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H. L. Hunley (submarine)

H. L. Hunley was a submarine of the Confederate States of America that demonstrated both the advantages and the dangers of undersea warfare. The Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy warship, although the submarine was also lost following the successful attack. The Confederates lost 32 men in Hunley's career. The submarine was renamed after the death of her inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley, and some time after she had been taken into the Confederate forces at Charleston, South Carolina.

H. L. Hunley, almost 40 feet (12 m) long, was built at Mobile, Alabama, launched in July 1863, and shipped by rail to Charleston, SC on August 12, 1863. On February 17, 1864, Hunley attacked and sank the 1240-tonsteam sloop USS Housatonic in Charleston harbor, but soon after, Hunley also apparently sank, drowning all 8 crewmen. Over 136 years later, on August 8, 2000, the wreck was recovered, and on April 17, 2004, the DNA-identified remains of the eight Hunley crewmen were interred in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery, with full military honors.


Hunley and two earlier submarines were privately developed and paid for by Horace Lawson Hunley, James McClintock, and Baxter Watson.

Predecessors to Hunley

Hunley, McClintock, and Watson first built a small submarine named Pioneer at New Orleans, Louisiana. Pioneer was tested in February 1862 in the Mississippi River, and was later towed to Lake Pontchartrain for additional trials, but the Union advance towards New Orleans caused the men to abandon development and scuttle Pioneer the following month. The poorly documented Bayou St. John Confederate Submarine may have been constructed about the same time as the Pioneer.

The three inventors moved to Mobile and joined with machinists Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons. They soon began development of a second submarine, American Diver. Their efforts were supported by the Confederate States Army; Lieutenant William Alexander of the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment was assigned oversight duty for the project. The men experimented with electromagnetic and steam propulsion for the new submarine, before falling back on a simpler hand-cranked propulsion system. American Diver was ready for harbor trials by January 1863, but proved too slow to be practical. One attempted attack on the Union blockade was made in February 1863, but was unsuccessful. The submarine sank in the mouth of Mobile Bay during a storm later the same month and was not recovered.

Construction and testing of Hunley

Construction of Hunley began soon after the loss of American Diver. At this stage, Hunley was variously referred to as the "fish boat", the "fish torpedo boat", or the "porpoise". Legend long held Hunley was made from a cast-off steam boiler -- perhaps because a cutaway drawing by William Alexander, who had seen the real boat, showed a short and stubby machine. In fact, Hunley was purpose-designed and built for her role, and the sleek, modern-looking craft shown in R.G. Skerrett's 1902 drawing is an accurate representation. Hunley was designed for a crew of eight: seven to turn the hand-cranked propeller and one to steer and direct the boat. Each end was equipped with ballast tanks that could be flooded by valves or pumped dry by hand pumps. Extra ballast was added through the use of iron weights bolted to the underside of the hull. In the event the submarine needed additional buoyancy to rise in an emergency, the iron weight could be removed by unscrewing the heads of the bolts from inside the vessel.

Hunley was equipped with two watertight hatches, one forward and one aft, atop two conning towers with small portholes. The hatches were very small, measuring 14 by 15¾ inches (356 by 400 mm), making entrance to and egress from the hull very difficult. The ship had a hull height of 4 ft 3 in (1.2 m).

Hunley was ready for a demonstration by July 1863. Supervised by Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan, Hunley successfully attacked a coal flatboat in Mobile Bay. Following this demonstration, the submarine was shipped to Charleston, South Carolina, by rail, arriving August 12, 1863.

The Confederate military seized the vessel from its private builders and owners shortly after its arrival in Charleston and turned it over to the Confederate Army. Hunley would operate as a Confederate Army vessel from this point forward, although Horace Hunley and his partners remained involved in the submarine's further testing and operation.

Confederate Navy Lieutenant John A. Payne of CSS Chicora volunteered to be Hunley's skipper, and a volunteer crew of seven men from Chicora and CSS Palmetto State was assembled to operate the submarine. On August 29, 1863, Hunley's new crew was preparing to make a test dive to learn the operation of the submarine when Lieutenant Payne accidentally stepped on the lever controlling the sub's diving planes while the crew were rowing and the boat was running. This caused Hunley to dive with hatches still open, flooding her. Payne and two other men escaped; the remaining five crewmen drowned.

