CSS Hunley
CSS Hunley
Constructed: Early 1863
Launched: July 1863
Sunk: February 17th, 1864
Faction: C.S.A.
Length: 39.5 feet (12.0 meters)
Armaments: Spar Torpedo
  • Sunk after Attack on Housatonic On February 17th, 1864...


H. L. Hunley was a submarine of the Confederate States of America that played a small part in the American Civil War, but a large role in the history of naval warfare. The Hunley demonstrated both the advantages and the dangers of undersea warfare. It was the first combat submarine to sink an enemy warship, although the Hunley was not completely submerged and was lost at some point following her successful attack. The Confederacy lost 21 crewmen in three sinkings of the Hunley during her short career. The submarine was named for her inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley, shortly after it was taken into service under the control of the Confederate Army at Charleston, South Carolina.

The Hunley, nearly 40 feet (12 m) long, was built at Mobile, Alabama, and launched in July 1863. It was then shipped by rail on August 12, 1863 to Charleston, South Carolina. Hunley (then called Fish Boat) sank on August 29, 1863, during a training exercise, killing five members of her crew. It sank again on October 15, 1863, killing all eight of her second crew, including Horace Hunley himself, who was aboard at the time, even though he was not enlisted in the Confederate armed forces. Both times the Hunley was raised and returned to service. On February 17, 1864, Hunley attacked and sank the 1240-short ton (1124 metric tons) screw sloop USS Housatonic on Union blockade duty in Charleston's outer harbor. Soon after, Hunley sank, killing all eight of her third crew. This time, the innovative ship was lost.

Finally located in 1995, the Hunley was recovered in 2000 and is on display in Charleston. Examination in 2012 of recovered Hunley artifacts suggests that the submarine was as close as 20 feet to its target, the Housatonic, when its deployed torpedo exploded, which eventually caused the sub's own demise.


Hunley and two earlier submarines were privately developed and paid for by Horace Lawson Hunley, James McClintock, and Baxter Watson. Hunley, McClintock, and Watson first built a small submarine named Pioneer in New Orleans, Louisiana. Pioneer was tested in February 1862 in the Mississippi River and was later towed to Lake Pontchartrain for additional trials. But the Union advance towards New Orleans caused the men to abandon development and scuttle Pioneer the following month. The poorly documented Bayou St. John Confederate submarine may have been constructed about the same time as Pioneer.

The three inventors moved to Mobile and joined with machinists Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons. They soon began development of a second submarine, American Diver. Their efforts were supported by the Confederate States Army; Lieutenant William Alexander of the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment was assigned oversight duty for the project. The men experimented with electromagnetic and steam propulsion for the new submarine, before falling back on a simpler hand-cranked propulsion system. American Diver was ready for harbor trials by January 1863, but it proved too slow to be practical. One attempted attack on the Union blockade was made in February 1863 but was unsuccessful. The submarine sank in the mouth of Mobile Bay during a storm later the same month and was not recovered.


Construction & TestingEdit

Construction of Hunley began soon after the loss of American Diver. At this stage, Hunley was variously referred to as the "fish boat," the "fish torpedo boat," or the "porpoise." Legend long held Hunley was made from a cast-off steam boiler—perhaps because a cutaway drawing by William Alexander, who had seen the real boat, showed a short and stubby machine. In fact, Hunley was purpose-designed and built for her role, and the sleek, modern-looking craft shown in R.G. Skerrett's 1902 drawing is an accurate representation. Hunley was designed for a crew of eight: seven to turn the hand-cranked propeller and one to steer and direct the boat. 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.

Hunley was equipped with two watertight hatches, one forward and one aft, atop two short conning towers equipped with small portholes and slender, triangular cutwaters. The hatches were very small, measuring 14 by 15¾ inches (36 by 40 centimeters), making entrance to and egress from the hull very difficult. The height of the ship's hull was 4 feet 3 inches (1.2 m). Hunley was ready for a demonstration by July 1863. Supervised by Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan, Hunley successfully attacked a coal flatboat in Mobile Bay. Following this demonstration, the submarine was shipped to Charleston, South Carolina, by rail, arriving August 12, 1863. The military seized the vessel from its private builders and owners shortly after its arrival in Charleston, turning it over to the Confederate Army. Hunley would operate as a Confederate Army vessel from this point forward, although Horace Hunley and his partners remained involved in the submarine's further testing and operation. While sometimes referred to as CSS Hunley, the Confederate government never officially commissioned the vessel into service.

Confederate Navy Lieutenant John A. Payne of CSS Chicora volunteered to be Hunley's skipper, and a volunteer crew of seven men from CSS Chicora and CSS Palmetto State was assembled to operate the submarine. On August 29, 1863, Hunley's new crew was preparing to make a test dive to learn the operation of the submarine when Lieutenant Payne accidentally stepped on the lever controlling the sub's diving planes while the boat was running. This caused Hunley to dive with her hatches still open, flooding the submarine. Payne and two others escaped, while the remaining five crewmen drowned.

On October 15, 1863 Hunley failed to surface during a mock attack, killing Hunley and seven other crewmen. In both cases, the Confederate Navy salvaged the vessel and returned her to service.

