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

The day is August 8, 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 are abuzz.  Everyone wants to see it; the CSS. H.L. Hunley   is coming home today. One hundred thirty six years ago on Feb 17,1864, nine Confederate heroes set out in a small submariner vessel; a converted locomotive boiler from a small cove on Sullivan Island called Beach Inlet. Little did they know on that momentous night they were cranking their hand-propelled craft into maritime history?

Early Development

The concept of submarine navigation was not new in the 1860 s. As early as the Revolutionary War, Americans had produced a small submarine for use in a military objective. The first submarine to be used in war was invented in 1776 by American inventor David Bushnell. The Bushnell Turtle was egg shaped and carried one person. It was used in an unsuccessful attack on a British ship in New York harbor during the Revolution. In 1800 Robert Fulton, who two years later would invent the steamboat, finally struck upon a workable platform for underwater navigation. Fulton’s vessel The Nautilus introduced two important innovations, rudders for vertical and horizontal control, and compressed air as an underwater supply for oxygen.

Between 1814 and 1861 improvements were made on Fulton’s design. But the task of finding a viable propulsion system remained unresolved. It would be almost the turn of the 20th century before gasoline engines for surface cruising and electric motors for underwater power would be perfected.

The Pioneer

On May 6 1861 the Confederate Congress had passed an act recognizing the existence of a state of war between the Confederate States and the United States. Section one of that act authorized President Davis to use any force necessary both on land and sea to repel the armies of the invading northern government. The act included issuing commissions to privately armed vessels for waging war against the invading hordes from Lincolns North. These new commissions sparked markets for those who saw an opportunity to both supply a need and to do their patriotic duty to for the South.   Two men to enter this market were New Orleans machine shop owners, James McClintock and Baxter Watson. McClintock had developed an electromagnetic motor, which had been tried without success in submariner boats. McClintock and Watson had also designed and sold to the Confederate government a patented bullet making machine. It must have been a natural step for these men to begin construction on the submersible boat which would then be used as a privateer.

Sometime during the construction the South’s first submersible, a native Tennessean from Gallatin, Sumner Co. would invest $400.00 in the project. This wealthy rice planter, attorney and inventor named Horace L. Hunley. Hunley a deputy collector of New Orleans customs, realized early in the War that it was imperative for the South to keep open supply lines through her seaports, and that the submarine could be just the implement of war to achieve that task. The first attempt at fabrication of such a vessel was  in the Leeds foundry in New Orleans. By February 1862 that boat the Pioneer had been built.

More than likely the trial run of the Pioneer was witnessed only by the investors and a few military officials. Remarkably this three man submarine proved to be quite seaworthy! During her trial run she was able to destroy a schooner and two target barges.

With a Confederate commission as a privateer in hand, co-investor and pilot John K. Scott and two other crew members were no doubt eager to place their little boat in action against the enemy ship blockade of New Orleans harbor. Unfortunately, the opportunity never materialized. On April 24, 1862, Captain David G. Farraguts armada of warships fought their way past Fort Jackson and St. Phillips and steamed up the Mississippi River to capture the city.  To keep it from being captured, the owners were forced to scuttle the Pioneer in a local canal. They then rushed back to the Leeds Foundry gathered their drawings, plans and notes and joined the refugees clogging the roads from New Orleans.

A short time later, located by Federal sailors, the Pioneer was drug to shore and soon naval engineers from the north were dispatched to study the newfound prize.

On February 15, 1868 an article appeared in an New Orleans newspaper announcing the auction sale of a torpedo boat which had been built in the late war. The boat was sold by United States authorities for the machinery and the iron it contained. The boat sold for $43.00; it had cost Hunley and the other five investors $2600.00 to build. 

The American Diver and Mobile

Hunley, Watson and McClintock arrived in Mobile Ala. shortly after the fall of New Orleans. Mobile was humming with wartime activities. A major railway hub, it also contained several industries including foundries and machine shops. It was a perfect place for this trio to start anew building a new submarine.  Near the harbor on Waters Street stood the machine shop of Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons. Hunley, Watson, and McClintock entered the establishment with orders from commanding General Dabney Maury. Maury’s orders were to suspend the foundry’s work of rifling the barrels of outdated Mississippi rifles and to immediately turn their attentions to the construction of what would be the second in the series of boats built by Hunley.  Records are scarce so we are not sure whether the second boat ever had a name but this boat may have been named the Pioneer II or the American Diver.

