The Hunley’s Daring Submarine Mission

The Hunley’s Daring Submarine Mission

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On the clear but chilly night of February 17, 1864, John Crosby stood on the deck of USS Housatonic a little less than six miles and three years removed from the launching point of the Civil War, Fort Sumter. The moonlight shimmered on Charleston Harbor’s still surface as Housatonic patrolled the South Carolina waters as part of the Union naval blockade that was slowly strangling the Confederacy.

As Crosby gazed out at the placid harbor around 8:45 p.m., Housatonic’s officer of the deck suddenly saw something shatter the water’s glassy surface only 100 yards away on the starboard side. At first, Crosby thought it could be a surfacing porpoise or perhaps a log. But as the murky shadow rippled closer to the warship, the Navy officer sounded the alarm as he realized that the strange object closing in on Housatonic was actually a cutting-edge naval weapon—a submarine.

Based on information gleaned from Confederate deserters, Union ships had been on alert for undersea vessels lurking in Charleston Harbor. Only four months before, USS New Ironsides had been partially damaged in an attack by the semi-submersible CSS David, and this windless, moonlit winter night offered perfect conditions for operating the approaching submarine, H.L. Hunley.

As all hands raced to their stations on Housatonic, seven Confederate sailors inside the primitive submarine turned a handcrank that powered the propeller as another man steered toward the 1,240-ton sloop-of-war. Even if they hadn’t been bearing down on a mighty warship, the eight men were already undertaking a dangerous mission simply by being inside the submarine that had already claimed the lives of 13 men, including its inventor, during training exercises.

The undersea vessel had been privately constructed in Mobile, Alabama, based on the plans of marine engineer Horace Lawson Hunley. Although Crosby initially thought he spotted a porpoise, the submarine more closely resembled a whale. It was constructed out of a 40-foot-long cylindrical iron steam boiler with a tapered bow and stern. After successful tests on the Mobile River, the submarine was transported to Charleston in August 1863 amid hopes by the Confederate navy that it could be a secret weapon in breaking the Union blockade.

Shortly after testing began in Charleston Harbor, five of Hunley’s nine crewmembers drowned when a ship officer accidentally caused the vessel to dive while the hatches were still open. The submarine was salvaged, but less than two months later, a second training accident killed the eight-member crew, including H.L. Hunley himself.

Once again, the submarine was pulled to the surface, and even though he knew its tragic history, Lieutenant George Dixon agreed to take command of the vessel in November 1863 and raised a crew of courageous volunteers. As Dixon led his men on the daring attack on Housatonic, he carried with him his good luck charm, a bent gold coin that had saved his life by slowing a bullet that wounded him two years before at the Battle of Shiloh.

Although Confederate P.G.T. Beauregard had instructed Dixon to remain on the surface during any attacks, given Hunley’s previous accidents, most of the submarine still remained below the water line as it moved so close to Housatonic that the warship’s 12 cannons were useless. The captain and crew fired their rifles and shotguns in a futile attempt to halt the approaching vessel, but the bullets merely bounced off Hunley’s armor as a spar torpedo mounted at the end of a 16-foot rod that protruded from the submarine’s bow struck the warship.

The spar tore into Housatonic’s starboard quarter near its powder magazine, and the rebel torpedo laden with 135 pounds of gunpowder exploded. Housatonic took on water immediately, and within minutes it was a loss, the first warship to have ever been sunk by a submarine.

Most of Housatonic’s 155 crewmembers saved themselves by launching lifeboats or climbing the rigging, which remained above the harbor’s shallow 27-foot depth in time for rescue boats from a nearby Union warship to arrive. Five Union sailors died, but the outcome was even more devastating for the Confederacy as Hunley never returned to port. For the third time, Hunley slipped to the bottom of Charleston Harbor, but exactly why remains a mystery. The undersea vessel could have been fatally damaged in the torpedo explosion, hit by a shot from Housatonic or sucked into the vortex of the sinking warship.

In 1995, the submarine was located beneath sand and shells by novelist Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency. Five years later, the well-preserved wreck of Hunley, with its eight crew still at their stations and Dixon still with his lucky coin, was raised from its murky grave and brought to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston where it was placed in a 90,000-gallon freshwater conservation tank. The crew of Hunley were given a proper burial in 2004, and an international team of scientists studying the wreck believe they are close to solving the mystery of what happened to them in the final moments of their daring mission.

The Olterra was a 5,000-ton Italian tanker that happened to be in the Bay of Gibraltar on June 10 , 1940, the day Italy entered into World War II. That day the Italian ship was sabotaged and partially sunk by British commandos. The Olterra remained where it was in the Bay and became an observation post for the Italians as they carried out human torpedo missions from Villa Carmela. From July to September 1942 combat swimmers from Villa Carmela were able to take out five merchant ships.

It was about this time that Lieutenant Licio Vistintini had the idea of turning the Olterra into a secret mother ship for the maiali. Maiale (&ldquopig&rdquo in Italian) was the nickname for the manned torpedoes used by the Italians. A team of Decima who designed themselves as civilian Italian workers took control of the tanker. They towed the ship to the nearby Spanish city of Algeciras in order to perform &ldquorepairs&rdquo so that the ship could be sold to a Spanish owner.

Once the ship was at the docks, the cargo holds and boiler room was modified to support the building and maintenance of human torpedoes. There was also an observation station built into forecastle to watch the Bay and keep tabs of the Allied ships there. There was also a scene of civilian workers in place outside the ship in order to convince both the Spanish and the British that there was nothing suspicious going on. A sliding hatch was built six feet before the water line that allowed the miniature submarines to exit the ship.

The first mission took place in December 1942. Three subs were launched with two men in each. Three of the men died and two were taken captive. They told the British they had come from a submarine and therefore kept the Olterra from being exposed. Another mission in 1943 was successful in sinking three cargo ships. Another mission that same year sunk another three ships. The British never realized where the mini submarines were coming from until the Italians surrendered and told them.

During the Vietnam War the attack submarine Sculpin was sent on a daring mission by President Nixon. It was believed that supply trawlers in the South China Sea were supplying the Viet Cong. When U.S forces found ground troops unloading one of the trawlers on a South Vietnamese beach a massive firefight broke out. The brutal fight caused many soldiers to believe that the trawler crews were elite forces that were willing to fight to the death.

After the firefight, the U.S. forces wanted to stop the trawlers. It was estimated that each trawler could deliver 100 tons of munitions after the ships were photographed in international waters. Since the trawlers could not be attacked in international waters and there were concerned about accidentally attacking a legitimate trawler in the region. A plan was created to use a submarine to follow one of the trawlers all the way from Hainan to South Vietnam in order to mark it for destruction by U.S. forces.

On April 12, 1972, the Sculpin was patrolling off Hainan and found a trawler that matched the description of the trawlers sending supplies to the Viet Cong. When the trawler made a turn toward the Philippines, the men of the Sculpin realized that they were following a supply ship and not a fisherman and kept close watch. They turned off active sonar and used only passive sonar, using the distinctive shaft rub and propeller sound to keep tabs on the trawler&rsquos position. As they followed the trawler from China to Vietnam, with covert air support above them, the Sculpin operated in water that was perfectly calm and as shallow as six fathoms.

When the trawler was followed all the way to the Vietnamese coast, the crew of the Sculpin requested permission to shoot but Admiral John McCain believed that it would not work. Instead the South Vietnamese naval forces were called in on April 24. As the Vietnamese destroyer closed in the trawler raised a Chinese flag and indicated they were fishing. This caused the Vietnamese to hesitate but the men aboard the Sculpin insisted it was a trawler filled with weapons that they had followed for 2,400 miles.

