Part 2

CSS H.L. HUNLEY/Shortened Terry L. Coats C.S.S.  H.L. Hunley

Tragedy Strikes the Hunley

Beauregard selected Lt. John A. Payne, CSN as the submarines new commander. Payne who had been serving on the CSS Chicora brought with him eight volunteers from that ironclad.

Soon the submarine was making daily practice dives with her new commander at the helm. But Payne’s experiences on the boat will be short lived. On Aug 29 the little craft was struck by tragedy. Just as the submarine cast off from a dock, Lt. Payne, who was still attempting to position himself while standing in the forward turret became entangled in a hawser (a mooring rope). While attempting to clear himself, he accidentally stepped on the lever which controlled the diving fins. The boat which was under power suddenly dove directly toward the bottom of the bay. As both hatches were yet open water immediately spilled into the interior of the vessel. Lt. Payne exited the forward hatch, two others, Jeremiah Donivan, and Charles L. Sprague vacated the aft hole. The Hunley sank quickly to a depth of 42 feet, closing the turret covers as it descended. After it struck bottom, one other crewman, Lt. Charles Hasker waited for the pressure against the now closed cover of the manhole above him to stabilize.  He then pushed open the cap and raced for the freedom and fresh air of the surface. The other five member of the crew were not so lucky.  The CSS Hunley had claimed the first of what would be the lives of 22  brave men.  The names of the five were, Michael Cane, Nicholas Davis, Frank Doyle, John Kelley, and Absolum Williams.

Gen. Beauregard and Flag Officer Tucker decided that it was imperative that they raise the Hunley, recruit another crew, and place the boat back in service. Within 72 hours of the fatal plunge, two civilian Charleston divers, Angus Smith and David Broadfoot were hired and set about to bring the tiny boat back to the surface. In 10 days toil, with Confederate and Federal ironclads battling directly above their heads, Smith and Broadfoot raised the Hunley.  By September 14th the craft was back at Ft. Jackson floating at the berth. She had been pumped dry and the grizzly task of removing the bodies completed. Bloated, decomposed, and rigor mortis filled, it was reported that the extremities of the men had to be sawn off to release them from their small tomb.

Five days later on September 19, 1863 a letter arrived in the now half empty city of Charleston. The letter written by Horace Hunley and addressed to Gen. Beauregard proposed that the Hunley be returned to civilian hands. Hunley would re-crew her with men from Mobile, and quoting from the letter, at the earliest make an attempt to destroy a ship of the enemy fleet. Beauregard still grasping at any straw possible to break the iron hold on Charleston agreed to have Hunley retake control of the boat. But he did so with one stipulation. He wanted the Hunley to remain under the command of military personnel. A bargain was struck. The same men who had been banished to Mobile from the McClintock crew were returned to Charleston.  This time Lt. Dixon returned to command.

 Included in the crew and serving as second officer, was Thomas Park, son of Thomas Park the machine shop owner, Joseph Patterson, Robert Brockband(k), Charles McHugh, John Marshall, Henry Beard, and torpedo expert Charles  L. Sprague. Sprague a survivor of the August 29th sinking was the only member not of the Park/ Lyon contingent.  By the first week of October the crew from Mobile had arrived. They immediately set to the task of running practice dives under the ironclad CSS Indian Chief.  As before, the goal was to pass under the enemy ship pulling a torpedo behind on a rope and into the target’s hull.

( CSS INDIAN CHIEF was used as receiving ship at Charleston, S.C., from 1862 to 1865. One of her additional details in 1863 was support of the local torpedo (mine) operations. Flag Officer J. R. Tucker, CSN wrote of her commander, Lt. W. G. Dozier, CSN, 2i August 1863, "You will be pleased to have as many boats fitted with torpedoes as you can hoist up to the davits of the INDIAN CHIEF *** " Her first commanding officer was Lt. J. H. Ingraham, CSN. She was burned by the Confederates prior to the evacuation of Charleston on 18 February 1865.)

A Second Disaster

On a gray and drizzly morning of October 15, 1863, the Hunley embarked on another practice run. At the helm this morning was Capt. Hunley filling in for an absent Lt. Dixon who was away on business.

