hunley on surface

The Confederate Submarine CSS H.L. Hunley

In 1864, the CSS H.L. Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in combat. The sub was lost that night as well; and has remained a mystery until now. The Hunley wreck was discovered in 1995 and was raised during the summer of 2000. The study and conservation of the submarine is ongoing.

The Hunley has been a local legend for 130 years. It has been incorporated into Charleston history, which has kept the memory of the submarine alive for the generations since the War Between the States. The Hunley even had a museum on Broad Street devoted to it for many years; until it closed in the late 1970s.

This site was launched to become a resource for information, pictures, drawings, and diagrams of the recently recovered civil war era submarine.

The History

A group of private citizens in New Orleans, including James McClintock, Baxter Watson, and Horace Hunley, got together to finance and design a submersible torpedo boat. Their first prototype, Pioneer, was completed, but had to be scuttled in Lake Pontchartrain soon after due to the fall of the city in 1862.

The engineers fled to Mobile where they built a second prototype, American Diver. Mclintock experimented with different motive methods, including steam and battery power. However, in the end they went with a hand cranked drive. On its first time out, it was swamped and lost while under tow outside of Mobile Bay. Its location remains a mystery..

Months later, with additional investors and $15,000 ($300,000 today), they built their third submarine, which would later become known as the Hunley. It was hand cranked by a crew of 8, and used hand pumped ballast tanks, fore and aft, to submerge and surface. Soon, the Hunley was tested and demonstrated a successful attack against a dummy target using a towed contact torpedo. The military approved its use and put the Hunley on a train to Charleston.

Hunley At Charleston

The Siege of Charleston doesn't often appear in the history books as a full fledge battle of the War between the States. However, for most of the war, Charleston was under siege by Federal forces both on land to the south and at sea near the mouth of the harbor. Charleston endured 587 days of constant shelling, the use of confederate prisoners as human shields (the immortal 600) and its fortifications withstood numerous ground attacks (the charge of the 54th Mass -see the movie Glory). It was into this environment that the Hunley was delivered.

Hunley arrived in Charleston on August 12, 1863. She was commanded by McClintock with Gus Whitney as the first officer and the civilian crew from Mobile. Base of operations was the cove, a small inlet behind Sullivan's Island. McClintock took Hunley out daily but had no luck engaging the enemy.

On the night of August 21, 1863, the "Swamp Angel", a secretly constructed federal battery built in the marshes behind Folly Island, began shelling downtown Charleston. The gunners used the steeple of St. Michael's church to target their weapon. Two days later the confederate military, frustrated by Hunley's lack of results, seized the sub and turned it over to Lt. John Payne and a crew from the ironclad CSS Chicora. The new crew trained for several days until August 29, when disaster struck.

Hunley was being towed away from Fort Johnson by the steamer/gunboat Ettawan with the full crew of 9 men on board. Lt. Payne, standing in the open forward hatch, was struggling with the tow line when he accidentally kicked the diving plane tiller into the down position. Due to the forward motion from the tow boat, Hunley dove fast- with both hatches open. Payne and 3 others got out, though one- Charles Hasker was caught in the forward hatch and carried to the bottom, 42 feet down.

The Second Crew

By September 1st, efforts to raise the boat were underway- the process would take 10 days. The sub's future was uncertain until Horace Hunley wrote the military on the 19th, requesting that he and the original civilian crew (who demonstrated the boat in Mobile) be given the project. The military agreed and put Lt. George Dixon in command. In the first days of October, the civilian crew was reassembled and training resumed. On October 5, the CSS David successfully attacked her Goliath, the federal gunboat New Ironsides. Soon after, Hunley resumed nightly sorties outside the mouth of the harbor.

On the 15th, Horace Hunley insists on commanding the sub for a morning demonstration dive under the CSS Indian Chief (records don't explain where Dixon was at the time). The sub dove and never surfaced.

salvageThree days later, divers locate the sub in 56 feet of water. The sub was at a severe angle and had plowed into the bottom. She was raised in several days and after the salvage, it was deduced that:

The forward sea cock was open, allowing the forward ballast tank to fill and overflow. The rear tank was closed and full of air. The hatches were unbolted but remained shut through the sinking due to the pressure of the water. While trying to push open the hatches, Hunley and the first officer both asphyxiated standing in the conning towers where trapped air remained, the rest of the crew drowned. Horace Hunley, manning the forward position (included the forward tank) likely caused the sinking.

Winter Operations

In November 1863, the Hunley was refurbished on a wharf in Mt. Pleasant. Conrad Chapman's painting was executed during this period (Dec 2). A new military crew was put together with volunteers from the CSS Indian Chief. Training resumed and by mid December, Hunley was again running nighttime sorties outside of the harbor. Soon after, CSS David became a regular tow boat, getting Hunley as far out as possible to allow the crew to save their strength for their return voyage.

One day in January, 1864 (a month later ) Hunley's towed contact torpedo drifted into the CSS David, however a crewman went in the water and pushed the torpedo away. CSS David would no longer be used as a tow boat. Also, about this time, federal ironclads began the extensive use of chain nets and other passive obstacles to prevent torpedo attack (Hunley was no secret). Hunley would have to focus operations on the wooden blockade fleet farther out to sea (7 miles out). Her base was moved to Breach Inlet, between Sullivan's and Long Islands (now Isle of Palms). Attacks would now be carried out with a torpedo mounted on a seventeen foot iron pole fixed to the bow (similar to the CSS David).

February 5, 1864, William Alexander was transferred from Hunley's crew. He would later document much of what is known of the sub and it's operations.

Also in early February, a lone federal sloop-of-war, USS Housatonic, began anchoring closer to the Sullivan's Island beach every night (about 3 miles out). Her intent was to be in a better position to intercept the blockade runners that would hug the shoreline and slip past the federal fleet.

Last Mission

On the calm night of the 17th, Hunley engaged Housatonic. She approached on the surface, coming in fast. Housatonic's night watch spotted her and opened fire with small arms, but could not stop the attack. Housatonic, slipped her anchor chain out and reversed her propeller to try to back out of Hunley's path, but this didn't help. Hunley rammed her torpedo into the federal ship, about 8 feet below the waterline. The sub immediately backed away, leaving the torpedo embedded in Housitonic's side. A several hundred foot cord spooled out from Hunley, still connected to the torpedo. At some point, the cord between the sub and the torpedo became taut, detonating the explosive, and quite possibly Housatonic's magazine. The warship went down in less than five minutes, settling upright in 30 feet of water with her rigging still high above the sea. Surprisingly, all but 5 of Housatonic's crew survived.

After the attack, Hunley gave a prearranged signal (with a blue lantern) to sentries on shore, who would build a large fire on the beach at Breach Inlet to help her find her way back, but she never was seen again.

If you are intrigued by the story of the Hunley, continue on to the Gallery page to see many more images of the submarine. Several of those images are available on merchandise at our Museum shop. Diagrams of some of the Hunley's systems are on the Engineering page and the Torpedo page. We also have a page on the torpedo boat CSS David, another unusual vessel that is a part of this story. Any mass-market books or video on the Hunley can be found on the Books page. And any current or informative web site on the Hunley can be found on the Links page.

Historical information compiled from various sources including Thomas Cambell's The CSS H.L. Hunley : Confederate Submarine listed on the books page.

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