On this identification, the South Vietnamese hit the trawler and it and its cargo exploded. A few men survived and were rescued. They spoke Vietnamese, not Chinese, and provided valuable intelligence about their operations, making the mission a complete success.

  • The Hunley sank a Union blockade ship in November 1864 by ramming it with a torpedo attached to a spar
  • It was raised from the bottom of the ocean off the coast of North Charleston, South Carolina in 2000
  • Two scientists have spent the past 17 years collecting the crew's remains and restoring the small vessel
  • They announced this week they had found a human tooth buried inside a concrete-like mass of sand and mud
  • The pair also announced that they had discovered how the submarine moved, using a series of water tubes

Published: 14:27 BST, 8 June 2017 | Updated: 15:34 BST, 8 June 2017

Researchers have found human remains inside the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship, after it emerged from a 75,000-gallon tank of chemicals.

The submarine, which fought for the confederacy in the US civil war, was sunk near North Charleston, South Carolina, in 1864 by its own torpedo, killing all eight men on board.

The Hunley was raised from the bottom of the ocean in 2000, and two scientists have spent the past 17 years collecting the crew's remains and restoring the vessel as part of a painstaking cleanup operation.

Alongside the tooth, the researchers announced that they had finally cracked how the submarine was propelled through the water. Hidden underneath the rock-hard stuff scientists call 'concretion' was a sophisticated set of gears and teeth on the crank in the water tube that ran the length of the 40-foot sub


The Hunley's successful but doomed final mission was actually its third trip. The submarine sank once while docked with its hatches open in August 1863. Only three of the eight men on board escaped and survived.

In October 1863, designer H.L. Hunley led another eight-man crew who planned to show how the sub operated by diving under a ship in Charleston Harbor.

They never surfaced, but the sub was found weeks later and brought back to the surface. That crew was interred in graves that ended up below The Citadel's football stadium for 50 years.

While most of the remains were removed and ceremonially buried at Magnolia Cemetery in 2004, the researchers found a tooth stuck in a concrete-like mass of sand, mud and other debris at crank handle position Number 3.

It is believed that this is the position where crew member Frank Collins sat, a Confederate Navy Seaman who was just 24 years old when he sank with the Hunley.

Project lead archaeologist Michael Scafuri told the Post and Courier that the tooth loss was 'post-mortem', meaning that long after the sinking, the tooth came loose during the decomposition process and stuck to the crank handle where it corroded with the iron.

The find was made as the pair of scientists tasked with the submarine's cleanup gave a project update during a media brief this week.

Alongside the tooth, the researchers announced that they had finally cracked how the submarine was propelled through the water.

Hidden underneath the rock-hard stuff scientists call 'concretion' was a sophisticated set of gears and teeth on the crank in the water tube that ran the length of the 40-foot sub.

Operation Barmaid

The HMS Conqueror was a nuclear-powered fleet submarine that served in the British Navy from 1971 until 1990. She became famous for being the only nuclear-powered submarine to have sunk an enemy ship with torpedoes, bringing down the General Belgrano during the Falklands War. She was built as a response to the Soviet threat at sea and was meant to not only attack other ships but carry out spy missions on Soviet submarine movements.

It was one of the HMS Conqueror&rsquos most daring missions that was finally revealed in 2012. Just weeks after sinking the General Belgrano, the submarine would be given a mission that was much riskier and more difficult. In August of 1982, the HMS Conqueror was sent to the border of Russia&rsquos territorial waters, sailing as close to the border was legally allowed. Though at times the submarine might have been even closer to the Russia than what was permitted.

HMS Conqueror with the Jolly Rodger raised after sinking the General Belgrano. Pinterest

Captain Wreford-Brown had been sent to find a spy trawler or AGI (Army General Intelligence). These ships were known to be filled with interception and detection equipment and would often tail NATO exercises or lurk around Naval bases. The ship that the HMS Conqueror was after on this mission was even more than just a spy trawler, it was pulled a two-mile string of hydrophones that was known as a towed array sonar. This sonar was the best in Soviet submarine detection technology and the HMS Conqueror was on a mission to steal it.

Stealing a two-mile long cable that is three inches thick, attached to a ship and made to detect submarines is not as easy as it sounds. The HMS Conqueror was fitted with two electronic pincers (provided by the Americans) in order to cut through the cable. The submarine would have to come up from below the array&rsquos blind spot and edge toward the cutting point that was only a few yards from the tow ship. The TV cameras used to operate the pincers would not be able to see anything until a few inches from the target since the water was so black, so the rest had to be done with mental arithmetic.

The mission was a success, though some believe it took place in Soviet waters just three miles from the coast. Once a safe distance away the HMS Conqueror surfaced and pulled the severed array on board.


On February 17th, 1864, the H. L. Hunley became the first successful combat submarine in world history with the sinking of the USS Housatonic. After completing her mission, she mysteriously vanished and remained lost at sea for over a century. For decades, adventurers searched for the legendary submarine.

Over a century later, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), led by New York Times-bestselling author Clive Cussler, finally found the Hunley in 1995. News of the discovery traveled quickly around the world. A ground breaking effort began to retrieve the fragile submarine from the sea. The Hunley Commission and Friends of the Hunley, a non-profit group charged with raising funds in support of the vessel, led an effort with the United States Navy that culminated on August 8 th , 2000 with the Hunley’s safe recovery.

She was then delivered to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, a high-tech lab specifically designed to conserve the vessel and unlock the mystery of her disappearance. The Hunley has since been excavated and proved to be a time capsule, holding a wide array of artifacts that can teach us about life during the American Civil War. The submarine and the hundreds of artifacts found onboard are currently undergoing preservation work while archaeologists use the historical clues they have found to piece together the final moments of the Hunley and her crew.

The Hunley’s journey through time has been marked by innovation, courage and tragedy. Her against-all-odds tale has spanned the centuries and is one of the greatest maritime mysteries in recent history. This website follows the pioneering vessel from her inception during the American Civil War to the modern-day efforts surrounding her preservation and study.

As more sediment was excavated from the submarine, the hand crank began to appear in the sub's midsection. Here, conservators Philippe de Vivies and Paul Mardikian apply protection to the exposed crankshaft.

James A. Wicks

James A. Wicks experienced his share of danger throughout his life, and even survived a famous maritime battle during the Civil War, while serving as a Union sailor.

Thanks to information available from his family as well as Union records, we know a good deal about Wicks. For example, we know he was born in North Carolina around 1819, one of only three members of the Hunley crew born in the South.

According to forensic analysis, Wicks grew up to be a robust young man, standing nearly 5 feet 10 inches tall and was a heavy tobacco user. In 1850, in his early 30’s, Wicks joined the United States Navy and for over a decade served first as a Seaman and later as a Quartermaster. But his life was soon to become complicated.

The same year he joined the Navy, in 1850, while stationed in Brooklyn, N.Y., the young sailor married and, over the ensuing years, became the father of four girls. When the Civil War began, his wife and children were living in Fernandina, Florida. Meanwhile, Wicks was called into service in a war against his native region, where his family lived. We can only assume that this created for Wicks a sense of conflicted loyalties.

As a sailor in the United States Navy, Wicks served first on the USS Braziliera and later the USS Congress. His job kept him at sea much of the time.

When the War began, Wicks may have wanted to be closer to his family and he may have wanted to fight on the side of his homeland. Circumstances, however, made it literally difficult for him to jump ship. In March 1862, he would have his chance.