At 9:25 am the boat left the dock. Hunley sited toward the Indian Chief, took one final reading on the compass, then closed the hatch above his head. He depressed the diving plane lever and opened the sea-cocks to flood the ballast tank. The Hunley disappeared beneath the surface then something went terribly wrong. The crew of the Indian Chief, accustomed to so many mock attacks against their ship realized that something was amiss. They saw the Hunley dive under the ships left but she did not resurface on the port side as they had grown so accustom to. The Hunley had for a second time sunk taking with her the entire compliment.

This time it took Smith and Broadfoot three and one half weeks to recover the stricken boat. The vessel was pulled to the foot of Canal Street in Charleston. Even before the hatch could be broken open it was reported that several men volunteered to take the place of the yet to be recovered crew. Once again came the gruesome task of extricating bloated, stiff human remains. General Beauregard himself was present when the hatches of the Hunley were broken open. When he looked into the horror struck, blackened faces of Horace Hunley and his crew he immediately ordered that the boat was not to be re-crewed. He said, this boat is more of a hazard to our men than to the enemy. 

A subsequent investigation revealed that Horace Hunley had probably opened the sea-cocks too fast. Only the doomed crew know for sure what transpired in the next frantic moments but the scenario went something like this. The water coming through the open sea-cocks filled the ballast tanks and spilled over into the floor of the boat. (Remember I told you that an original flaw in the design of the Hunley was that the top of the ballast tank was left open). Hunley, realizing that the boat was filling with water but not recognizing why, grabbed the pump handle and attempted to expel the rushing tide; he screamed at Thomas Park in the rear of the boat to do the same. At the same time an order was given to loosen the iron ballast slab bolted to the belly of the boat. The crew grabbed wrenches and fumbled in the rising frigid water to remove the nuts protruding up through the floor. In a last effort Hunley and Park unbolted the hatches and pushed against the hundreds of thousands of pounds of seawater on the other side. But it was too late. As the water was rushing into the bow of the boat the increasing weight caused the center of gravity to shift forward. The nose of the Hunley   tilted dramatically downward and she went into a fast 45 degree dive. The steep angle of the plunge probably caused the bolts on the iron keel ballast plates to tilt sideways jamming them and reframing the crew from completely removing the nuts.  As the boat struck bottom the men on the hand cranks were juxed from their seats and hurled forward into a mass of tangled bodies. These six sailors died in what must have been a horrifying drowning death. Hunley and Park lasted a short while longer but as the air in the turrets expired, they too succumb to asphyxiation.

Went the submarine was opened Hunley and Park were both found with their heads still in the turrets. Both men had their right hands above their heads indicating that they both were in fact fighting against the wheels trying to open the hatches. Hunley was found holding in his other hand an unlit candle. When the submarine had plunged beneath the surface, the interior of the submarine had been enveloped in darkness. Diverting his attention to lighting the candle in his hand, Hunley had neglected to close the sea-cock. Then in the panic of the sudden influx of water Hunley had pumped madly to expel the flow. Had he simply thought to close the sea-cock instead of attempting his frantic movements on the pump, the disaster could have been averted.

On November 9, 1863 at the insistence of General Beauregard, Captain Horace Hunley and the seven others of his crew were laid to rest in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston. They were buried with all the honors that befit their ranks. Hunley’s gravestone reads: Captain Horace Lawson Hunley, age 39 years. A native of Tennessee, but for many years a citizen of New Orleans, who lost his life in the service of his country. 

Lieutenant Dixon Takes Command

Even as Smith and Broadfoot were struggling to free the Hunley from the Charleston Bay mud, Lt. Dixon and a man named Henry Dillingham, a saboteur for the Confederate government, and a man that even years after the war ended the Federals would still be searching for, were on the train in route to Mobile. Their assignment was to return to the Park and Lyon shops to recruit yet another submarine crew. Dixon met with his old friend William Alexander. Within days Dixon, Alexander and two others were on their way to South Carolina. Upon their return Dixon and Alexander faced the formative tasks of convincing Gen. Beauregard to allow them to return the mighty little boat to the fight for Southern Independence. Beauregard finally acquiesced with the stipulation that the Hunley was not to be operated in a totally submerged manner. It is believed that Lt. Dixon agreed to this stipulation but never actually followed through with his agreement.

