H.L Hunley: The First Submarine

The H.L Hunley was not strictly speaking the first submarine ever designed or built but it was the first to see active service and the first to sink another naval vessel in combat. It was named after its primary designer Horace Lawson Hunley who developed it in association with James McLintock and Baxter Watson, though it was Hunley who was to remain hands-on throughout its development and testing.

By 1863, the Confederacy was being increasingly squeezed by the Union blockade of its coastline and ports and without a Navy that could challenge Northern supremacy of the seas directly other means had to be found.

On 8 March, the Confederate States Ship Virginia (previously the U.S.S Merrimac) which had been converted into the world’s first Ironclad sailed into Hampton Roads Harbor and attacked the Northern Fleet moored there. With their guns unable to penetrate the Virginia‚Äôs armour the wooden ships of the U.S Navy were no match and in short order the U.S.S Cumberland was rammed and sank with great loss of life, the U.S.S Congress blew up, and the badly damaged U.S.S Minnesota forced to run aground had to be abandoned.

With darkness descending the Virginia retired for the night expecting to finish off the Union fleet the following day.

The next morning the crew of the Virginia were shocked to find their way blocked by the arrival of the Union Ironclad the Monitor. These two strange looking warships now battered away at each other for three hours with neither making much impression on the other before both withdrew. The clash at Hampton Roads may have changed the face of naval warfare forever but it had not broken the Union blockade. The technology had come too late.

So still the search went on and the South was to use mines, torpedoes, and sabotage in their increasingly desperate attempts to break the Union blockade and they were to sink a great many Union ships, but the breakthrough just wouldn’t come.

Pressure was growing on H L Hunley to complete his design particularly as the two previous prototypes had sunk.

On 12 August 1863, the Hunley arrived by rail in Charleston, South Carolina. It was to be commanded by Lieutenant John Payne and manned by seven volunteers. It needed to be rushed into service and so the sea trials were to take place immediately. They did not go well.

On 29 August, Lieutenant Payne ordered the submarine to submerge when its hatches were still open causing it to sink. Payne and two others managed to escape but five crewmen were drowned. Obviously there was still work to be done and Hunley cancelled the sea trials for the time being.

On 15 October, the Hunley again went to sea. Its designer believed that it was close to ready for active service and he accompanied its sailing to carry out some final checks. After submerging it failed to resurface. The Confederates managed to salvage the vessel but all aboard had drowned including its designer.

The Hunley was equipped with two watertight hatches but both were very narrow and made any quick attempt to abandon ship impossible. The space inside was also severely restricted and it was not possible to stand upright. It was manned by a crew of eight with seven to turn the hand-cranked propellers and one, the Captain, to guide the vessel. At each end of the vessel there were ballast tanks which could be flooded by valves and emptied by pumps. Extra ballast and buoyancy could be provided by the application and removal of lead weights. It was armed with a spar torpedo attached to the front of the craft which would be rammed into the vessel it was attacking. The Hunley would then detach itself and submerge. The torpedo would explode as the Hunley moved away.

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Following the death of the submarines designer, the Military Commander of Charleston, General Pierre Gustave Tooton Beauregard took it upon himself to declare the salvaged Hunley fit for service and ordered its new Skipper, Lieutenant George E Dixon to make preparation for combat.

Charleston had been both besieged and under blockade for more than two years and Beauregard was desperate to break the stranglehold. The Hunley provided their best and possibly only hope.

On the night of 17 February, 1864, under the cover of darkness the H.L Hunley left Charleston Harbour. Her target was the U.S.S Housotonic, five miles out to sea and blocking the entrance to the Harbour.

As far as most people were aware there was little going on, it was just another cold, still, South Carolina night when the dark moonless sky was suddenly lit up by a huge explosion, the Housotonic had been set ablaze and would sink just a few minutes later taking five of her crew with her. It appeared that the Hunley’s attack had been a total success.

The Hunley had since surfaced and lit her lantern to indicate that she was returning to port. The lantern could still be seen more than an hour later so what happened next still remains a mystery. It is possible that Lieutenant Dixon felt he needed to submerge again to make it back home undetected. What is known is that the Hunley never made it.

On 8 August 2000, the Hunley was raised from the bottom of Charleston Harbour. The bodies of the crew were found to be still at their posts and there were no signs that there had been a rush for the hatches indicating that they had not drowned. It would appear that they had suffocated or been overcome by fumes possibly as a result of a miscalculation by Lieutenant Dixon.

The crew of the Hunley were interred with full military honours on 17 April, 2004.

Neither Charleston nor the South ever broke the Union blockade but the Hunley had made its mark on history and naval warfare would never be the same as a result.


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