh.  Blue type.  That means Steve is typing now and that probably means another history lesson.  And probably about the Civil War.  Well, you’re right.  But this time we won’t be talking about thousands of troops and bloody battles and generals and unconditional surrenders.  Today’s story is about incredible genius, incredible bravery, and a turning point in the history of naval warfare.  Intrigued?  Read on…

The story of people attempting to descend below the surface of the sea goes back thousands of years.  In the 4th Century, BC, Aristotle wrote of using an inverted bronze tank to hold air, which would assist a submerged man.  In the year 325 BC, Alexander the Great and a companion actually went to a depth of twenty-five meters using a clear glass diving bell. 

During the Middle Ages, most of any technology of this sort disappeared, but during the Renaissance, philosophers again began studying the physics of air and water.  Leonardo DaVinci designed a diving helmet made of leather, with spikes to avoid being eaten by monsters, and breathing tubes leading to the surface. 

In the 1500s the first modern “diving bell” was invented, which consisted of a device similar to a barrel held in place over a man’s head by leather straps. 

The first actual submarine, as we know it, being a fully enclosed vessel capable of being propelled beneath the surface, was invented, built, and successfully demonstrated in the Thames River in the year 1623 by Cornelius Drebbel.  While no one knows for sure what Drebbel’s boat looked like or how it operated, it was probably a fully enclosed and watertight rowboat of some sort, with a sloping flat upper deck.  At neutral buoyancy, forward motion would drive it below the surface, and when rowing stopped, it would bob to the surface.  The same principles of buoyancy and use of diving planes are still in use today with modern nuclear subs.  Drebbel’s demonstration, in a boat with twelve rowers, traveled down the Thames at a depth of about fifteen feet, watched by King James I, who probably did not, as some reports have it, actually participate. 

Shortly after, a Frenchman, Marin Mersenne, theorized that a submersible boat should be made of copper and be cylindrical in shape to withstand water pressure.  As with all technology, it seems, it wasn’t long before people started thinking of military uses for a stealthy underwater vessel. During the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652- 1654), Louis de Son had built his 72ft-long ‘Rotterdam Boat’, a semi-submerged battering ram intended to punch a hole in the side of an enemy ship.  However, once launched, it failed to move.

The American Revolution saw the first attempt to sink an enemy vessel by a submarine.  Built by David Bushnell, Turtle was a one-man hand-cranked boat whose mission was to sink HMS Eagle in New York Harbor in 1776.  Ezra Lee, the boat’s pilot, failed to attach the 150-pound keg of powder to the Eagle’s hull, and the mission was a failure.  Shortly thereafter, Turtle was off Fort Lee, New Jersey, when it’s tender, on which it was sitting, was sunk by the British.  During the War of 1812, Robert Fulton developed the Nautilus.  Driven by a hand-cranked propeller submerged and a sail when surfaced, Nautilus made four knots under water and made many attacks on British ships, but since it was always visible, was always evaded.  Not much happened after that for another fifty years.

Fast-forward to April 19, 1861.  It’s a week after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and by Presidential Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln orders the blockade of every port city in every seceded state.  At that time, the Union had only three vessels available and suitable to patrol more than 3500 miles of Confederate coastline.  Gideon Welles, Navy Secretary, quickly ordered the manufacture or purchase of numerous ships, and captured southern blockade-runners were turned to the task as well, so that by the end of 1861, the number of blockading ships rose to 160, both sail and steam.  671 ships held the job by war’s end.  Blockade-runners were mainly small and fast, able to carry but minimal cargo, and in a large part, were captained by British Royal Navy officers, officially “on leave”.  The Brits set up supply bases in the neutral ports of Havana, Cuba, Nassau, Bahamas, and Bermuda.

As the blockade matured, and became more effective, the South needed more and more ways to circumvent it.  One strategy involved attacking the blockading vessels and causing them to give chase, allowing blockade-runners to escape port.  Another used the new technology of ironclads to attack the Union ships and on March 8, 1862, USS Congress and USS Cumberland were sunk by CSS Virginia, built from the remnants of the USS Merrimack.  The following day, USS Monitor appeared, and the ensuing battle also turned the tide of naval warfare.  But that’s the topic of another story.

Suppose a stealthy boat, able to operate underwater, could approach the blockading ships and attach some sort of explosive device, with no one the wiser?  Horace Lawson Hunley, James McClintock, and Baxter Watson privately funded and developed a small submarine named Pioneer, in New Orleans, and tested it in the Mississippi River.  It was towed to Lake Pontchartrain for additional testing and trials, but Union advances forced its scuttling.  Another, the less documented Bayou St. John probably suffered a similar fate.  The three men moved to Mobile Bay, and built American Diver, experimenting with electromagnetic and steam propulsion.  In February 1863, Diver sank in a storm and was never recovered.  Construction began shortly after on a new boat, and by July, she was ready for a demonstration.  A coal flatboat was successfully attacked and sunk in Mobile Bay.  The privately owned submarine arrived in Charleston, South Carolina by rail, and was promptly seized by the Confederate Army, though Horace and his partners remained involved in the vessel’s testing and operation.  While never officially commissioned, it was known as CSS H.L. Hunley, and operated as a Confederate Army vessel. 