On October 15, 1863 Hunley failed to surface during a mock attack, killing its inventor and seven other crewmen. In both cases, the Confederate Navy salvaged the vessel and returned her to service.


Hunley was originally intended to attack by means of a floating explosive charge with a contact fuse (a torpedo in Civil War terminology) towed behind it at the end of a long rope. Hunley would approach an enemy vessel, dive under it, and surface beyond. As she continued to move away from the target, the torpedo would be pulled against the side of the target and explode. However, this plan was discarded as impractical due to the danger of the tow line fouling Hunley's screw, or of it drifting into Hunley herself.

This was replaced with a spar torpedo, a cask containing 90 pounds (41 kg) of gunpowder attached to a -long wooden spar, as seen in illustrations of the submarine made at this time. The spar was mounted on Hunley's bow and was designed to be used when the submarine was some six feet or more below the surface. The spar torpedo had a barbed point, and would be stuck in the target vessel's side by the simple means of ramming. The spar torpedo as originally designed used a mechanical trigger attached to the attacking vessel by a cord, so that as the attacker backed away from her victim, the torpedo would explode. However, archaeologists working on Hunley have discovered evidence, including a spool of copper wire and components of a battery, that it may have been electrically detonated. Following Horace Hunley's death, General Beauregard issued an order the submarine was no longer to attack her target underwater. In response to this order, an iron pipe was attached to the bow of the submarine and angled downwards so the explosive charge would still be delivered under sufficient depth of water to make it effective. This was the same method developed for the earlier "David" type surface craft so successful against the USS Ironsides. The Confederate Veteran of 1902 printed a reminiscence authored by an engineer stationed at Battery Marshall who, with another engineer, made adjustments to the iron pipe mechanism before Hunley left on her last mission on the night of February 17, 1864. A drawing of the iron pipe spar, confirming its "David" type configuration, was published in several early histories of submarine warfare.

Attack on the Housatonic

Hunley made her first attack against a live target on the night of February 17, 1864. The vessel was the USS Housatonic. Housatonic, an 1240-ton steam-powered sloop-of-war with 12 large cannons, stationed at the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina harbor, about 5 miles (8 km) out to sea. In an effort to break the naval blockade of the city, Lieutenant George E. Dixon and a crew of seven volunteers attacked Housatonic, successfully embedding the barbed spar torpedo into her hull. The torpedo was detonated as the submarine backed away, sending Housatonic and five of her crew to the bottom in five minutes, although many survived in two lifeboats or by climbing rigging until rescued. Hunley also sank, apparently just moments after signaling shore of the successful attack, possibly from damage caused by the torpedo blast, though this is not certain. The possibility must be considered the torpedo was not detonated on command, but rather malfunctioned due to damage incurred during the attack. In previous tests and actual attacks, it was intended that the torpedo be detonated approximately 150 to from the target, to minimize any damage to the sub. However, witnesses aboard Housatonic uniformly stated it detonated at no more than about one hundred feet, and possibly as close as seventy-five.

There is convincing evidence Hunley actually survived as long as an hour after the attack (which took place at approximately 8:45 PM). The commander of Battery Marshall reported the day after the attack that he had received "the damn signals" from the submarine indicating she was returning to her base. The signal was received at approximately 9:00 PM - fifteen minutes after the Housatonic had sunk - and came from a blue carbide gas signal lantern to the base at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island. The signal was also seen by crew members of Housatonic, who were in the ship's rigging awaiting rescue. The reports are quoted in the official enquiries of both Federal and Confederate Governments and in the Official Records of the war. This type of lantern can only be seen at a distance of some one and a half miles, indicating the submarine had come close to shore after the attack on Housatonic. At that point, Dixon took the sub under to try and make it back to Sullivan's Island. However, shock damage from the torpedo and magazine explosion had probably opened the sub's seams, and she was slowly filling with water. Her crew, likely suffering from malnutrition, respiratory problems, cold, and exhaustion, would have failed to realize that the submarine was slowly going under. Submerging again would have put enough water aboard that her crew would likely have driven her directly into the shallow bottom, blocking the ballast intakes and making it impossible to pump her back out. Cold and immersion would have killed the crew relatively quickly.

Her crew perished, but H.L. Hunley had earned a place in the history of undersea warfare as the first submarine to sink a ship in wartime.