While serving onboard the USS Congress, Wicks witnessed the famous onslaught of the ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly known as the Merimac) at the Battle of Hampton Rhodes in the waters off of New Port News, Virginia. The Virginia sank the USS Cumberland and crippled the Congress. The very next day the Confederate ironclad engaged in her famous battle with the USS Monitor.

When Wick’s ship was destroyed off the coast of a Southern state, he was given the opportunity to enter Virginia and cross to the other side of the battle lines. That he did, on April 7, 1862. In Richmond, Virginia, Wicks enlisted with the Confederate Navy and was classified as a Seaman.

Now fighting on behalf of the Confederacy, Wick’s first assignment was to the CSS Indian Chief. With good service, over time, he was promoted to Boatswain’s Mate, an assistant to the officer who controls the work of other seamen.

When Dixon, the Hunley’s commander, was gathering his volunteer crew for the dangerous journey of the experimental submarine, Wicks was one of five crewmembers selected from the Indian Chief.

However, even before the Hunley’s mission was launched, Wicks was called to serve in another daring assignment. In early 1864, he took a brief leave from his Hunley duties to participate in a raid outside of New Bern, North Carolina. The night raid, conducted by a small group of Confederates, led to the destruction of the Union ship Underwriter. After completing that mission, on February 5, 1864, Wicks was sent back to Charleston and must have arrived only days before the Hunley’s final voyage.

His assignment was to man the Hunley’s sixth crank position. Wicks’ responsibilities included operating the crank and, in case of emergency, his job was to release the aft keel block.

Maria Jacobsen, Senior Archaeologist on the Hunley project said, “During excavation, we found a keel release mechanism below the station manned by Wicks.” Also, if something were to happen to Ridgaway, the second-in-command, Wicks would have taken over his duties. Wicks’ remains were found associated with seven US Navy buttons, which is consistent with his military service.

Linda Abrams, a forensic genealogist researching the Hunley crew, said, “Wicks surviving relatives and his service in the US Navy have enabled me to learn much about the appearance of this man. According to records, he had light brown hair, blue eyes, and a florid complexion.”

Two of Wicks’ daughters had children. Descendants of his oldest daughter were in Charleston, South Carolina on April 17th for the burial of their ancestor, James A. Wicks, an extraordinarily brave man and a true pioneer in maritime history.

One-Way Mission of the H. L. Hunley

The sun had set beyond the marsh, beyond Charleston, and the island was quiet. The man checked his gold pocket watch, noted it was well past 1800, and stuffed it back into his jacket. The tide had turned, and the last remnants of gray were fading from the sky. There were no clouds to speak of, the wind had died out, and the water was as calm as he had seen it in nearly a month. The rising moon might betray their stealth somewhat, but that was a chance he would have to take. This night—17 February 1864—was as close to perfect as he could rightfully expect.

He cast a glance to the sea, searched for the faint glow of a ship’s deck lights, and eventually found it. Earlier in the day he’d gotten a heading from his compass and was pleased to see that it had not changed. In a few hours, the Union screw sloop Housatonic would no longer guard the entrance to Charleston Harbor.

The man, Lieutenant George Dixon, could not wait any longer. Charleston was suffocating under the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Fort Sumter had been shelled into a pile of rubble, and the Confederate military was out of patience. The war had taken a terrible toll on the city. If it was going to survive, Charleston needed something to restore its faith.

Dixon’s secret weapon was the H. L. Hunley, a 40-foot, hand-powered submarine moored at the Battery Marshall dock on Sullivan’s Island. And in truth, she was no longer much of a secret. In the past six months, the sub had dominated Charleston gossip. She had arrived in August with the promise that, finally, the blockade would be broken. But after little more than a week the Confederate military seized the craft and promptly sank her. Five men died.

Dixon came to Charleston after that. Horace Hunley, the submarine’s namesake, had convinced General P. G. T. Beauregard, commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, to return the Hunley to him. With a simple telegram, Hunley raised an entire crew of volunteers from Mobile, Alabama. He was wise enough to put Dixon in charge. The former riverboat engineer, a member of the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment, had helped build the torpedo boat and understood her better than most. While recovering from a serious wound, Dixon was working in the Park and Lyons machine shop in Mobile when the Hunley and one of her predecessors were under construction there. The lieutenant had been shot at Shiloh in April 1862 the bullet meant for his thigh hit a $20 gold coin in his pocket, warping it and mangling his leg. But the coin saved his life.

Dixon not only gained a pronounced limp, but also a good luck charm. He had the coin engraved with the date of the battle and the inscription “My life preserver.” Now, he carried the reminder of his unbelievable luck with him everywhere. He hoped that good fortune would linger a little longer—more than it had for Hunley.

In October Horace Hunley had attempted to pilot the sub in Dixon’s absence. With a crowd watching the demonstration from onshore, he sank the submarine in Charleston Harbor, killing himself and seven others. The sub’s death toll was at 13, none of them Union sailors. After that, it had taken Dixon a month to convince Beauregard to let him try again.

By then many had dismissed the submarine as just another failed experiment, another lost cause. Dixon would change that perception on this night. The Hunley would sail in five minutes.

Early Efforts

The submarine age arrived 150 years ago, due mostly to an ambitious daydreamer, two years of research and development, and a war. Men had built underwater craft before the Civil War, but those submarines never actually accomplished the goal for which they were built—they never sank an enemy ship in battle. The Hunley’s feat was so far ahead of its time that it would not be repeated for half a century.

Horace Lawson Hunley, the daydreamer, was successful by almost any measure. He was an attorney, a former state lawmaker, deputy chief of customs in New Orleans, and friends with some of the city’s most influential men. Hunley had made a modest amount of money, enough that he owned a small plantation and a few slaves. In late 1861, he decided to expand his business portfolio.

He may have gotten the idea to build a submarine in the summer of 1861. The Reverend Franklin Smith, a chemist and inventor, had sent a letter to Southern newspapers, urging businessmen to invest in the idea of “Submarine Warfare.” Smith wrote that “The new vessel must be cigar shaped for speed—made of plate iron, joined without external rivet heads about thirty feet long, with a central section about 4 x 3 feet—driven by a spiral propeller.”

Later, many would assume that patriotism drove Hunley. In truth he thought the war was foolish but suspected it could be good for business. The Confederate government and wealthy businessmen were offering rewards of up to $50,000—the 19th-century equivalent of $1.3 million today—to anyone who sank a Union warship. But there was more to it than money. Hunley wanted to be a part of something bigger he dreamed of being a Great Man. He carried a notebook in his pocket, a ledger in which he wrote grandiose ideas to make a mark on this world. Eventually, Hunley discarded all those dreams and adopted Smith’s.

In the fall of 1861, Hunley, with financial backing from several friends, contracted New Orleans engineer James McClintock to build his submarine. He could have hardly found a better partner. A native of Cincinnati, McClintock had been one of the youngest steamboat captains on the Mississippi before settling down to open a machine shop just outside the French Quarter. At 32, he was considered an engineering prodigy. McClintock recently had been contracted to make bullets for the Confederate Army, mostly because he built a machine that could produce thousands of minié balls per hour.

McClintock designed and built his submarine that winter, and she apparently was modeled exactly on Smith’s letter. The boat, which was christened the Pioneer, was 35 feet long and almost completely round—four feet wide and four feet tall. She had a single hatch and two short, squat fins that the pilot could adjust to dive or surface. Her tapered ends served as ballast tanks to take in and expel the water needed to submerge and surface. Two men turned a crank to power the sub’s propeller, while a third stood, his head in the hatch, and steered.

