First successful combat sub had its share of setbacks


Wednesday, August 9, 2000

Of The Post and Courier staff


     For the men waiting on Sullivan's Island, the flash of a blue light on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, meant good news. The Confederacy's new secret weapon, fresh off the sinking of the Union sloop-of-war Housatonic, was on its way home.
     But the submarine H.L. Hunley never returned to Breach Inlet, and the phantom signal became the last ironic twist in the story of the world's first successful combat submarine.
     It's a story that winds its way back to New Orleans, where a group of enterprising inventors hatched the idea of defeating the Union's overwhelmingly superior navy with an innovative technology: a submersible vessel, capable of delivering a devastating explosive charge below the waterlines of enemy blockaders.
     By 1863, the group had moved its operations to Mobile, Ala., where they worked feverishly to complete their third submarine: a 40-foot, hand-cranked iron tube named for Horace Lawson Hunley - a New Orleans lawyer, planter and merchant who was the wealthiest of the inventors.
     The Hunley represented a technological step back for the group: Its previous attempt, incorporating electric batteries and steam power, sank in Mobile Bay.
     Successfully tested in Mobile in July 1863, the Hunley immediately became a Confederate priority.
     The assignment of highest need: Break the Union stranglehold on Charleston Harbor.
     It arrived here via train, and its crew began a series of "secret" tests that attracted much interest from residents of the beseiged city.
     Hopes were high, but there were serious problems.
     On Aug. 29, 1863, the Hunley sank near Fort Johnson when the wake of a passing ship swamped it. Five of the nine crewmen drowned.
     Two months later, after being raised and refitted, it sank a second time - this time killing all aboard, including Horace Lawson Hunley himself.
     That disaster came during a training session on the Cooper River, where the Hunley crew was attempting to perfect an attack maneuver that required trailing a floating explosive charge into a blockade ship.
     Convinced that the trailing charge idea was impractical, inventors developed a new approach - a 90-pound black powder explosive attached to a bow-mounted iron spar.
     The new idea was to ram the charge into an enemy hull, retreat to a safe distance and trigger it.
     Along with the new idea came a new crew, the Hunley's third, and a new commander, 1st Lt. George E. Dixon, an infantry officer from Kentucky who had survived a potentially devastating leg wound at Shiloh thanks to a $20 gold piece his sweetheart had given him for good luck.
     Partially recovered from the wound - he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life - Dixon took on the dangerous task of turning an experimental vessel into a practical weapon.
     Dixon and his crew of volunteers pushed the sub to its limits, practicing attack runs, learning how to navigate and testing their endurance in dives that sometimes lasted more than two hours.
     By the early months of 1864, word of the South's new secret weapon had reached Union blockade commanders.
     The threat of underwater attack was enough to change the nature of the blockade - captains were ordered to move their ships farther off shore at night and to post special submarine watches.
     Meanwhile, the Hunley had moved from training in Charleston to patrolling from Sullivan's Island.
     Records indicate Dixon took his crew out on as many as 20 offshore missions, sometimes 6 or 7 miles out to sea.
     On one occasion, the Hunley surfaced close enough to a Union ship to hear the sailors singing.
     By Feb. 17, pressure was mounting for Dixon to put his new weapon to the test.
     The Hunley cranked its way silently through Breach Inlet and headed toward the blockade line and the sloop-of-war Housatonic.
     At 8:45 p.m., one of the Housatonic's deckhands saw what he thought was a dolphin. Another thought he saw a log in the water.
     But Union sailors had been warned of the Confederate submersible, and within moments, suspicion turned to alarm.
     The crew of the Housatonic opened fire on the Hunley with small arms, cut their anchor and tried to steam away from the coming collision.
     They were too slow. Dixon's submarine rammed its spar-mounted charge into the rear starboard quarter of the Housatonic and reversed direction.
     When the Hunley was 50 to 80 feet away - far short of the planned 150-foot detonation distance, a massive explosion ripped a hole in the sloop's hull.
     Five Union sailors died, and the blockader sank in just three minutes.
     Other Union vessels responded quickly, plucking Housatonic survivors from the water and searching for the mystery vessel.
     It was all in vain - the Hunley had vanished, and its whereabouts would remain a riddle until 1995, when divers hired by novelist Clive Cussler located it 1,000 yards seaward of its victim.
     But the sentries waiting on Sullivan's Island that night could not know the Hunley's fate.
     They reported what they saw: a simple blue signal light, a silent message from the crew of a doomed submarine telling those on shore they were coming home.
     On Tuesday, they arrived.


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