The story behind the first submarine to sink a warship


When testing new military technology, there are always risks for operators. Test pilots suffered appalling death rates in the early days of jets, and the MV-22 Osprey suffered a series of fatal crashes during its development, including 19 Marines died in a single accident in 2000.

But the series of misfortunes that have befallen the Confederacy in its attempts to build a practical submarine show just how much safety standards can slip out the window in wartime.

On a frigid night of 1864 just outside Charleston Harbor during the Civil War, one of the Union’s largest naval ships was carrying out the endless patrols involved in maintaining a blockade. The USS Housatonic, a 1,260-ton, 11-gun sloop, had been tasked with blockading Charleston Harbor and occasionally bombarding coastal targets for over a year.

What was usually the most monotonous task quickly took a historic turn when the OOW spotted a strange, low-level floating object approaching the Housatonic from shore. After initial confusion in the dark as to what the object was, the lookout sounded the alarm and the sloop came into action late.

The world’s first successful attack on a warship by a combat submarine, the CSS HL Hunley, was underway.

A South desperate to break the blockade

From the start of the Civil War, all southern ports were blocked under General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda map, which sought both to stifle southern trade and ultimately to divide the South in two through control of the Mississippi River.

The pressure of the blockade on the economy of the South was acute and led to the development of Confederate weapons designed to penetrate the Union fleet. The famous clash between the Confederate battleship Merrimack and the Union Monitor at the Battle of Hampton Roads was part of the Confederate effort to break the Union’s grip on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

The clash was the first time fully armored warships had faced each other in combat, and although the outcome was indecisive, it marked a major shift in naval strategy across the Western world. But other innovations in naval technology were in sight like the submarine, an idea that dates back at least to Leonardo da Vinci.

If at first you are not successful try, try again

The idea of ​​using submersibles to eliminate surface ships was not new. During the American Revolution, David Bushnell, an undergraduate student at Yale used a small barrel-shaped machine for one man with a small rudder and a screw handle in several attempts to attack British ships with time bombs, but each attempt was unsuccessful. Either the current thwarted the assault or the primitive bombs did not explode.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that relatively efficient and human-powered designs emerged. USS Alligator, designed by Frenchman Brutus de Villeroi, was bought by the Union. Originally tasked with destroying the Merrimack, which became useless with the destruction of the Ironclad, it eventually sank in bad weather while being towed for an attack on Charleston.

The first submarine to successfully attack was left to Confederate Hunley.

Horace L. Hunley, the submarine’s namesake, had a varied career as a lawyer, planter, Louisiana state legislator, and New Orleans businessman until the outbreak of the war. . In 1861, he joined forces with engineers James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson to build Confederation’s first three submarines: the Pioneer, the American Diver and the Hunley.

The first two models were lost before being deployed, with the Pioneer scuttled to avoid Union capture and the American Diver sinking in bad weather. The Hunley was the team’s third and final attempt.

Made from a steam boiler, the Hunley was 40 feet long and propelled by seven men cranking, with an officer as pilot. The boat was incredibly narrow, with a hull height of just over four feet and hatches so narrow they made it difficult to escape. The ballast pumps were all manual and the dive controls were primitive at best.

After a promising test using a towed torpedo to dramatically destroy a target barge, the Hunley was quickly dispatched to Charleston, which was under strict blockade and regular bombardment. The submarine was seized by the Confederate garrison of its private owners and piloted by the military, although Hunley and his partners remained advisers. The rush to deploy the submarine led to several tragedies.

During a test, the Hunley sank when the skipper accidentally touched the dive controls while the hatches were still open, and five men were killed. In order not to be discouraged, the boat was raised and the tests resumed.

When the usual captain, Lt. George Dixon, was away on leave after completing several successful dives, Hunley himself took the submarine for a try. The submarine submerged and did not resurface, possibly due to another open hatch.

Confederate General PGT Beauregard written in stride: “When the boat was discovered, lifted and opened, the sight was indescribable and awful; the unfortunate were twisted into all kinds of horrible attitudes. Hunley had been killed by his own creation.

Beauregard, horrified by the accident, was at first reluctant to continue the submarine program, but Dixon convinced him otherwise. “After this tragedy, I refused to allow the boat to be used again; but Lieutenant Dixon, a brave and determined man, having returned to Charleston, asked me for permission to use it against the federal war sloop Housatonic.

Death below the surface

The armament was replaced by a spar torpedo carrying a 125 pound warhead. It was designed to attach to the side of a ship and then be detonated by a pulled rope when the submarine backed up. On February 17, 1864, the Hunley launched its first and only attack on the Housatonic two and a half miles off Charleston Harbor.

After the Hunley was spotted 100 yards away by the OOW, a frantic alarm was triggered. The ship’s crew discovered that they couldn’t aim at an object so low in the water and near their ship with their cannon, and they slipped the anchor chain and propped up the engine in an attempt to dodge it. ‘attack.

The Hunley managed to plant the torpedo against the Housatonic and began to back up for the detonation. Desperately, the deck crew began raking the retreating submarine with rifle and pistol fire, but it was too little and too late. A massive explosion rocked the Housatonic, and within five minutes the ship was completely submerged. Five of his crew died in the attack; 150 others were saved.

What happened to the Hunley is uncertain. While many believed at the time that it had been sunk by the explosion of its own torpedo, it is theorized that the submarine survived the initial attack and sank for reasons unknown. An agreed blue light from the submarine as a signal to return to base was seen from shore, but the Hunley never returned.

Find the Hunley

The Confederate submarine HL Hunley, suspended from a crane during its recovery from the port of Charleston, August 8, 2000.

Numerous attempts have been made to locate the Hunley after her sinking. Renowned showman PT Barnum even offered a $ 100,000 reward to anyone who could find him. Its location was not decisively confirmed until 1995, after writer Clive Cussler, author of numerous nautical-themed thrillers, spent 15 years researching it with his organization, the National Underwater Marine Agency. The submarine was covered in silt and it took a magnetometer to finally locate it.

After an elaborate salvage operation, the vessel was finally lifted in 2000. She was donated to the State of South Carolina and currently resides at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in the former Charleston Navy Yard, where she is still located. ‘study.

The Hunley was a pioneer ship, marking the first time that a submarine had successfully attacked and sank an enemy ship. The price to be paid in lives during its development has been severe, with Horace Hunley himself falling victim to rudimentary and primitive technology.

But the courage shown by men willing to immerse themselves again and again in little more than a floating iron coffin cannot be denied, and the determination shown in the face of tragedy to break a suffocating blockade is one most innovative and most intriguing. episodes from the Civil War.

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