The Hunley, converted from an old boiler, was a human-driven submersible which delivered the first successful submarine torpedo attack on a surface ship. In early 1864, the tiny Hunley implanted a spar torpedo beneath the waterline of the Union blockader Housatonic and succeeded in sinking her, although the explosions or shock waves sank the Hunley herself. All her crew was lost just after their moment of triumph.
The creators of the Hunley were experienced, determined submarine builders and inventors. Refusing to accept setbacks, they slogged away, improving their craft and showing remorseless devotion both to submarine technology and to the Confederate cause. Hunley's team started out in New Orleans and after Farragut's victory there, moved to Mobile, where the Hunley was constructed. In a trial held before Adm. Franklin Buchanan, the little sub successfully attacked a coal barge on Mobile Bay. Although she was never a formal part of the CSN, being operated by the Army instead, the sub was accepted into Confederate service and shipped by rail to Charleston, S.C. to aid in lifting the siege.
The Hunley was a modest proposition compared even to the Holland submersibles of 1900; she certainly bore little resemblance to the nuclear-powered leviathans of today. This pioneering, hand-cranked vessel was converted from a boiler casing, dictating the cigar shape. Tapered ends were riveted to the oval boiler to improve its hydrodynamic qualities. Inside the four-foot-wide tube, seats were provided along one side. In these the crewmen sat while they worked the crankshaft that drove the boat. There was also a command post for Dixon and there were two tiny conning towers just big enough to put one's head in, each with a series of well-sealed glass lenses to see through. Space was very tight. In particular, the two hatches were very difficult to pass because of their inadequate size. This may have contributed to the deaths of crewmen in her several grisly accidents. Mechanically, the submarine worked much as modern subs do. She had diving planes to control ascent and descent, a rudder to steer, and ballast tanks fore and aft to affect the trim. She also carried considerable iron ballast bolted to her underside, which could be released in an emergency. The principles may have been the same as a modern sub, but everything on the Hunley was human-powered: Manual valves to let water in; manual pumps to expel it; manual propulsion power.
Schematic & Specifications
Specifications for the Hunley:
Dimensions: 39'6" long x 3'10" beam. Height: Approx. 6'. Displacement: 7.5 tons. Armament: Iron spar torpedo, hinged to bow/bottom meridian, carrying 90 lbs of black powder. Propulsion: Hand cranked screw. Speed: 4 kts, surface. Crew: 1 officer, 7 men.
Dimensions: 12.04m length x 1.2m beam. Height: Approx. 1.83m. Displacement: 7.5 tons. Armament: Iron spar torpedo, hinged to bow/bottom meridian, carrying 40.82 kg black powder warhead. Propulsion: Hand cranked screw. Speed: 7.4 km/hr, surface. Crew: 1 officer, 7 men.
The Hunley was to find a place in history, but her path to fame was not a smooth one. One time she sank in an accidental flooding, drowning 5 men. On another occasion the entire crew perished during a war game, including her inventor, wealthy attorney-turned-tinkerer H.L. Hunley. Both times the ship was salvaged and reconditioned. After the second drowning, a new crew of volunteer Army men was recruited under the command of Lt. George E. Dixon. Gradually the new crew drilled and gained expertise in handling their craft.
They would need all their skill and all their luck to mount a successful attack on one of the blockaders. But that was their explicit mission from Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding Charleston's defenses.
On February 17, 1864 the Hunley made her attack on the Union blockader USS Housatonic, a 1280-ton, 207-foot wooden sloop-of-war mounting 12 heavy guns. The Housatonic was anchored 5 miles offshore (8 km) when the Hunley approached on a calm, moonless night. The Union sailors sighted her and cleared away their guns, firing during the approach. They were unable to depress their gun muzzles to aim at the surface so close in. Ignoring the roaring cannonfire and the splash of near misses, Hunley charged in, embedding the barbed tip of her torpedo in the Union ship's wooden hide. Then the Hunley reversed off the ship and Dixon chose his moment to pull the firing lanyard, triggering the explosion of the 90-lb black powder charge.
The effect was devastating. The torpedo explosion detonated an after magazine. This explosion sank the Housatonic in less than five minutes. Five Housatonic crewmen perished, the rest escaping in hastily launched boats or clinging to the upper masts which projected above the water after the sinking. The effects were no less dire for the Hunley. After signaling "All's well" to shore, she mysteriously sank in the harbor with all hands during the return trip. The two wrecks lay in fair proximity on the harbor floor, undisturbed for more than 130 years.
The wreck of the Hunley was found in 1995, partly buried in mud and encrusted with sand and sea life, but identifiable by the unique conning towers that jutted out of the mound. The ship was successfully raised in one piece in 2000 and is now undergoing conservation at the Warren Lasch Conservation Lab in Charleston. The bodies of the eight crewmen were buried with full military honors in April 2004, much of Charleston turning out in 1860s finery to honor the pioneering submariners.
The Hunley being raised in padded slings suspended from a custom-built truss. It was immediately immersed in a salt-water tank, later placed in a 90,000-gallon salt-water conservation tank on shore (below). A full-size replica of the sub can be visited at the S.C. State Museum in downtown Charleston.
About the U.S.S. Housatonic
Both our photos are of the Housatonic's sister-ship USS Ossipee.
The Federal sloop-of-war Housatonic was built at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine in 1861-2. The 1,280-ton vessel measured 205 feet in length and 38 feet in beam. She carried two main boilers and one auxiliary, all three of which were based on the Martin tubular patent. Her steam propulsion system comprised two horizontal 42-inch cylinder horizontal direct-acting engines that, combined, generated approximately 1,150 horsepower. Armament of the Housatonic included one 100-pdr Parrott rifle, one 11" Dahlgren smoothbore, three 30-pdr MLR, six 32-pdr cannon, one heavy 12-pdr smoothbore, and one 12-pdr rifle. Rigged as a barque, the ship was capable of 10 kts under steam alone and carried a crew of 141, five of whom were killed in the Hunley's attack.
Capt. William Rogers Taylor assumed command of Housatonic shortly after the vessel was commissioned in Boston on August 29, 1862. Housatonic departed Boston on September 11, 1862, arrived in South Carolina waters nine days later, and joined the naval blockade against Charleston. She took part in several of the attacks on the harbor forts under DuPont's command before meeting her doom in February 1864. She carries the unenviable distinction of being the first warship sunk by a submarine.