Working in the Park and Lyon shop at this time was a British born 2nd Lt. from the 21st Ala. named William Alexander, a mechanical engineer by profession, Alexander joined Hunley, Watson, and McClintock in the design of a new machine and soon took control of its construction. It was not long after Hunley had reveled his ideas for the boat that the small craft began to take shape on the floor of the shop.  This four-man design team encompass several innovations into the second boat which were improvements over its predecessor.  First the vessel was made larger and much heavier than had been the Pioneer, an innovation which would later prove its downfall. Given that the boat was so large it was decided that they should install an engine to propel the craft. An electromagnetic motor (probably McClintock’s design) and then a steam engine were tried but both power sources proved to be unworkable and were soon abandoned. Reverting back to hand power for propulsion it was soon discovered that the four men aboard could not achieve a sufficient attack speed to make the boat practical to operate.  Convinced that this boat would not function as intended, she was taken out into Mobile Bay and it too was scuttled. (Though another account said that it sank accidentally while being towed across the Mobile harbor.) Today this little machine still lies in its watery grave.

It is unfortunate that the American Diver never got the opportunity to prove its merits against the enemy Yankee ships blockading the harbor; but lessons learned from her brief existence would soon be incorporated into a third submarine, this one would bear the name CSS. H.L. Hunley.

The CSS Hunley at Mobile

The lost of the American Diver must have been devastating both emotionally and financially, it is thought that Hunley had paid the entire construction cost of the American Diver; but these were determined men and they vowed to build yet another boat. Fortunately, at about this time a group of engineers sympathetic to the Confederate cause formed in Mobile. The group organized through a financial arrangement. Under regulations set forth by the Confederate Government, the organization would be entitled to 50% of the value of any enemy vessel destroyed by means of their contrivance. The founder of this group was a mechanical engineer by the name of E.C. Singer. Singer the nephew of Isaac Merrit Singer inventor of the sewing machine, was currently producing the most reliable of underwater torpedo for the Confederacy.

During the Spring of 1863 the third boat began to take shape in the same Parks and Lyons shop which had produced the American Diver.  From the start this boat was designed to be hand propelled by a crew seven. An eighth man would help crank and control the rear components of the boat while a ninth man would act as her captain and helmsman. This time they started with a 48 dia. 25 foot long locomotive boiler. This boiler was split in half and a 12 inch iron strip was inserted between the halves.  Extensions were installed fore and aft which formed ballast tanks. Unfortunately, these tanks were left open on the top. An iron ballast strip was attached to the belly of the craft. This strip was held in place by four bolts, which extended through stuffing boxes into the interior of the boat and secured with tee nuts, which were designed to be used as a quick release system in the case of an emergency.  Sea-cocks were fitted to flood the ballast tanks for diving, and pumps were placed at the base of the tanks to eject the water back to the sea. A mercury gauge open to the pressure of the sea was used as a depth gauge.  Running the entire length of the interior of the boat was a articulated hand crank which was turned by the seven sailors to provide power to the three blade propeller.   A large steering wheel controlled a rudder located just behind the propeller. Navigation was accomplished by the use of a compass mounted in the fore section. The navigation system was crude at best. Because the boat was of a solid metal construction, and because these were the days before the invention of gyroscope compasses, a reading had to be taken and then at some point later the craft would have to come to the surface for additional site readings.   Completing the interior equipment were two levers which were controlled by the helmsman. These levers operated five foot long, eight inch wide fins or planes. As the boat moved in the water, the angle of these fins were changed to control the drive and surfacing of the boat. Interior illumination for the entire craft was from a single candle. This candle would burn for approximately 20 to 25 minutes, when the candle started to flicker for lack of air it was an indication that it was time to come to the surface so the hatch could be opened and the oxygen renewed.

On the morning of July 31, 1863, a trial run of the vessel was conducted on the Mobile River. On hand for this demonstration were the financial contributors and Confederate Naval Commander Admiral Franklin Buchanan. Records do not indicate who was captaining the Hunley but it was either piloted by James McClintock or a new member of the Hunley crew, Lt. George E. Dixon. Dixon, like Alexander had been assigned to the 21st Ala. before being reassigned to the submarine project.

Though the tests on the Mobile River went well, it was soon decided that this new little boat would not serve well if it had to perform in the rough swells of the Gulf of Mexico. It was decide to transport the vessel to more tranquil waters. The blockaded harbor of Charleston SC. seemed to be the place in the most need and with calmer waters.

