On the night of February 17, 1864, the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley attacked and sank the USS Housatonic about four miles off Sullivan’s Island. This was the first successful sinking of an enemy ship in warfare by a submersible in the history of the world.
Constructed in Mobile, Alabama, the vessel was named for Horace L. Hunley, one of its investors and owners. The iron vessel was forty feet long, five feet tall, and four feet wide. Ballast tanks located in the bow (front) and stern (rear) filled with water to submerge the submarine; to resurface, a pump forced the water out. It was originally designed to pull a “torpedo” (mine) behind, dive under a ship, and have the torpedo explode on contact.
The crew was composed of eight members. A captain at the bow served as the navigator and operated the dive planes, rudder, and pump. The remaining seven crew members, in the vessel’s midsection, operated a hand crank connected to the propeller. This method of propulsion could move the submarine through the water as fast as four knots. A bellows, between the captain and crew, was connected to a snorkel and pumped fresh air into the submarine.
In July 1863 the siege of Charleston began when U.S. forces moved onto Morris Island. Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard had the H. L. Hunley brought to Charleston to operate against the U.S. Navy blockading squadron. Once there, it was discovered that the towed torpedo was neither practical nor safe, and it was instead placed on a seventeen-foot-long iron spar. By the time of her final attack, the Hunley’s spar was located at the bottom of the bow. There is also evidence that the ninety-pound explosive was designed to be rammed against a wooden hull where barbs fixed it to the vessel and it detached from the spar. The submarine would move back and a lanyard (rope) running from to the submarine to the torpedo would detonate the explosive.
The crew, unfamiliar with the harbor, did not immediately attack the Union ships. Because of the delay, Confederate military authorities confiscated the H. L. Hunley. On August 29, 1863, it sank due to human error and five crew members drowned. The vessel was recovered and Hunley regained control of the submarine. During a diving drill in Charleston Harbor on October 15, 1863, it failed to surface and all eight crew members, including Hunley, drowned.
Recovered again, the submarine was moved to a location behind Sullivan’s Island at Breach Inlet. Lieutenant George E. Dixon, who had trained on the submarine, assumed command, recruited a new crew, and trained for a mission against the blockading squadron. Influenced by the loss of thirteen crew members in the two accidental sinkings, Beauregard ordered the vessel to operate only on the surface. On the night of February 17, 1864, the submarine attacked and sank the USS Housatonic. However, the H. L. Hunley was also lost. Discovered in 1995, the submarine was recovered on August 8, 2000, and underwent a multimillion-dollar conservation effort.
A non-profit organization, The Friends of the Hunley, was organized in the early 2000s for the purposes of research, conservation, and education. The work of this organization has resulted in the Hunley and artifacts related to it being on display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in the former Charleston Naval Yard in North Charleston.
Ragan, Mark K. The Hunley: Submarines, Sacrifice, & Success in the Civil War. Rev. ed. Charleston, S.C.: Narwhal, 1999.