Volunteers were sought, and Lt. John A. Payne, Confederate Navy, of CSS Chicora became skipper.  A crew of seven was selected from Chicora and CSS Palmetto State.  While preparing to make a test dive on August 29, 1863, Payne inadvertently stepped on the lever controlling the diving planes.  Hunley submerged with its hatches open.  The skipper and two others managed to escape.  Five men were dead. 

The Hunley was raised.  On October 18, with Horace Hunley himself in the skipper’s seat, she failed to surface after a mock trial attack.  Hunley and seven more were drowned, raising the total of Hunley crew now dead to thirteen.  She was raised again.

Despite the obvious risk, men were lining up to volunteer as crew on Hunley.  After months of further testing and training, on the night of February 17, 1864, naval history changed forever. 

Stationed at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, the USS Housatonic was a 1240-ton steam powered sloop-of-war, armed with twelve cannons.  Under the command of Lt. George E. Dixon, CSS H.L. Hunley with a crew of seven, successfully embedded a barbed explosive spar (known as a “torpedo”) into Housatonic’s hull.  As Hunley backed off, a line attached to it detonated the torpedo, blowing a twelve-foot hole in the side of the ship.  In five minutes, Housatonic was on the bottom, with only the tops of her masts above water.  Most of the crew escaped, either on lifeboats or by climbing the rigging and waiting for rescue, but five Union sailors went down with the ship.  For the first time ever, an enemy ship was sunk by a submarine. 

A pre-arranged signal of a “blue light” was reportedly observed on shore indicating that Hunley had backed off and was returning to base.  But she, with her crew, was not to be seen again for more than a century.

Twenty-one men had now died aboard H.L. Hunley.  All twenty-one are now buried at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston.  The eight men in her final mission posthumously received the Confederate Medal of Honor.

More than fifty years later, on September 5, 1914 Otto Hersing, operating in the Firth of Forth, and commanding German submarine U-21, fired a torpedo and sank HMS PathfinderPathfinder was the first enemy ship to be sunk from a modern self-propelled torpedo, but the “honor” of being the first ship destroyed by an enemy submarine will forever go to the USS Housatonic and the CSS H.L. Hunley

Discovered in 1995 by a dive team led by novelist Clive Cussler, Hunley was finally raised on August 8, 2000.  She now sits in a tank in an industrial section of Charleston, undergoing extensive restoration, conservation, and research.  For a great website detailing the recovery efforts and conservation efforts, see http://www.hunley.org/index.asp Friends of the Hunley.  While work goes on at the lab on weekdays, a small museum is open and the actual submarine is visible every weekend.  The visit is well worth the $10.00 (seniors rate) price of admission, especially if your tour is led by “Bill” as ours was. 

Bill’s talk covered the design of the boat, difficulty of recovery, questions as to her disappearance, as well as personal details of identifying crew remains.  A romantic legend existed concerning Lt. Dixon, skipper of Hunley’s final mission.  Supposedly, when he married earlier during the Civil War, his bride, as a good luck charm and to keep him from harm, gave him a $20 gold coin.  During battle he was hit in the leg.  The musket ball, so the story goes, hit the coin in his pocket, which absorbed its impact.  The coin, however, was driven into Dixon’s leg, coming to rest alongside the bone, and had to be surgically removed.  With the bones recovered with the Hunley, in the skipper’s seat at the forward hatch, was a bent gold $20 coin with an inscription indicating it had saved his life at the Battle of Shiloh, and bearing minute traces of lead.  And examination of the skeleton revealed slight traces of gold embedded in the leg bone. 

Identification of other crewmembers was equally interesting.  One crewmember was identified by the fact that his naval duty, prior to volunteering for duty on the Hunley, was as sailmaker.  A sailmaker’s job involved sewing canvas, and he would regularly stick the needle in his mouth between teeth while gathering up folds to be stitched together.  Wear marks in his teeth identified one skeleton as Frank G. Collins of Fredericksburg, Va. 

Examination and research are revealing that Hunley was far more advanced than previously believed.  For instance, its use of snorkel equipment to provide air while submerged was thought not to have happened until years later, when developed by the Germans.  Other fascinating research results include cataloging differences of sea life over the years in Charleston Harbor, by studying the three levels of silt and mud that filled the boat.

Eventually, CSS H.L. Hunley will be on display for all to see at a planned new city park dedicated to it, but for now, and probably for a decade to come, work continues.  This is truly a wonderful piece of history, and Chari and I encourage anyone with an opportunity to come and see it for themselves.

Note:  While writing this, I used information from various websites, particularly Wikipedia, to find info on diving bell and submarine history.  No photos of the actual boat were allowed, but some images taken at the museum are included here.  Several photos are available on-line, but are protected by copywrite, and are not.  If interested, visit Google Images, and search for CSS Hunley.   Steve

Full-scale model of Pioneer, made from original drawings

Full-scale model of Pioneer, made from original drawings

Photograph on wall of museum depicting raising of the Hunley

Photograph on wall of museum depicting raising of the Hunley

Cut-away model showing crew and captain at their stations

Cut-away model showing crew and captain at their stations

Medals of Honor issued by the Sons of the Confederacy

Medals of Honor issued by the Sons of the Confederacy

Graves at Magnolia Cemetery of the last crew of the Hunley

Graves at Magnolia Cemetery of the last crew of the Hunley  (image copied from internet)

7 thoughts on “CSS H.L. Hunley

  1. Glad you got to return and see it all, sounds fastinating, I do love all your civil war blogs Steve, wish i had the memory you had for retaining all the info…enjoy!!! Where to next?

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