After being brought to the surface the Hunley would spend almost three months in dry dock. She was refurbished with a repacking of all of her stuffing boxes and of all rods and shafts which protruded through the hull.  She was also cleaned inside and out and given a fresh coat of paint. It was also at this time that Conrad Wise Chapman, a local Charleston soldier/artist painted the famous painting of the Hunley.

Dixon and Alexander then visited the ironclad CSS Indian Chief. Though they were careful to express on the ships crew the danger involved in submarine warfare, they still had no trouble in recruiting additional men to join the two men who had accompanied them back from Mobile. The five volunteers from the CSS Indian Chief were, Seaman Joseph Ridgeway, Seaman C. F. Simpkins, Seaman Frank J. Collins, Seaman Arnold Becker, and Boatswain’s Mate James A. Wicks.


During the training of the new crew, Dixon realized that there were many problems which needed to be addressed. He knew that the currents sometimes pushed him miles off his intended course, and most taxing was the fact that to reach the enemy ships, his crew was forced to crank the Hunley   from her Mount Pleasant docks several miles to sea. By the time they could reach any enemy vessels, time and much energy had been wasted. In the future, arrangements would have to be made for towing the Hunley  at least partly to its intended targets.

For some time the Confederate Navy had used with some success a small fleet of semi-submersible 50 foot long torpedo boats which the Yankees called the David Class. The Davids were a mix of vessels, some steam powered, some hand powered. One boat, the CSS Little David, had successfully attacked the ironclad USS Ironsides  in October of 1863.  It was decided that the steam powered David  could be implemented as a tow vehicle for the submarine. Confederate Flag Officer John Tucker, commander of the Charleston squadron was contacted and he in turn ordered that in the future the Little David would assist the submarine by towing the Hunley   toward her target for a few miles then would break loose and go on to it’s assigned mission for the night leaving the Hunley to continue on it’s own.

One of the tows almost turned disastrous for the two boats. One night the engine on the David failed while it was towing the Hunley   which in turn was towing a torpedo. As the Hunley   coasted freely toward the David, of a sudden the seamen of both boats frantically realized that the torpedo, unable to distinguish between friend and foe was floating right into the side of the wooden David.  Had it not been for the quick actions of an unnamed seaman on the David who dove into the frigid waters and pushed the bomb away, it is very likely that both vessels would have been blown completely out of the water. This would be the last time the David would tow the Hunley.

After this near miss, it was decided to no longer use the tethered torpedoes as the attacking mode.  Also given that the ironclad gunboats after the successful attack by the CSS David on the USS Ironsides were now employing anti-torpedo defensive drop nets, Commander Tucker decided to change the emphasis of attack for the Hunley.  No longer would the ironclads be the targets of the submarine. Instead, attentions would now be directed toward the wooden ships, which lay further out in the channel. With the change of tactics, a new base of operations would have to be found. Dixon moved the submarine from Mount Pleasant to an inlet bay on the north end of Sullivan Island, a port closer to the location of the wooden ships. Changed also was the matter of attack. From now on a spar some 20 feet in length was mounted to the bow of the boat and a 90 pound black powder charge attached. The spared charge had been the mode of attack used by the Little David and now that the ironclads were no longer the targets, the wooden ship could much better be attacked using the spar approach.

Realizing that on one of these dangerous missions it might become necessary to make a run from the enemy fleet an experiment was conducted. Lt. Dixon wanted to see just how long he and his crew could stay submerged if it became necessary to do so in battle. One night he cast the Hunley off from port and had each of the crew take a hard turn at the screw. At that point he told them that they were going to practice a duration submersion. He told them that they would settle to the bottom of the bay and stay there until they could no longer stand the loss of oxygen. The signal was that when the first man said the word up that they would resurface. At twenty minutes the single candle in the craft snuffed out from lack of air. The tiny boat was  cast into darkness. An hour passed. then an hour and a half and still not one word was uttered by the men. Two hours passed, then two and one half. Finally someone in the darkness said UP and in unison almost like a church choir, eight more voices piped in as well with the word  up.