Attack on The HousatonicEdit

Main article: Sinking of the USS Housatonic

Hunley made her first and only attack against a live target on the night of February 17, 1864. The vessel was the USS Housatonic. Housatonic, a 1240-ton (1.1 million-kilogram) steam-powered sloop-of-war with 12 large cannons, was stationed at the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina harbor, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) out to sea. In an effort to break the naval blockade of the city, Lieutenant George E. Dixon and a crew of seven volunteers attacked Housatonic, successfully embedding the barbed spar torpedo into her hull. The torpedo was detonated as the submarine backed away, sending Housatonic and five of her crew to the bottom in five minutes, although many survived by boarding two lifeboats or by climbing the rigging until rescued.


After the attack, the H.L. Hunley failed to return to her base. There is evidence that the Hunley survived as long as one hour following the attack - at about 8:45 p.m. The commander of "Battery Marshall" reported on the day after the attack that he had received "the signals" from the submarine indicating it was returning to her base. The report did not state what manner of signals were observed. A postwar correspondent stated that "two blue lights" were the prearranged signals, and a lookout on the Housatonic reported that he saw a "blue light" on the water after his ship sank. "Blue light" in 1864 referred to a pyrotechnic signal in long use by the U.S. Navy. It has been falsely represented in published works as a blue lantern, even though the lantern found on the recovered H.L. Hunley had a clear, not a blue, lens. Pyrotechnic "blue light" can be seen easily over the four mile distance between Battery Marshall and the site of the Hunley's attack on the Housatonic.

After signaling, Dixon would have taken his submarine underwater to attempt to return to Sullivan's Island. What happened next is unclear. The finders of the Hunley suggested that she was unintentionally rammed by the USS Canandaigua when that warship was going to the aid of the crew of the Housatonic.

One possibility is that the torpedo was not detonated on command, but rather it malfunctioned because of some damage suffered during the underwater attack. The intention was that the torpedo would be detonated when the Hunley had retreated to about 150 feet (46 meters) away. However, witnesses aboard the Housatonic stated that the submarine was no more than about 100 feet (30 meters) away when her torpedo detonated.

In October 2008, scientists reported that they had found that the crew of the Hunley had not set her pump to remove water from the crew's compartment, and this might indicate that it was not being flooded. "It now really starts to point to a lack of oxygen making [the crew] unconscious," the chairman of the South Carolina Hunley Commission said. "They may have been cranking and moving and it was a miscalculation as to how much oxygen they had.

Although there is no conclusive evidence as to the cause of the sinking of the H. L. Hunley, the head archeologist of Clemson University, Maria Jacobsen, and George Wunderlich, the executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, conducted experiments with modern castings of the forward conning tower of the H. L. Hunley. The original one had shown damage at one viewing port. The experiments used replica U.S. Navy firearms, and they showed that a .58 caliber Minie ball, fired from the U.S.S. Housatonic, could have penetrated at the viewing ports, hence producing a breach to let water enter. This result corresponds with the findings of Jaime Downs, an FBI forensic pathologist, which show variations in the preserved brain tissue from the forward crewmen to the aft crewmen of the Hunley. It has been conjectured that a ramming by the U.S.S. Canandaigua could have caused damage to the Hunley, but no such damage was found when the Hunley was raised from the bottom of the harbor. In January 2013, it was announced that conservator Paul Mardikian had found evidence of a cooper sleeve at the end of the Hunley's spar. This indicated that the torpedo had been attached directly to the spar, meaning the submarine may have been less than 20 feet from the Housatonic when the torpedo exploded. The Hunley crew may therefore have been knocked unconscious by the explosion and died without awakening. Her crew perished, but the H.L. Hunley had earned a place in the history of undersea warfare by being the first submarine to sink any ship.


Hunley was originally intended to attack by means of a floating explosive charge with a contact fuse (a torpedo in Civil War terminology) towed behind it at the end of a long rope. Hunley would approach an enemy vessel, dive under it, and surface beyond. As it continued to move away from the target, the torpedo would be pulled against the side of the target and explode. However, this plan was discarded as impractical due to the danger of the tow line fouling Hunley's screw or drifting into Hunley herself.

The floating explosive charge was replaced with a spar torpedo, a copper cylinder containing 90 pounds (41 kilograms) of black powder[5] attached to a 22-foot (6.7 m)-long wooden spar, as seen in illustrations of the submarine made at this time. The spar was mounted on Hunley's bow and was designed to be used when the submarine was some 6 feet (1.8 m) or more below the surface. The spar torpedo had a barbed point, and would be stuck in the target vessel's side by ramming. The spar torpedo as originally designed used a mechanical trigger attached to the attacking vessel by a cord, so that as the attacker backed away from her victim, the torpedo would explode. However, archaeologists working on Hunley have discovered evidence, including a spool of copper wire and components of a battery, that it may have been electrically detonated. Following Horace Hunley's death, General Beauregard issued an order that the submarine was no longer to attack her target underwater.

In response to this order, an iron pipe was attached to the bow of the submarine and angled downwards so the explosive charge would still be delivered under sufficient depth of water to make it effective. This was the same method developed for the earlier "David" type surface craft so successful against the USS New Ironsides. The Confederate Veteran of 1902 printed a reminiscence authored by an engineer stationed at Battery Marshall who, with another engineer, made adjustments to the iron pipe mechanism before Hunley left on her last mission on the night of February 17, 1864. A drawing of the iron pipe spar, confirming its "David" type configuration, was published in several early histories of submarine warfare.


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