The cigar boat Moves to Charleston

A meeting was arranged with Charleston’s Commanding General P.G.T. Beauregard. At the start of hostilities, Lincoln had called for the building of 200 ships to supply the Federal Navy. These ships were to be used as the backbone of the Navies Anaconda plan, a plan to, like an anaconda stretch like a snake around the seaports and up the Mississippi River to choke off the supply ports of the  Confederacy. Beauregard eager to improved the defenses of Charleston bay and to strike a blow against the Yankee blockade ship in his harbor wasted little time in approving the transfer of the little boat to SC. On August 12, 1863 the submarine was mounted on two railroad cars and transported from Mobile.

At this point I need to break from the story of the Hunley and tell you about the War happenings in Charleston.

Because of a defensive ring of forts and batteries around the harbor, the Confederates had made Charleston a very difficult nut to crack. (SEE HANDOUT) The harbor defenses were laid out much like a wagon wheel with Fort Sumter being its center axis. In clock wise directions around the harbor were, to the southwest, (1) Fort Johnson (from which the first shots at Yankee held Ft. Sumter had been fired), then (2) Charleston, (3) Castle Pinckney, & (4) Fort Ripley. On Mount Pleasant were the (5) Mount Pleasant batteries. Then on Sullivan Island, were (6) Battery Bee, (7) Fort Moultrie, and (8) Battery Beauregard, and (8a) Battery Marshall. Across the bay in Morris Island was (9) Battery Wagner and (10) Battery Gregg. Wagner had been attacked in July 1863 by Federal forces and those boys made so famous in the movie Glory. Col. Shaw and his 54th Mass. never took the fort but about the time of the submarine s arrival, Rebel forces quietly just slipped out of the parapets and abandoned the place to the enemy. 

Charleston never fell to the Yankees during the War but from the opening guns of the War in April 1861, Charleston had been the center of Yankee aggression. As soon as the War began the sea channel of the Atlantic Ocean had been blocked by a ring of Federal ships. These ships were anchored from 4 to 15 miles off shore.  By August 1863 duels between Federal iornclads and Ft. Moultrie and Ft. Sumter were beginning to be a daily occurrence, Morris Island was in Federal hands, and Battery Wagner was about to be the target of 47 heavy siege guns and mortars.   The submarine, if effective against these ships, could be cloned and could be the answer the South needed to break the back of the blockade which held all ports in the South in check.

All military authorities were eager for McClintock and his crew most of which had been volunteers brought with him from the Park and Lyons shop in Mobile, to take some action again the enemy.  But first a proper mooring would have to be found close enough to the anchored Federal ships for the crew to make an effective assault. A cove located behind Ft. Moultrie on Sullivan Island would be the first home for the Hunley.

 On August 21st Horace Hunley finally arrived in Charleston. He had been detained in Mobile. His first order of business was to order from the quartermaster nine Confederate uniforms. The thought at this time was that submarines and underwater mines were inhuman methods of attack. The catchword for such devises was infernal machines. By clothing these men in Confederate uniforms, Hunley hoped to convey a sense of legitimacy for the boat and its crew. Also, he was sure that if these men were captured, they could be shot as spies if not in uniform.

The second week of August 1863 was a traumatic period in Charleston. Federal gunners were making sand dust of Ft. Sumter. In a one weeks time span, 6800 round were poured into the fort. More over on the night of August 21-22 at 1:30 AM the citizens of Charleston were awakened by the tremendous explosion of a 150 pound shell. Before daylight, 14 more shells would land directly in the city. These shells were launched not at Battery Wagner or Fort Sumter but with the implicit intent of killing the citizens of the city. The Federals had brought up a gun they called the Swamp Angel  a huge 8 inch Parrot which could throw a 200 lb shell the distance of 4 miles. It was very obvious the Federals were waging war on the citizens of the cradle of the Confederacy and they had every intent of leveling the city.


This was this atmosphere in which the Hunley entered. The submarine, referred to locally as the Porpoise, the Fish Boat and the cigar boat soon made numerous sorties again Federal ships but all were without success. With each failure of the submarine, the commanders in Charleston; nerves worn to a frazzle by the constant bombardment of the forts and of Charleston, lost all patients with McClintock and his Mobile crew. Two stinging letters dated Aug 23rd and 24th were sent from Sullivan Islands commander General Thomas Clingman to General Beauregard stating that in his opinion the sub crew lacked the fortitude they needed to perform the task at hand. With these two dispatches the fate of the submarine crew was sealed. Within twenty four hours the machine was seized by authorities and turned over to the Confederate Navy. McClintock and his crew were sent back to Mobile

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