The Pioneer was launched in March 1862, around the time the Monitor fought the CSS Virginia to a standstill at Hampton Roads. The sub proved fragile, slow, and leaky, but she worked. The Pioneer eventually became the only submarine to receive a letter of marque—a privateer license, basically—during the Civil War. But she would never see combat.

In April 1862, Union forces captured New Orleans. Hunley and McClintock, worried that their secret weapon would fall into enemy hands, sank the Pioneer and escaped to Mobile. There, Confederate District of the Gulf commander Major General Dabney H. Maury took an interest in the pair’s efforts and introduced them to the owners of the Park and Lyons machine shop. It would take nearly a year to build their second submarine, the American Diver.

McClintock, wanting to improve on the Pioneer’s design, wasted months trying to build an electromagnetic engine to power the American Diver (the engineer thought manually cranking the propeller was primitive). But he could not build an engine small enough to fit in his boat. Finally, McClintock had to give up and install cranks. He made the sub only a foot longer than the Pioneer but added two men to the crew complement, hoping more manpower would make this sub faster than the last one.

The Diver attempted only one attack on the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, and it was a disaster. Once the sub was untethered, she didn’t have enough power to fight the tide and her crew found themselves being pulled out to sea. They never attempted to engage the blockade it was all they could do to make it back to the dock. Before they could try again, the boat was swamped under tow and sank in Mobile Bay.

A Sleek, Complex Vessel

With the loss of the American Diver, Hunley and McClintock were out of money. They would have been forced to give up their dream except that Edgar C. Singer, a torpedo expert from Texas, arrived in Mobile that spring. Singer recognized the importance of the project and found McClintock the money he needed to go back to work.

Throughout the spring and early summer of 1863, McClintock and workers from Park and Lyons built a third sub, far more advanced than its predecessors. Years later, McClintock would write that this time he took “more pains with her model, and the machinery.”

She would have an “elliptic shape.” The bow would be only an inch wide, the submarine expanding to her broadest point at the crew compartment and tapering again toward the stern. McClintock added thin dorsal fins in front of the hatches to cut down on drag. He also installed small fins in front of the boat’s diving wings to deflect rope or seaweed—anything that might jam the fins’ operation. This was not a cigar boat she looked more like a shark.

At 40 feet, the sub would be four feet longer than the Diver. The reason, McClintock said, was because “[t]his boat was built expressly for hand power.” If she had to be powered by hand, he would simply add more hands. The main compartment of the submarine would be nearly 25 feet long. With that additional space, the sub could carry a crew of eight. McClintock expanded their power exponentially by installing a series of reduction gears and a flywheel between the propeller and hand cranks. The crew would be able to propel the sub like a wind-up toy. This would give the men periods of rest, and perhaps even allow them to work in shifts. It would cut down on exhaustion, which he hoped would increase the submarine’s range.

McClintock also improved the plumbing in this submarine. She would include forward and aft ballast tanks, as the others had, each with its own pump. But this time he added fail-safe redundancies with a network of pipes running beneath the crew bench. With the switch of a lever, water could be pumped from one tank to the other, equalizing water distribution. The pumps also served as back-ups to one another and could siphon water from the crew compartment. This was perhaps the boat’s greatest safety feature. The sub’s buoyancy was fragile a few inches of water in the main compartment, and she would sink to the bottom.

The first draft of history would call this submarine a converted iron boiler, but that was not the case. McClintock designed a sleek, hydrodynamic, complex vessel far ahead of her time. Well into the 20th century, most boats that traveled beneath the waves followed McClintock’s vision, but he would never be recognized as the father of the modern submarine.

The H. L. Hunley was launched in July 1863. A crew likely composed of men from the Park and Lyons machine shop tested the boat in the Mobile River for a couple of weeks. Finally, on 31 July, they invited Confederate officials to a demonstration. General Maury, Rear Admiral Franklin Buchanan, and Brigadier General James E. Slaughter gathered onshore, their attention directed to a flat barge anchored in the river.

On cue, the Hunley appeared upstream towing a floating contact mine at the end of a long line. As the sub approached the barge, she gracefully slipped beneath the water. The mine stayed on the surface and, when it made contact, there was a tremendous explosion. The barge lurched and dipped and soon began to sink. Several minutes later, the Hunley surfaced 400 yards downstream.

Confederate commanders in Mobile soon were recommending the submarine for service at Charleston. Buchanan, commander of the Naval District of the Gulf, likely orchestrated the campaign. The admiral did not trust submarine technology, but military politics also played a role. The Hunley, although a civilian vessel, had been promoted tirelessly by the Confederate Army—and Buchanan had no control over her. To rid himself of the problem, he sent a note to the commander of naval forces in Charleston, Flag Officer John Randolph Tucker, enthusiastically recommending the Hunley.

“I am fully satisfied it can be used successfully in blowing up one or more of the enemy’s Iron Clads in your harbor,” Buchanan wrote. The admiral added a request that Tucker forward his suggestion to Beauregard at his Charleston headquarters. The general responded almost immediately. He needed the Hunley. Charleston needed the Hunley.

In less than two weeks, the submarine arrived there by train. And then, tragedy. The sub sank twice, 13 men died, and the city lost hope. By the winter of 1864, Dixon was the only man left with faith in the boat. And he would not fail.

To Sink a Blockader

It took the Hunley nearly two hours to reach the Housatonic on 17 February 1864. Running with the tide, the submarine traveled at about 4 knots. Dixon steered by compass from his vantage point low on the water, he likely could not see a ship miles away. The boat traveled on the surface, as Beauregard had asked Dixon not to dive. This was the only thing that gave the lieutenant pause. The Hunley recently had been refit with a 20-foot spar tipped with a torpedo. Instead of diving beneath a ship and towing a contact mine into her side, the submarine would ram her prey with the torpedo. After completing the mission, Dixon would flash a blue phosphorus lamp, the signal for troops ashore to start a signal fire by which the lieutenant would steer the Hunley home.

As they sailed into the Atlantic, the grind of the crank and reduction gears became a monotonous noise that filled the compartment. The crew said little talking used oxygen, and that was a commodity they could not spare. Despite the boat’s deadly history, Dixon had found more than enough volunteers in Charleston—sailors, artillerymen, even some veterans of privateers. Throughout the winter these men trained, and those two months of practice made them the most proficient crew ever to sail the sub. In that time, the Hunley had gone out three or four times a week, sometimes getting close enough to blockaders that Dixon could hear sailors singing on deck. But they had never attacked. Conditions had never been quite right.

By 2020, Dixon could see the Housatonic less than a quarter-mile away. He knew that he should wait for the tide to turn, to make it easier to return to shore. But they were in enemy territory now to wait risked detection, and stealth was their greatest advantage. Besides, Dixon had been waiting for months. He could not wait any longer.

On board the Housatonic, there was little activity that evening. Nine sailors were milling about on deck, settling into a long shift. The watch had changed at 2000, and the men who had just arrived topsides were still adjusting to the cold. Most of the 155 sailors on board were belowdecks.

Life on board the Housatonic was about as dull as it got in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The 205-foot sloop had arrived off the coast of Charleston in late September 1862 and since then had seen little action. The Housatonic’s primary role was to stop blockade-runners trying to reach the city. On this night, the ship was at just about the northernmost post in the blockade, not exactly a key position.

