A sharp crack penetrated the tranquil darkness and echoed across the water. Men shouted and scrambled for safety. Several minutes passed and the silence returned. Not far away, a mysterious shadow slipped into the black waters, never to resurface again. This is the story of the H.L Hunley -- the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship. Many versions of the story have been told. This is just one of them.
Horace L. Hunley, Deputy Collector of Customs for the city of New Orleans, sought to support the Confederate cause by providing financial backing for the construction of an unproven naval weapon - the submarine. He teamed up with James McClintock and Baxter Watson to build their first submarine, the Pioneer in 1862. Before testing was complete, they were forced to scuttle the submarine as Federal forces were moving to capture New Orleans. Hunley and his group fled to Mobile, Alabama, where operations were set up at the Parks and Lyons machine shop. Two engineers of the 21st Alabama infantry, Lieutenants George Dixon and William Alexander joined the group to design and build a second submarine, the American Diver. Unfortunately, it sank off Fort Morgan while being towed through the water.
In July of 1863, a third submarine was ready for testing -- the H.L. Hunley. Constructed from a steamboiler, the Hunley required eight men to turn the propeller's hand cranks and could reach a speed of 4 knots. Ballasts, which were flooded by valves and pumped out by hand, were located both forward and aft. Once the submarine was several inches under the water's surface, the captain would use a lever to control two diving planes located on the exterior. A mercury depth gauge, compass, and candle were used for navigation. Originally, the Hunley was designed to dive under an enemy ship while towing an impact torpedo at the end of a 200 foot rope. The design was later modified to a torpedo spar attached to the submarine's bow. Finally, after several successful trial runs, the Hunley was ready for combat. The only question was -- where?
Withering under the strangling grip of the Union blockade, Charleston, South Carolina was the perfect place for the Hunley to be introduced to the Union Navy. Days after the Hunley's arrival in August 1863, Union forces began a bombardment of Fort Sumter. General P.G.T. Beauregard, Charleston's Confederate commander, pressured the submarine's crew to attack. When the crew hesitated, Beauregard seized it and replaced the crew with inexperienced volunteers. A few days later on August 29th, human error caused the Hunley to sink off Fort Johnson in Charleston's harbor. Five men were trapped aboard and died.
Hunley now regained control of the submarine with Lieutenant Dixon commanding. For unknown reasons, Hunley himself commanded the submarine on October 15, 1863. The crew was practicing diving drills when it never resurfaced. The Hunley was recovered less than one month later. General Beauregard described the scene:
General Beauregard hesitated to use this "peripatetic coffin" again. So far, no Union lives had been lost, but thirteen Confederate soldiers had died inside the submarine. Lieutenant Dixon convinced Beauregard that the danger was not the submarine itself but rather the inexperienced crew. If the crew were allowed to practice, the Hunley could successfully attack a Union ship. Beauregard granted permission to continue training as a surface vessel only. Eventually, he agreed to allow the submarine to dive once again. During one practice, the crew decided to see how long they could remain submerged:
Lt. W.A. Alexander
Finally, on February 17, 1864, the Hunley and her crew were ready to engage the enemy. The target was to be the U.S.S. Housatonic located three miles from shore. The crew quietly boarded the Hunley for the last time around 7 P.M. Slowly the submarine glided away from the dock, across the calm sea toward their unsuspecting victim. Stillness surrounded the Housatonic as sailors stood watch in the moonlit night. Around 8:45, an officer thought he saw a dolphin swimming toward the ship. Suddenly the silence was broken as another sailor noticed the strange object rapidly approaching. Gun shots burst through the air as the Housatonic's crew tried to defend her. But it was too late. The Hunley rammed the torpedo into the enemy's hull. Seconds passed and a large explosion sentenced the Housatonic to a watery grave.
The Hunley never returned to shore after completing its mission. For over 130 years, historians have searched for and speculated about the submarine's fate. Then in May 1995, the discovery of the H.L. Hunley was announced. The submarine was found approximately 4 miles off Sullivan's Island in 30 feet of water. From archeologists' accounts, it appears the Hunley's only damage is a "side wound" about 35 feet back. Perhaps this is why it sunk the third and final time?
Fort Sumter National Monument is administered by the National Park Service. For additional information, write to the Superintendent at 1214 Middle Street, Sullivan's Island, SC 29482.
For more information on the H.L. Hunley, contact Dawn Hammer