H. L. Hunley: The First Submarine to Sink a Warship

I’ve been fascinated with submarines for as long as I can remember.  I read The Hunt for Red October when I was very young and while I didn’t completely understand the novel of course, I was still obsessed with the fact the crew could be submerged underwater for months at a time.  Over the years I read books about them and saw movies, such as the classic Das Boot, and even played the Jane’s simulation game, 688(i) Hunter/Killer.  My interest in submarines has waned since I’ve gotten older and I don’t really keep up with all the latest news and technological advances.

So when I heard recently that two submarines had collided in the middle of the ocean, my curiosity was piqued like the “good ole’ days” of my youth.  **At the end of this post are articles linking to information about this most recent incident.

While in the process of garnering inspiration for this post, I happened upon a link of related events that took place on this day. Imagine my surprise when listed close to the top was the headline “The H. L. Hunley becomes the first submarine to engage and sink a warship, the USS Housatonic.”


According to the Naval Historical Center, The Hunley was built in 1863 by Park and Lyons of Mobile, Alabama, and was fashioned out of a

cylindrical iron steam boiler, which was deepened and also lengthened through the addition of tapered ends. Hunley was designed to be hand powered by a crew of nine: eight 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.

I found some more information about the ship on the Encyclopedia of Alabama website:

The Hunley was the third submarine vessel to be constructed under the direction of riverboat captain James McClintock, engineer Baxter Watson, and lawyer Horace Lawson Hunley, whom the boat was eventually named after. The first submarine, Pioneer, was constructed in New Orleans in late 1861 and early 1862. It was tested in the Mississippi River in February 1862 and was later taken to Lake Pontchartrain for further testing. It had to be scuttled in April when Union admiral David Farragut’s fleet advanced upon the city of New Orleans.

Feel free to click the article’s link for a detailed account of the ship and it’s building process.

On February 14th, the Hunley made a daring and ambitious late night attack on the:

USS Housatonic, a 1,240-ton (B) sloop-of-war with 16 guns, in Charleston Harbor off the coast of South Carolina. H.L. Hunley rammed Housatonic with spar torpedo packed with explosive powder and attached to a long pole on its bow. The spar torpedo embedded in the sloop’s wooden side was detonated by a rope as Hunley backed away. The resulting explosion that sent Housatonic with five crew members to the bottom of Charleston Harbor also sank Hunley with its crew of eight. H.L. Hunley earned a place in the history of undersea warfare as the first submarine to sink a ship in wartime.

Here is a authentic map of Charleston Harbor circa 1864, from the Library of Congress (thanks to Keith):

Map of Charleston Harbor
Map of Charleston Harbor

The crew of eight lay in the ship for 131 years, until the author Clive Cussler and his team from the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) discovered the submarine after a 14 years of searching:

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 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 is covered in a 1/4 to 3/4-inch encrustation of ferrous oxide bonded with sand and shell 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 34 feet with most, if not all, of the vessel preserved under the sediment.

After searching further for more information about the recovery of the ship, I came across an interesting article from the official website of the U.S. Navy.  In it, it talks about the finding of a wallet of one of the Hunley’s crewmembers.

“There are endless possibilities on what kind of information this wallet may hold,” said Paul Mardikian, senior conservator on the Hunley project. “It is just too difficult to imagine that someone would carry a wallet with nothing in it.” In the past, Mardikian has worked on wallets recovered from the Titanic which held documents, currency and business cards.

The wallet was found near a crew member’s shoulder bone, which means he possibly carried it in his jacket pocket. Any information the wallet may hold will add to personal details about the crew, which are starting to emerge as a result of ongoing forensic and genealogical research.

Again from the Encyclopedia of Alabama article linked above:

During the conservation, the remains of the eight crewman were recovered, and all were found in their assigned positions onboard the vessel, suggesting that there was no panic at the time the boat went down. The reason for the submarine’s sinking after its attack on the Housatonic remains a mystery. There is some evidence to suggest that the men did not drown, but rather suffocated from lack of oxygen, and that the Hunley may have remained airtight for some 30 years after the attack on the Housatonic.

On April 17, 2004, the men were buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston next to the other crewmen who had drowned on the submarine some 140 years earlier. The Hunley remains at the Warren Lasch Conservatory at present, and visitors can view the submarine on weekend tours. The building that housed the Park and Lyons Machine Shop still stands on the corner of Water and State streets in Mobile.

See why I like submarines? Not only are they interesting in and of themselves, but they have a rich history that dates all the way back to the Civil War. And plus, no one ever talks about them in their history class. Sure, they talk about The Monitor and The Merrimack with regards to naval events of the Civil War, but rarely do you hear about submarine warfare during this time.

Am I wrong about this?  I will admit I haven’t taken a Civil War class past the high school level.  How often does the topic of submarines come up?

Please met me know.  🙂

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