The first man to notice the strange thing in the water was Robert F. Flemming, a black landsman standing watch on the ship’s cathead. Just before 2030 he saw something about 400 feet off the starboard bow, approaching from land. The object appeared to be about 22 feet long, he later recalled, with only its ends visible. Water washed over its midsection, but parts of it stood nearly two feet out of the water. Flemming alerted the officer of the forecastle, Acting Master’s Mate Lewis A. Comthwait, who studied the object for only a second before he dismissed it as floating debris. “It’s a log,” he said.

“Queer-looking log,” Flemming replied. He noted that this “log” was not floating with the tide—it was moving across it.

Flemming called out to C. P. Slade, another black sailor on watch. By this time the object was only 300 feet from the ship and moving too fast to be drifting. Flemming told Slade there was “a torpedo coming.”

The crew of the Housatonic had heard stories of the Confederates’ alleged secret weapon. After receiving several reports from Confederate deserters, the Union squadron commander, Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, had issued orders the month before for ships to prepare for attacks from boats that could travel nearly or completely underwater. This intelligence was the reason the Housatonic, like all the squadron’s blockaders, anchored in relatively shallow water with her fires stoked and pressure in her boilers. The ship was ready. Flemming was ready, too, even if nobody else was.

“If no one is going to report this,” he said, loud enough for the other men on deck to hear. “I will cut the buoy adrift myself and get ready for slipping.”

When Comthwait heard Flemming’s remark, he took another look, this time using binoculars, and saw that this log had two lumps on it the size of a man’s head. Water rippled around the lumps, and he realized the object was moving under its own power. Comthwait turned and ran aft to find the officer of the deck.

By then, nearly every man on watch had spotted the Hunley, including Acting Master John Crosby, who alerted Captain Charles Pickering. On deck within seconds, the captain quickly called out orders—“Slip the anchor chain and fire up the engine”—and got his first look at the fish boat.

“It was shaped like a large whale boat, about two feet, more or less, under the water,” Pickering later recalled. “Its position was at right angles to the ship, bows on, and the bows within two or three feet of the ship’s side, about abreast of the mizzen mast, and I supposed it was then finding the torpedo on.”

Pickering ordered his men to “go astern faster,” raised his double-barrelled shotgun, and fired two loads of buckshot at the strange boat. Several of the crew joined him. They shot at her for more than a minute with small arms the sub was too close to train cannon on her. Some of the men aimed at faint lights on her top that appeared to glow, candlelight filtering through the sub’s deadlights. The gunfire did no damage to the dark craft so far as they could tell.

And then, an explosion. Crosby would later say it “sounded like a collision with another vessel.” There was no smoke, no flame, no sharp report, no column of water thrown into the air—simply a noticeable pressure, and then the Housatonic blew up.

The men on deck were still firing on the Hunley when the explosion knocked them off their feet. The ship lurched violently to port, recoiling from the blow. Deck planks were blown nearly as high as the ship’s mizzenmast. One sailor saw furniture floating out of a ten-foot hole in the side of the ship.

The Housatonic was going down fast. But because the sloop had been anchored in such shallow water, she did not have far to go. When her keel hit bottom, about 25 feet down, most of the ship’s rigging still stood high above the waterline. Sailors climbed into the lines to await rescue. Pickering, who had been blown off his feet, told Crosby to take a lifeboat and pull for the nearby sloop Canandaigua for help.

While they awaited rescue, Robert Flemming, the man who had first spotted the Hunley, was among the sailors clinging to the ship’s rigging. After about 45 minutes he spotted the Canandaigua in the distance, some 800 feet away, making good time toward them. And then he saw something else. Later, Flemming would simply say, “I saw a blue light on the water just ahead of the Canandaigua, and on the starboard quarters of the Housatonic.” For more than a century, men would speculate that Flemming, the first Union sailor to see the H. L. Hunley, was also the last man to see her for more than a century.

The Mysterious Aftermath

It would be days before Charleston realized the Hunley was missing, and about a week before Confederate officials learned that the torpedo boat had actually sunk a blockade ship. By then, the surviving crew of the Housatonic were preparing for an inquiry that would eventually conclude there was nothing they could have done to avert the loss of their ship.

But what happened to the Hunley? Was she struck by the Canandaugua, left rudderless and adrift? Did the concussion of the explosion knock the crew unconscious or, worse, kill them? Did one of the sailors on the Housatonic crew shoot out a port in the forward conning tower, allowing the sub to fill with water and sink? Or did Dixon simply set the sub down on the bottom to await the turning tide, and there the crew ran out of air? There are dozens of theories, and conflicting clues. The answer may never be known.

For a while, the Confederates maintained a ruse that the Hunley had returned to port, suggesting she still lurked among the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. But Dixon and the world’s first attack submarine were on eternal patrol and would not surface again for more than 130 years.

This article is adapted from a forthcoming book on the H. L. Hunley’s history and Clive Cussler’s 15-year search for the submarine. It was pieced together using letters, official Confederate documents, and first-person accounts. A letter from George E. Dixon to his friend Henry Willey dated 31 January 1864 (a copy of which is held by the Friends of the Hunley, provides many details, as does a letter Dixon wrote to Captain John Cothran of the 21st Alabama on 5 February 1864. William Alexander, a Mobile engineer who helped build the submarine and served in the final crew until two weeks before her famous mission, told various versions of the Hunley tale in a series of articles published around the turn of the century, beginning with “The True Story of the Confederate Submarine Boats” (New Orleans Picayune, 29 June 1902). Alexander’s accounts provide most of the meat to a story that is largely cryptic in official military and naval records. The rest of the account comes from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion, particularly Series 1, Volume 15. The National Archives also holds many Hunley-related documents, not the least of which are records of the official naval court of inquiry into the sinking of the Housatonic. Several letters of Horace Lawson Hunley survive in the Archives and are most accessible in Ruth H. Duncan’s book The Captain and Submarine CSS H. L. Hunley (Memphis: Toof, 1965).

Solving the Enduring Hunley Mystery

For 150 years, no one has been able to answer the single most important question about the H. L. Hunley: Why did she sink?

Since the submarine was recovered from the Atlantic floor in 2000, scientists have found dozens of tantalizing, sometimes conflicting clues about what happened to the boat following her attack on the Housatonic. But there’s been no smoking gun, no single piece of evidence that could solve the lingering mystery of what happened in the Hunley’s final moments.

But that could soon change. This spring scientists will embark on two separate projects that should give new insights into the submarine’s last hours. One is a simulation of her February 1864 battle using new information found by the Hunley’s conservators. The other is the beginning of the final phase in the sub’s conservation and restoration.

In March the Hunley will be submerged in a tank of caustic chemicals that will slowly extract the salt that seeped into her iron hull over the 136 years she was in the sea. After three months in this soak, scientists will begin the six-month job of deconcretion. A thick layer of sand and shell built up on the sub’s hull during her time buried beneath the ocean floor. Scientists have left this hard shell—a concrete-like substance called concretion—on the sub to protect her hull and minimize its deterioration. That decision helped to stabilize the boat while her interior was excavated, but the trade-off has been that the Hunley’s hull has never been examined. Now archaeologists will finally have the chance to see if there is damage that might shed light on her sinking.

Scientists believe a few months in the chemical soak will loosen the concretion enough to remove it, but the process could take far longer. All of the buildup must be removed before the conservation process can proceed. After that, it’s expected the Hunley will have to soak three or four more years before she’ll be ready for display in a museum.