When the Hunley came to the surface the soldiers and sailors who had witnessed the start of the experiment had long since retired. Apparently thinking that the boat had taken the lives of yet another crew, a report had been forwarded to General Beauregard that the sub in fact had sank. Dixon had to rush to the general’s headquarters the following morning to assure him that all was well. But from the experiment Lt. Dixon gained a bit more confidence knowing that he and his crew could if needed stay submerged and out of harms way.

The Hunley at Beach Inlet

A normal day of operation for the Hunley   crew was quite an ordeal. At around 1:00 pm the crew would walk, sometimes under enemy fire from Mount Pleasant a distance of seven miles to the inlet on Sullivan. They would then practice in the submarine for two to three hours in a back bay. As the sun was beginning to set in the west, Dixon and Alexander would lie on the beach, a compass between them, a bearing would be taken on one of the Yankee ships which lay some 4-5 miles off shore. While the readings were being taken, the other men would mount the spar to the bow of the boat and the charge would be carefully attached. As dusk was enclosing the South Carolina coast, the Hunley would set sail for an evening sortie. The distance to and from the ships would be an all night reach and timing was of up most importance, Lt. Dixon had to make sure that he was safely back to shore before daylight broke over the harbor. He could not afford for the boat to be caught in open waters after sunrise, one of the Federal picket boats could easily spot them. After the nights mission, the crew would safely dock the boat under the watchful guns of Battery Marshall, walk back the seven miles to quarters and cook breakfast.

February 17, 1864

To the casual observer, February 17, 1864 must have seemed just like every other cold winters day in Charleston. To Lt. George Dixon it probably seemed the same save two things. First, his friend and second in command Lt. William Alexander was no longer in the South Carolina city. On February 2nd he had been transferred back to Mobile to oversee the production of new breech loading repeating cannons, and secondly, recent successful blockade running by Confederate ships had caused the ring of Federal guard ships in the harbor to be drawn in closer to the shore. The latter had not slipped the attention of the 32 year old Lieutenant.

That Wednesday afternoon the 1,240 ton, 207 foot long, steam powered sloop-of-war Housatonic was anchored a mere two miles off the Sullivan Island shore. As Dixon peered though his telescope, the ship was so close he could even make out much of the details of the ships rigging.  At last he had been given the opportunity he had been waiting for. Tonight would be the night. Late in the afternoon Lt. Dixon and newly assigned second in command Corporal C. F. Carlsen took the crew on one more run through of the attack procedures and a check out of the operations of the boat.

With the light of day fading, George Dixon walked to the mouth of Beach Inlet and took one final compass bearing on the Housatonic . Of concern was the overhead sky. It was a semi clear night. An overcast, starless night would have been much preferred. If they had to surface for a last minute sighting and breath of air they would be very prone to be spotted by the enemy. The bright night would also allow the Housatonic’s lookout and picket boat personnel to see shadows and ripples on the water.

Before departing, Lt. Dixon made one final arrangement with Lt. Col. O.M. Dantzler the officer in charge of Battery Marshall.  It was requested that upon the display of a blue light from the submarine, the battery would ignite a bright calcium lamp as a homing beacon to guide them back to Beach Inlet. With a final handclasp and a prayerful farewell from Dantzler, Dixon squeezed through the hatch and bolted it shut behind him. At a little after 7:00pm the Hunley  cast off.  Lt. Dixon lit a candle. Looking at his crew it was impossible for him not to see the determination on each face. These men knew the task and were more than willing to attempt it.

Though the exact actions on the CSS Hunley will never be known, we do know according to a naval board of inquiry held shortly after the events of that night what happened aboard the Housatonic. 

Officer of the deck John Crosby stood the bridge of the ship scanning the horizon for telltale smoke or the wake of a blockade-runner. Close watch was being held as the Federals were very much aware that weapons such as the David and the Hunley were in the area. Standing orders from fleet were that any steam-powered sloop was to maintain 25 lbs of pressure on the boilers and to keep the ship at the ready. In the case of attack, they were to cut loose the anchor, engage the engines and immediately could be under way.


The Hunley had been under sail for just over an hour when Dixon decided he needed to surface and take a look above. A quick glance through the viewing ports assured the Lieutenant that there were no picket boats in sight. Straight ahead, though closer than expected, the twinkling light of the Housatonic could be seen.  About this time Corporal Carlson opened the rear hatch and a breeze of cool fresh air rushed through the submarine. Dixon took a reading from the compass illuminated by the single candle on the bulkhead. He and Carlson then closed the hatches, and the diving plane was set for a dive.

