(Archive - Week of April 9, 2004)

The World's First Submarine - Hunley Was a Killer of 40 Brave Men

I WROTE THE FIRST PART OF THIS A FEW YEARS AGO: In 1863, the Confederacy was in big trouble, and when everything failed, Capt. Horace L. Hunley - a retired U.S. Navy officer who was loyal to the Confederate cause - decided to help Gen. Gustave Toussant Beauregard by building the first submarine in order to break the Union blockade surrounding Charleston, S.C.'s harbor.

Capt. Hunley was not a naval hero, nor an inventor, but a gentleman of the old South and a wealthy cotton planter. The H.L. Hunley, as he called her, was built in Mobile, Ala., and was the first such vessel to sink a surface craft in warfare.

The H.L. Hunley was also referred to by many as the "Iron Witch," and her seduction took 40 very brave men to a watery grave. All the men who volunteered to man the H.L. Hunley were not only brave - they were heroes who made history as the first sailor's of a submarine.

The idea came to Capt. Hunley when the North sent more ships to tighten the blockade surrounding Charleston's harbor. He remembered some plans of a submarine that had been presented to him in the early part of 1863 for an undersea boat.

He was told that although two previous plans had turned out to be failures, the inventor claimed this ship "would knock off the Union ships one by one at night," and that there was no defense against her attack.

Capt. Hunley became convinced that he could build a submarine that would blockade harbors of the South, allowing supplies and ammunition to be brought in, which would change the course of the war to the South's favor. However, others thought it was too daring and suicidal for the Confederate government and Naval authorities to risk any money on the scheme.

The captain decided to build the submarine using his money, and she was built from a 25-foot section of a boiler, four feet in diameter and shaped like a cigar. She would be powered by eight men seated with their knees drawn up to their chins, turning hand-cranks that revolved the propeller shaft. Fins were attached to the sides for raising and lowering the boat while it was submerged. A hinged pipe, which could be raised four feet above the deck, supplied air to its crew.

The captain's position was forward of the eight-man crew where he navigated the craft. The plan was that the submarine would tow a copper cylinder containing gunpowder at the end of a 200-foot towline. In action, the submarine would submerge, dive under the Yankee ship, surface 100 feet on the other side, and continue on her course until the "torpedo" was towed into contact with the enemy ship's hull and then exploded.

The Hunley was built in Mobile and was taken to the waterfront of Mobile Bay in two sections and then towed down the Bay for a trial run - a shakedown cruise the U.S. Navy calls it. The Hunley sank because someone had left the hatch open. Unfortunately, her builder and her crew had no experience in what they were doing.

The second Hunley was built, but she nosed down into the mud at the bottom of Mobile Bay, refused to budge, and took the lives of her crew of seven volunteers with her. Despite this tragedy, she was raised and taken by rail to Charleston, S.C. There a young officer of the Confederate Navy volunteered to handle the Iron Witch. He got six other men as brave or as foolish as he and planned to attack the federal fleet in the harbor. They never made it - a passing steamer poured water into the open hatch and five of the men were drowned. Another crew was chosen from a long list of volunteers, and the same accident was repeated and four more men died.

Capt. Hunley insisted that the accidents were the result of improper operations. He decided to train and command the next crew himself. He headed his rusty brainchild into the quiet waters of Stono River, south of Charleston, in 1863 and gave the order to submerge. Several days later, the submarine was found stuck at a 40-degree angle in the mud with Capt. Hunley and his dead crew jammed together near the hatch. As amazing as it seems, this deadly submarine fascinated and hypnotized brave men, and another crew was recruited. This one met with the same fate as the others.

Gen. Beauregard said, "This is the end," and it might have been except for a fanatical Lt. George Dixon of Mobile who had known Capt. Hunley. Instead of ugliness and death, Lt. Dixon saw vitality and strength in this strange, cantankerous underwater craft. He was determined to show that the Hunley would revolutionize sea warfare. Dixon received grudging consent from the Navy to attack the Housatanic, a corvette guarding Charleston harbor. He had no trouble finding a crew, because enthusiasm was prompted not only by patriotism, but by $100,000 in prize money, which was offered for the destruction of a Union frigate, with lesser amounts for smaller vessels.

On Feb. 17, 1864 at 8:40 p.m., a long spar torpedo set into play a bittersweet victory for the Confederates. The spar torpedo hit the Housatanic and sank it with the loss of five men. It will forever remain a secret of the deep how this same torpedo then managed to blow the Hunley apart, sinking it with all hands on board - this time, forever. The Hunley claimed the lives of 40 brave heroes, including retired U.S. Navy Capt. Horace L. Hunley. The idea of a submarine was adopted by the U.S. Navy 37 years later when the submarine, Holland, became a part of the United States fleet.

 

Contact Noah at:
Noah@SemperFidelisNoah.com

 

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