The Wreck

The Hunley discovery was described by Dr. William Dudley, Director of Naval History at the Naval Historical Center as probably the most important (underwater archaeological) find of the (20th) century. The tiny sub and its contents have been valued at over $40,000,000, making its discovery and subsequent donation one of the most important and valuable contributions ever to South Carolina.

The Hunley discovery is claimed by two different individuals. Underwater Archaeologist E. Lee Spence, president, Sea Research Society, reportedly discovered Hunley in 1970, and has an impressive collection of evidence to validate the claim, including a Civil Admiralty Case (#80-1303-8 filed on July 8, 1980 in Federal District Court).

On September 13, 1976, the National Park Service submitted Sea Research Society's (Spence's) location for H.L. Hunley for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Spence's location for Hunley became a matter of public record when H.L. Hunley's placement on that list was officially approved on December 29, 1978. Spence's book Treasures of the Confederate Coast, which had a chapter on his discovery of Hunley and included a map complete with an "X" showing the wreck's location, was published in January of 1995.

Diver Ralph Wilbanks claims to have found the wreck in April 1995 while leading a NUMA dive team funded by novelist Clive Cussler, who announced the find as a new discovery and first claimed that it was in about 18' of water over a mile inshore of the Housatonic, but later acknowledged that was incorrect. It was actually offshore of the Housatonic in 27' of water at the location previously mapped and reported by Spence. Wilbanks claims to have located the submarine buried under several feet of silt, which had concealed and protected the vessel for over a hundred years. The divers exposed the forward hatch and the ventilator box (the air box for the attachment of a snorkel) to identify her. The submarine was resting on her starboard side at about a 45-degree angle and was covered in a ¼- to ¾-inch encrustation of ferrous oxide bonded with sand and seashell particles. Archaeologists exposed part of the ship's port side and uncovered the bow dive plane. More probing revealed an approximate length of , with all of the vessel preserved under the sediment.

On September 14, 1995, at the official request of Senator Glenn F. McConnell, Chairman, South Carolina Hunley Commission, E. Lee Spence, with South Carolina Attorney General Charles M. Condon signing, gifted the Hunley to the State of South Carolina. Shortly thereafter NUMA disclosed to government official's Wilbank's location for the wreck, which, when finally made public in October of 2000, matched Spence's 1970s plot of the wreck's location well within standard mapping tolerances. Spence claims that he discovered the Hunley in 1970 and revisited and mapped the site in 1971 and again in 1979, and that after he published his location in his 1995 book that he expected NUMA (which was actually part of a SCIAA expedion directed by Dr. Mark M. Newell and not Cussler) to independently verify the wreck as the Hunley, not to claim that they had discovered it. Interestingly, Dr. Newell has sworn under oath that he used Spence's maps to direct the joint SCIAA/NUMA expedition and credits Spence with the original discovery and credits his expedition only with the official verification. This is an ongoing dispute involving allegations of political manipulation, official misconduct and other questionable behavior.

Archaeological investigation and excavation culminated with the raising of Hunley on August 8, 2000. A large team of professionals from the Naval Historical Center's Underwater Archaeology Branch, National Park Service, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, and various other individuals investigated the vessel, measuring and documenting it prior to removal. Once the on-site investigation was complete, harnesses were slipped underneath the sub and attached to a truss designed by Oceaneering, Inc. After the last harness had been secured, the crane from the recovery barge Karlissa B hoisted the submarine from the harbor bottom. Despite having used a sextant and hand-held compass, thirty years earlier, to plot the wreck's location, Dr. Spence's accuracy turned out to be within the length of the recovery barge. On August 8, 2000 at 8:37 a.m. the sub broke the surface for the first time in over 136 years, greeted by a cheering crowd on shore and in surrounding watercraft. Once safely on her transporting barge, Hunley was shipped back to Charleston. The removal operation concluded when the submarine was secured inside the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, at the former Charleston Navy Yard, in a specially designed tank of freshwater to await conservation.

The Crew

The crew was composed of Lieutenant George E. Dixon (Commander), Frank Collins, Joseph F. Ridgaway, James A. Wicks, Arnold Becker, Corporal J. F. Carlsen, C. Lumpkin, and Miller, whose first name and identity is still uncertain.

