The sinking of the H.L. Hunley submarine

February 17, 1864. It was already dark when the H.L Hunley spotted the USS Housatonic. The Union steam-powered sloop-of-war was on blockade duty, at anchor about two and one-half miles off Charleston Bar. Hasty orders were whispered to the eight men manning the cranks that operated the Hunley’s screw propeller.

“Ramming speed!”

Acting Master John Crosby, aboard the Housatonic, had come on watch at eight p.m. and was to remain on duty until midnight. Standing watch was part of the excruciating monotony of blockade duty. The harbors of the South were guarded by a fleet of Union ships to insure that no supplies got into Southern ports. It was a necessary wartime chore but, for the crews manning the blockade ships, it was sheer drudgery. However, things on the Housatonic were about to get exciting.

At 8:45, Crosby noticed what he thought was a porpoise swimming toward the ship, about 75 to 100 yards off the starboard. He called the object to the quartermaster’s attention, but even with a spyglass the quartermaster saw nothing more than a ripple. It could have been a wave. Crosby looked again. Yes, there it was. A fast-moving object heading directly for the ship. Crosby sounded general quarters and ordered the engines to full reverse.

Ship executive officer F.J. Higginson met the Officer of the Deck on the bridge. “What’s going on?” he shouted. The OD pointed to the water near the starboard beam. The object looked, to Higginson, like a large plank moving on the water.

Below decks, Assistant Engineer Mayer had managed to slam the engines into reverse, but it was too late. And violent explosion racked the ship. Timbers collapsed. Water gushed into the hull. The engine started running wild and Mayer tried to throttle it down, but failed. In the meantime, Mayer ordered everyone out of the engine room. The ship was sinking fast.

The USS Housatonic went down in less than three minutes, taking five of her crew with her. And her attacker, the Hunley, was never seen again.

It has been said that the Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel in a time of war. However the Hunley, although built to be, was not operating as a submarine when it sunk the USS Housatonic. It was operating as a surface vessel, and for good reason.

The H.L Hunley was modified from a cylindrical steam boiler and then tapered at both ends. The craft was about 40 feet long, about five feet in diameter, and was powered by eight men turning a hand-cranked propeller, plus one to steer and guide the craft. Ballast tanks, located at each end, were flooded by valves to submerge and pumped dry by hand to resurface. In an emergency, extra iron ballast underneath could be jettisoned by unscrewing the heads of the bolts from inside the submarine. Candles served a double purpose -- to provide light inside and to warn her crew when oxygen was getting low.

At first, the craft was called the “Fishing Boat” or the “Porpoise”. It was launched in July 1863 from the Theater Street dock in Mobile, Alabama. There she passed her trials, but the military was not sold on her value.

In the meantime, General P.T.G. Beauregard was having serious problems in Charleston. The Union blockade was tightening and not even nimble blockade runners were able to break through. Beauregard needed a ship-sinking weapon in the worst possible way and the Hunley seemed to be the answer.

The Hunley was cleaved in half and shipped to Beauregard on two flat cars, then reassembled. She sailed out into Charleston Harbor for a trial. Again the little sub performed well. At Fort Johnson, she tied up along side the steamer CSS Etiwan to give her “engines” a rest. Unfortunately, her fins were left in the diving position. The Etiwan started the pull away and the Hunley swamped and sunk to the bottom like a rock. Only three crew members escaped.

After the incident, Beauregard sent to Mobile for personnel more familiar with the boat. In the meantime, his men were able to raise the Hunley and clear her of muck and bodies.

One of the people answering Beauregard’s call was none other than New Orleans lawyer Horace Hunley, one of the sub’s builders. As originally designed, the sub would tow a torpedo at the end of a 200-foot line, dive beneath the target, then rise a little bit so the explosive would strike the target’s hull. As Hunley and his crew were in the process of practicing this maneuver, Captain Hunley miscalculated and buried her nose into the deep mud below Charleston Harbor. This time the entire crew was lost, but the craft was again brought to the surface.

Now the horrified Beauregard ordered that the sub, renamed the H.L. Hunley in honor of it’s drowned builder, was never again to function as a submarine. This was the reason that when she sunk the Housatonic the Hunley was operating on the surface. Instead of dragging a torpedo behind her, she had 70 pounds of black powder attached to a 20-foot spar on her bow. But, still, she went down -- for the third time.

Why she sunk is the mystery. Was she destroyed by the same explosion that sank the Housatonic? Was she drawn into the vortex of the sinking sloop. Or did she, as some believe, meet her fate in an entirely different way. There are those who say that the Hunley signaled them with a blue lantern immediately after the kill. If so, then she survived the explosion.

In August, 2000, the rusting hulk of the H.L. Hunley was raised from its watery grave near Sullivan’s Island. The wreck was located under three feet of sediment and the silt covering,  the reason that much of it was recovered in such good shape. The project of restoration will take about seven years. The inside of the sub will be excavated as well -- the bones of the crew and their personal effects are still there.

The century-old mystery of what actually happened to the Hunley -- what made it sink on the February night over 135 years ago -- will finally be answered.




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