Dixon could have espoused some poetic soliloquy about how they were about to make history but much more likely he simply whispered to the men to tell them that the were almost at their objective. The seven sailors started to turn the propulsion crank; the Hunley eased forward.


As the Hunley bore down on the Housatonic,  Executive Officer F. J. Higginson rushed to starboard rail. He had seen something but what? A log, a porpoise. some type of debris? Suddenly it was clear that it was none of these, they were under attack!  John Crosby sounded general alarm. The anchor was slipped and the big ship already under power was soon backing from danger. As Dixon yelled at his crew to crank with all their might, small arms fire began to ping the side of the boat. Several men aboard the Housatonic had drawn their side arms or a rifle and had begun to fire at the semi-submerged warrior. Fortunately for the Hunley they had slipped in so close the Housatonic they were unable to lower their cannon enough to muster a shot.

Though they had braced themselves. the men inside  bowled over the top of one another, as the Hunley rammed the Housatonic  at a speed of a little over 6 knots.  It was as if the Hunley had harpooned a great wooden whale. The barbed spear on the torpedo split into the timbers just below the water line and just forward of the mizzen mast. The submarine reversed course, immediately the line to the spar torpedo started playing out from a reel.   The initial attack plan was for the Hunley to back away for a distance of 150 feet before the lanyard was pulled. Later reports would say that the little submarine may have backed only one half that distance before a muffled blast ripped through the ship.  The crew of the big ship apparently got the engine engaged but were only able to back a short distance before the ship was rocked. In less than five minutes the mighty ship sank in 40 feet of water. Survivors of the explosion were able to either take to the life boats or to climb up the rigging which in the shallow waters of the channel never submerged into the icy sea. The total causalities from a compliment of 150 was five sailors dead (one of which had made it safely to the upper deck only to die in an attempt to return below to retrieve $320.00), two injured and of course one sloop-of warship of Mr. Lincolns Navy.

What happened next to the Hunley and it’s crew is still the subject of much speculation. The common belief was that when the Hunley rammed the Housatonic that it had gotten entangled in the sinking ship and had been drawn to the bottom with its victim. But information which very quickly came to light should have easily dispelled this version of what happened. Within two weeks of the sinking, the Federal navy held a board of inquiry to determine how the ship had been sunk. At that inquiry, Federal Seaman Robert Flemming, a sailor on one of the rescue ships testified that a full 45 minutes after the Housatonic sank he saw at a distance of four full ship lengths off the Housatonic’s starboard quarter, a blue light illuminating from low in the water.   Couple this report with that of Battery Marshall Commander Col. Dantzler who said, signals from the Hunley were observed and answered, it becomes clear that these heroes has completed their mission; they had signaled as planned, and were heading back to safety at Beach Inlet.

With the Charleston defenses under daily attack and the city itself under heavy bombardment, the news concerning the loss of the submarine soon became only a footnote in the stream of dispatches crossing General Beauregard’s desk. But one thing is certain, on the cold moonlit night of February 17th 1864, approximately four miles off the Sullivan Island, South Carolina, the nature of naval warfare changed forever.

The Hunley Comes Home

Col. Dantzler and his men must have scanned the surf of Charleston Bay for hours looking for the returning submarine.  When the CSS H.L. Hunley did not return to the Inlet, many of them I’m sure hoped and prayed that Lt. Dixon had simply followed the current stream on into the harbor to another port. This unfortunately was not the case.

Lt. George Dixon had signaled the battery with his small blue light that the mission was completed and that the Hunley with it’s crew were coming home. On Tuesday morning August 8th, 2000, I am proud to say that my wife Jane and I were there on the beach of Sullivan Island to welcome them back


 Terry L. Coats   Article C.S.S.   H.L. Hunley

The day is August 8th, 2000, all is ready. The platform is set, the crane in place, and all involved looked toward the murky depths of Charleston Bay, The beaches of Sullivan Island, Charleston Harbor and all along the banks of the Cooper River. Terry L. Coats 

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