Apart from the commander of the submarine, Lieutenant George E. Dixon, the identities of the volunteer crewmembers of the Hunley had long remained a mystery. Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist working for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History examined the remains and determined that four of the men were American born, while the four others were European born, based on the chemical signatures left on the men's teeth and bones by the predominant components of their diet. Four of the men had eaten plenty of maize, an American diet, while the remainder ate mostly wheat and rye, a mainly European one. By examining Civil War records and conducting DNA testing with possible relatives, forensic genealogist Linda Abrams was able to identify the remains of Dixon and the three other Americans: Frank Collins, Joseph Ridgaway, and James A. Wicks. Identifying the European crew members has been more problematic, but was apparently solved in late 2004. The position of the corpses indicated that the men died at their stations and were not trying to escape from the sinking submarine.

On 17 April, 2004 the remains of the crew of the H. L. Hunley were interred in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery with full military honors. A crowd estimated at between 35,000 and 50,000, including 10,000 period military and civilian reenactors, were present for what some called the 'Last Confederate Funeral.'

The Hunley remains at the "Lasch" conservation center for further study and conservation. Continued study has led to unexpected discoveries, including the complexity of the sub's ballast and pumping systems, steering and diving apparatus, and final assembly.

Another surprise occurred in 2002, when a researcher examining the area close to Lieutenant Dixon found a misshapen $20 gold piece, minted in 1860, with the inscription "Shiloh April 6 1862 My life Preserver G. E. D." and a forensic anthropologist found a healed injury to Lt. Dixon's hip bone. The findings matched a legend, passed down in the family, that Dixon's sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, had given him the coin to protect him. Dixon had the coin with him at the Battle of Shiloh, where he was wounded in the thigh on April 16, 1862. The bullet struck the coin in his pocket, saving his leg and possibly his life. He had the gold coin engraved, and carried it as a lucky charm.

In popular culture

  • The first episode of the 1963 TV series, The Great Adventure (TV series), featured a dramatization loosely based on the events leading up to the Hunley's final day. It starred Jackie Cooper as Lt. "Dickson".
  • The 1999 TV movie "The Hunley" tells the story of the H. L. Hunley. with Armand Assante as Lt. Dixon.


External links

  1. Searches for Hunley, Cussler, Spence
  2. Sea Research Society links to Hunley
  3. Friends of the Hunley
  4. style="font-style : italic;">H. L. Hunley, Confederate Submarine" at the U.S. Naval Historical Center
  5. Hunley history
  6. Pre-Hunley Confederate Submarines
  7. US Navy
  8. The Hunley (TV movie)
  9. Rootsweb
  10. Hunley - Archaeological Interpretation and 3D Reconstruction
  11. Hunley Related Items
  12. HNSA Web Page: H.L. Hunley


  • The Hunley: Submarines, Sacrifice & Success in the Civil War by Mark Ragan (Narwhal Press, Charleston/Miami, ©1995) [ISBN 1-886391-43-2]
  • Ghosts from the Coast, "The Man Who Found the Hunley" by Nancy Roberts, UNC Press, 2001, [ISBN 978-0-8078-2665-2]
  • Treasures of the Confederate Coast: the "real Rhett Butler" & Other Revelations by Dr. E. Lee Spence, (Narwhal Press, Charleston/Miami, ©1995)[ISBN 1-886391-00-9]
  • Civil War Sub [ISBN 0-448-42597-1]
  • The Voyage of the Hunley [ISBN 1-58080-094-7]
  • Raising the Hunley [ISBN 0-345-44772-7]
  • The CSS H.L. Hunley [ISBN 1-57249-175-2]
  • The CSS Hunley [ISBN 0-87833-219-7]
  • Shipwreck Encyclopedia of the Civil War: South Carolina & Georgia, 1861-1865 by Edward Lee Spence (Sullivan's Island, S.C., Shipwreck Press, ©1991) OCLC: 24420089
  • Shipwrecks of South Carolina and Georgia : (includes Spence's List, 1520-1865) Sullivan's Island, S.C. (Sullivan's Island 29482, Sea Research Society, ©1984) OCLC 10593079
  • Shipwrecks of the Civil War : Charleston, South Carolina, 1861-1865 map by E. Lee Spence (Sullivan's Island, S.C., ©1984) OCLC 11214217

  • Robert F. Burgess (1975). Ships Beneath the Sea: A History of Subs and Submersibles. United States of America: McGraw Hill.

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