As conservators scrape the hull, archaeologists at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center are planning the simulation of the Hunley’s battle with the Housatonic. In the past year, new clues have emerged that change the story dramatically.

Conservators working to preserve the submarine’s 20-foot spar discovered remnants of the Hunley’s torpedo still attached to its end. Most historical accounts suggest the Hunley speared a barbed torpedo into the ship’s hull and then backed away. The torpedo was then detonated with a line from the explosive that pulled taut when the sub was a safe distance away. But when scientists found copper sheeting—the skin of the torpedo—still bolted to the spar, it suggested a very different scenario. It now appears the Hunley used its spar like some other Civil War vessels, by simply ramming an enemy ship with a torpedo that blew up on contact.

And that means the Hunley was only 20 feet away from the blast that sank the Housatonic. “We want to see what we can learn from that about how it might have impacted the submarine as well as the crew,” said Stéphanie Cretté, director of the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.

The results of the simulation will be compared to the submarine and the data collected on the remains of the crew, which were buried in 2004. Forensic tests have revealed much about the men who served in the Hunley—some of them had bad backs, for instance, others had suffered broken bones—but there was nothing that proved they suffered any sort of trauma the night of the attack.

The work planned for the Hunley this year could be the most revealing since the initial excavation of the submarine in 2001. The sub, which was discovered in 1995 by best-selling author Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency, was raised by South Carolina’s state Hunley Commission and the non-profit Friends of the Hunley on 8 August 2000. Since then, she has resided in North Charleston at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, named for the Friends’ first chairman.

During the initial excavation, which lasted four months, scientists discovered hundreds of artifacts—including Lieutenant George Dixon’s gold coin. Everything found inside the submarine was mapped on a three-dimensional grid so that each detail of the archaeology would be preserved.

So far, many of those discoveries have proven contradictory. The sub was filled with mud and sand, but it remains unclear when the hull was breached. There is evidence that no sand penetrated the boat for at least six months after the attack. Also, there were stalactites on the sub’s ceiling, which means that at least part of the interior was dry for a long time. Still, the submarine could have been partially filled with water soon after she sank, as some evidence indicates.

Cussler believes the reason the Hunley sank may lie with the shroud around the submarine’s propeller. Half the shroud is missing, but the half that remains has a couple of distinctive triangular cuts in it that look a lot like propeller strikes. Cussler points out that the last reported sighting of the submarine, by Housatonic crewman Robert Flemming, put her directly in the path of the screw sloop Canandaigua. Cussler believes the ship could have hit the Hunley, severing her rudder and knocking the sub off an even keel. The rudder was found near the boat, but not attached to her.

If there are clues that can dispel or support theories about her mission, chances are they will be found later this year. And then, finally, scientists may have the answer to that nagging question: Why did the Hunley sink?

The Squalus was diesel-electric submarine that was commission on March 1, 1939. It was a 310 feet and displaced 2,350 tons when submerged. Just a few weeks after it was commissioned the Squalus would capture the attention of nearly every American, causing newspapers to run extra editions to provide updates. On March 23, 1939, the Squalus sank off the coast of New Hampshire. It was the Sculpin who saw the marker buoy and was able to make contact in order to confirm there were survivors on board, however they were already suffering from the chlorine gas that was leaking from the battery compartment.

The Squalus had 56 sailors and three civilians on board when it dived on March 23. The air induction valve failed and water poured into the aft engine room. The submarine sank down 240 feet to the bottom. The aft section flooded and killed 24 sailors and 2 civilians. In the forward compartment 32 crew members and one civilian sent up the marker buoy and red smoke bombs to alert those on the surface of their plight.

The communication did not last long as the cable parted. The Sculpin stayed by its sister sub and the following morning the USS Falcon arrived. The rescue ship lowered the Momsen-McCann rescue chamber immediately. The chamber was little more than a modified diving bell manned by deep-sea divers but it managed to reach the Squalus and the crew. In three agonizingly slow trips 26 men were brought to the surface.

With seven men still trapped the cables of the rescue chamber became tangled and delayed dive. But in the pitch-black hours just before midnight a fourth trip rescued the final seven men after 39 hours of being trapped. In one more desperate dive the aft compartment was searched to verify that there were no survivors. Several weeks later a massive effort brought the Squalus to the surface and then it was towed to Portsmouth. There an investigation was conducted on the engine room compartments and the submarine was decommissioned on November 15, 1939.

Hunley’s Harrowing Mission

The USS Housatonic sank quickly after Hunley’s crew detonated a 135-pound torpedo embedded in the vaunted warship’s stern, as depicted in this modern painting by marine artist Dan Dowdey.

(Daniel Dowdey/Copyright © Friends of the Hunley®)

Eight committed crewmen crowded into the Confederacy’s revolutionary submersible for its first operation, it would also be its last.

E yes strained hard, the chilly winter air and cold Atlantic breeze inducing a watery squint. These eyes were accustomed to looking out. A sailor on a cathead was staring at the water, and so was Acting Master J.K. Crosby. Both were on the deck of the USS Housatonic—a state-of-the-art steam-powered sloop boasting 12 guns and 300 crewmen, the pride of the U.S. Navy. The ship was part of a fleet whose purpose was to blockade Charleston Harbor, in South Carolina, to keep Confederates from leaving and help from arriving. This nautical siege—part of the larger naval blockade of the South called Anaconda—was far from perfect, but it had done its main job: to constrict the Confederacy. Any effort to break the blockade had to be thwarted, and for that reason, Crosby’s and the sailor’s eyes scanned the water that cold night of February 17, 1864, with focused determination.

What Crosby was struggling to identify was a piece of Confederate technology that was about to make history: the H.L. Hunley submarine. Inside, eight men were crammed into what amounted to a repurposed boiler (strengthened with a skeletal frame) made of iron three-eighths of an inch thick, in a space 48 inches high, 42 inches wide, and 40 feet long.

Such extreme confinement would have been alien even to a sailor like Crosby, who was more accustomed to close quarters than were many soldiers on land. Being inside the Hunley was an experience quite unlike anything else endured by other combatants before or during the Civil War. It was born of necessity and creativity. Breaking Anaconda meant pushing men to the limits of endurance.

The ill-fated USS Housatonic (Naval History and Heritage Command)

In precise order they sat, on a bench about a foot wide. Before them, not quite down the center of the vessel (to allow for the bench), was a long iron bar, a crankshaft, indented at the position for each seated crewmember. Each of the seven indents was possibly wrapped with a wooden sheath, enabling the men to rotate the entire crankshaft in sync. The crankshaft, in turn, was connected to a differential gearbox, which converted human energy power into propeller power, giving the submarine locomotion under the water.

At the helm was George Dixon. Dixon was likely from the Midwest, though he enlisted in Company E of the 21st Alabama Infantry in October 1861. Injured at the Battle of Shiloh, Dixon became intimately familiar with the submarine, working first at the Park and Lyons machine shop in Mobile, Ala., during the Hunley’s construction and then accompanying the vessel to Charleston. Dixon asked Commodore John R. Tucker, commander of warships in Charleston, to provide him with some men, which he did. Seated directly behind Dixon was the youngest and shortest of the crewmembers, Arnold Becker, a recent arrival from Europe. For reasons unclear, he had joined the Confederate States Navy in October 1861. Serving on the General Polk and then on the CSS Chicora, Becker was later assigned to the CSS Indian Chief, and from that vessel, he was recruited for the Hunley. Age 20 and 5 feet, 5 inches tall, Becker was at the first crank position, muscling the propeller in circles, but he was also responsible for the air-circulation system, managing the forward pump and, critically, checking the position of the valves when the sub needed positive buoyancy.

As for the second cranker, there was surely more to his name, but we know him simply as “Lumpkin,” probably his last name. From his remains, forensic science has determined that his was a life of physical exertion—and physical abuse: He was a heavy pipe smoker with the grooves worn into his teeth to prove it. He had probably served, like Becker, on the Indian Chief before joining the Hunley crew.

Two men down from the diminutive Becker—next to Lumpkin—sat a large man, well over 6 feet. This was Frank Collins. A Virginian, Collins signed up with the Confederate Navy in 1861. Like the others, he had served on the Indian Chief. His position at third crank situated him mid-vessel. In the event of a sinking, escape through either of the boat’s two conning towers, situated forward and aft, would be unlikely.

In the equally treacherous fourth crank was Corporal C.F. Carlsen, in his early 20s, whom Dixon recruited from the German artillery. Carlsen, like the others, had naval experience, having served on the Jefferson Davis. He also saw battle at Fort Walker on Hilton Head, S.C., in November 1861. It is likely that nothing had truly prepared him for the position he found himself in on that cold February night in 1864.

Faces of Hunley

A team of leading archaeologists and forensic experts painstakingly studied the remains of Hunley’s crew and was able to complete reliable facial reconstructions of all eight. Clues found in some of the men’s teeth convinced researchers that four were European and one was a heavy pipe smoker.

(all images Copyright © Friends of the Hunley®)

A s with Lumpkin, we know the man at fifth position only by his last name, Miller (his first name might have been Augustus). And we don’t know much more than that. He might have served with Carlsen on the Jefferson Davis, and he might have been, like Becker, a recent immigrant from Europe. Either way, he had volunteered to serve on the Hunley.

About the man in the sixth crank position, James A. Wicks, we know a bit more. Wicks had served the Union Navy early in the war, aboard the USS Congress. When the Congress was destroyed by the CSS Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862, Wicks swam ashore and enlisted in the Confederacy. Like other crew members, he ended up on the Indian Chief and from there volunteered for Hunley duty. He returned from a mission in New Bern, N.C., just days before the Hunley was launched to attack the Housatonic.

Another former sailor on the Indian Chief secured the last crank position, a Marylander named Joseph Ridgaway. The son of a sea captain, Ridgaway was well-versed in nautical matters, so much so that Dixon recruited him directly for the Hunley, not only having him man the seventh crank position but also making him responsible for securing the hatch and operating the flywheel and the pump.

Two of the eight men, Dixon and Ridgaway, used more than muscle. Dixon used his eyes and ears to navigate, and Ridgaway employed his eyes and fingers for stabilizing the sub by tweaking and feathering the levers controlling the ballast tanks at the vessel’s fore. And yet, like the other crewmen, they had to contort their bodies into position.

A period sketch provides a side view of the crew’s cramped working environment. (© Chronicle/Alamy)

The men ensconced in the Hunley experienced something unique, something that wouldn’t be matched for another half-century and the development of submarines and U-boats during World War I and, later, tank warfare. Intimacy meant contact with others. The men in the Hunley experienced a world more familiar to fighting in earlier ages. There were the triremes, of course, but the siege machines of both the ancient and medieval worlds offer comparisons.

Most antebellum Americans embraced an arm-stretching culture of open space. Partly, this was a product of the country’s size. News didn’t always come by word of mouth and human contact. Print and growing literacy and the intellectual forces underwriting the Enlightenment conspired to promote a more distanced, noncontact form of social interaction. Bathing, like bodily excretions, was now a private affair, and diners were not crammed on a bench. While servants in medieval Europe had often slept in the same bedroom as the master, servants in the 19th century had been relegated to a separate space, to quarters near enough for them to be summoned but removed. Touching was less necessary.

Human contact had changed and, beginning in the 18th century, the idea of private, individuated comfort began to spread from the elite downward to the middle class. By the early 19th century, ideas about comfort were understood in terms of room temperature, not body heat.

Clothing took on special meaning, since what you wore was a matter of individual choice, not a group function. It formed an outer shell against contact with the environment and with others. What people wore against their skin, in other words, said much about their station in life and their inner worth and beliefs. It also diminished the need for constant intimacy. We could be self-sustaining.

The men aboard the Hunley were practically working as a single body, their parts intertwined with the others’. Yet even in war, touching between men was prescribed and regimented. And certainly in peacetime, free white men were not really accustomed to either this intimacy or the contortions that it provided. Few occupations even began to approach the world of the submariners, and those that did were held in contempt. American observers of 19th-century English coal mines were aghast at how the mineshafts made men crawl over each other, animal-like, “with back and legs at an angle quite as acute as the pain thereby caused through underground passages that were apparently constructed for some Lilliputian race yet to be discovered.” Theirs was an unnatural world. The lack of air, the smell, the closeness of it all were a throwback to an uncivilized age, when men “naked from head to waist are at work all the time, in narrow out-of-the-way passages, where without a lamp one might consider himself as completely lost to the world in general as if imbedded in the heart of a Brazilian forest.”

Tight fit: Though ahead of its time in many ways technologically, Hunley still depended on manpower to move. The crew had to crouch inside a 4-foot-high hull and rotate a long crankshaft that turned a two-blade propeller. (© Chronicle/Alamy)

On this ship, their bodies were “stowed so close” in quarters so low that they were not permitted “the indulgence of an erect posture.” The close, cramped quarters meant the “exclusion of the fresh air.” Even in cold water, the physical exertion of the crankers likely meant that inside the “climate was too warm to admit the wearing of anything but a shirt,” so that the “skin,” especially on “the prominent parts of the shoulders, elbows, and hips,” was “rubbed” aggressively by the “friction of the ship.” Dank, cramped, and forcing skin-rubbing closeness: This was the Hunley.

But this description is not, in fact, of the Hunley. It is a description of a ship of enslaved black men, women and children.

The Hunley’s men were where they were by choice. Their skin was never lacerated by a whip held by another. But in a world where white men resisted mightily any comparison to slaves, where race meant everything, where white Southern men fought to prove they were free and not slave, the similarity between the world of the Hunley and a slave ship seems uncanny. It was this willing proximity to the experience of slavery that reveals the depth of sacrifice these men were willing to make to pursue the Confederate cause.

The Hunley volunteers had willingly placed themselves in the condition of slaves—in the fight to preserve slavery. Indeed, it was a wonder that P.G.T. Beauregard didn’t crew the Hunley with at least some slaves. Why not have Dixon guide and direct the boat while slaves provided the manpower to propel it through the water? We can’t say with certainty why slave labor was not used to power the Hunley, but the answer probably has something to do with the fact that slaves were expensive (their death and loss was, after all, quite likely) and also with the same logic that kept the South from using armed blacks in combat. Manning the boat, this piece of proud Confederate technology that might break the blockade, was understood as an honor befitting only white men.

And so the Confederate crankers turned and rotated the shaft as fast as their muscles would allow, in quarters so cramped their skin rubbed and chafed, in light so dim they knew each other’s presence by contact and smell rather than by sight. But such was the importance of their suicidal mission that these men were willing to endure it all. For now, they had but one object in mind: to sink a Union ship.

The Housatonic was far too large a vessel to be redirected easily and quickly. Crosby had spotted the “something,” but it was too late: a minute after, the object beneath the ocean was alongside his ship. Hurriedly, Union sailors tried to pivot their aft guns but “were unable to bring a gun to bear upon” the object, the angle too downwardly steep, presumably. And then something hit.

Such was the importance of their suicidal mission that these men were willing to endure it all

The extent of the explosion revealed the object below the waves: Mounted to the boat’s bottom—which made it very difficult, if not impossible, to see from the surface—was a hollow iron spar jutting out 17 feet. It looked now like a gaping fish, replete with sheeny scales. This was the Singer torpedo, carrying 135 pounds of black powder. Bolted to the spar, the copper-clad torpedo was, through the sheer momentum of Hunley, to be plunged deep into the warship’s guts and activated by a trigger fingered by Dixon.

In some ways, the torpedo had a medieval quality to it, looking not unlike a knight’s lance used in jousting. But this spar was a powerful piece of 19th-century stealth technology. Its invisibility was by design. The alternative—a torpedo dragged behind the sub and designed to hit an object when the sub dove—was far more obvious to lookouts and vigilant eyes. And it was a target easily shot at. Dixon, following trials of both torpedo designs, elected for the spar because it had the redoubtable virtue of being below the waterline and very hard to see.

Like a clenched fist at the end of a stiff arm, the torpedo was also a technology of touch. It had to be. Unlike warfare above the sea and on land, where shells could be lobbed greater distances anonymously, this underwater technology was less distanced. It required men to plant it, even in this prosthetic manner. This was maritime hand-to-hand combat. The torpedo rammed hard into the ship’s magazine, just as Crosby feared. Then…nothing. The device seems to have pierced the hull, but there was, perhaps for a minute, no immediate explosion. And then a veritable eruption. The Housatonic plunged, sinking stern first. Some sailors were stunned by the concussion others flung themselves on the rigging, clinging for dear life. It had been all of three minutes from the sighting of “the something” to detonation.

T he Hunley sank the Housatonic between 8:45 and 9 p.m. Within the hour, the Union ship was swallowed by the cold waters of the bay, five of its crew missing, presumed drowned the rest, 21 officers and 129 men, some injured by the explosion, were rescued by the USS Canandaigua. The effect was profound, the loss of the ship causing “great consternation in the fleet.” All wooden vessels were “ordered to keep up steam and go out to sea every night, not being allowed to anchor inside” the harbor. For the Confederacy, this was “the glorious success of our little torpedo boat,” which “raised the hopes of our people.”

One source at the U.S. Navy thought “undoubtedly” that the Hunley “sank at the time of the concussion, with all hands.” Whether or not that was the case, we do know that no one on the sub survived.

‘An Intimidating Task’: Underwater for 136 years, Hunley was clad in a hard layer of sand, shell and sediment when it was lifted from the bottom of Charleston Harbor on August 8, 2000. In recent months, Clemson University conservators have successfully removed most of that crust and, as one said, shed “new light on our understanding of the submarine.” (Copyright © Friends of the Hunley®)

Ironies haunted the crew of the Hunley, even in death. It was, after all, a man by the name of J.H. Tomb, an engineer with the Confederate Navy, who believed the vessel was “a veritable coffin.” Tomb believed that there was only one relatively safe way for the Hunley to sink a ship, and that was to forgo invisibility. A spar torpedo was an effective weapon only when the boat was at the surface. “Should she attempt to use a torpedo as Lieutenant Dixon intended, by submerging the boat and striking from below, the level of the torpedo would be above his own boat, and as she had little buoyancy and no power, the chances were the suction caused by the water passing into the sinking ship would prevent her rising to the surface, besides the possibility of his own boat being disabled.” Tomb had told Dixon this before Dixon had launched his daring raid on the Housatonic he had insisted that it was dangerous. None of this was news to Dixon. He and Tomb had even witnessed the Hunley sink on a previous dive, killing its entire crew. It was a pitiless boat.

That warning was too late now. As the submarine sank, the men—assuming they were still conscious and not knocked out by the explosion—must have known they were probably doomed. Agonizingly, they might well have known even as the sub sank. In January, before the Hunley went on its nocturnal mission, the men had deliberately let the sub sink to the ocean floor to see how long they could go without fresh infusions of air. Dixon had estimated the crew could last half an hour. It turned out they got stuck and barely escaped with their lives—two and a half hours later.

Now, time was not on their side, and the sub sank ever deeper. There was something both serene and cruel in the way the men of the Hunley faced their final moments. Decades later, their bodies were not found clumped together each man was at his station. There had been no apparent efforts to hold hands or cling to one another. Perhaps the concussion from the explosion had knocked them out. We simply don’t know. There seems to have been no scrambling, no desperate lurch for escape, no clambering over one another, no bruising, no ripping. We know that the seven men on the Hunley who died earlier were “found in a bunch near the manhole” when the boat was brought to the surface following a failed trial run. But not the crew of the Hunley on this fateful night.

Even though they were in excruciating proximity, each man died alone at his station.

Had the men survived, they might in their excitement at the success of their mission have forgotten all the aching, stooping and skin-rubbing, and told tales of victory in the comfort of warm homes. Instead, the sub sank, dragging its already entombed crewmen to a sarcophageal grave. There they sat, at station: the dandy captain, Mr. Dixon the anonymous Mr. Lumpkin, pipe smoker the diminutive 20-year-old immigrant, Mr. Becker, dwarfed by the man from Virginia near him, Mr. Collins Mr. Carlsen, whom Dixon had recruited from the German artillery the man known only as Mr. Miller the erstwhile Union sailor, Mr. Wicks and the sailor responsible for securing the hatch, the Marylander, Mr. Ridgaway.

They remained at the bottom of the ocean until their remains, and the Hunley, were raised and brought
to Charleston’s shore in 2000. Then, for the first time in 136 years, these men—waterlogged skeletons—were touched by human hands.

The HMS Venturer sinking the U-864 on February 9, 1945 remains to this day the only intentional sinking of a submarine by another submarine when both were at periscope depth. The U-864 was a U-boat designed by the Germans for ocean-going voyages that were long a long way from home ports. In February of 1945 the submarine was a on a mission code-named Operation Caesar to give high sensitive technology to the Empire of Japan. The technology included jet engines, missile guidance systems and 65 tons of mercury.

The British had learned about Operation Caesar due to their ability to crack the Enigma code. The British wanted to stop the Germans from giving the Japanese anything that might prolong the war and therefore wanted to stop the U-864. The Royal Navy submarine command dispatched the HMS Venturer to destroy the U-864 before it was able to deliver its cargo to Japan. At the time, Lieutenant Jimmy Landers was in control of the Venturer and was given little more than the estimated whereabouts of the U-864 and the orders to bring down the sub.

Landers decided to turn off the sub&rsquos ASDIC in order to prevent the ping from being overheard by the U-864. The submarine relied on its hydrophone to pinpoint where the U-864 was. The plan was successful as the Venturer&rsquos hydrophone operator was able to hear the diesel engines of the U-boat as it passed the Venturer&rsquos location. The Germans did not have sonar at the time and their hydrophone was unable to hear the electric motors of the Venturer over the sound of its own diesel engines.

The crew of the Venturer knew that their target was close but after tracking the U-boat for several hours it became clear that it was not going to surface. Never before had a firing solution been computed in four dimensions &ndash time, distance, bearing and target depth, despite it being possible. The crew of the HMS Venturer was running out of battery life and knew they had to make an attempt. The made the calculations and made assumptions about the defensive maneuvers of the U-boat and fired all torpedoes out of four bow tubes. The fourth torpedo struck the target, puncturing the pressure hull and instantly imploding the U-boat.

Watch the video: The Worlds First Successful Combat Submarine;. Hunley