Thursday, February 6, 2014

The little sub that could: H.L. Hunley made warfare history; anniv. events planned

(Naval Historical Center)

The story of the H.L. Hunley, a war machine marked by innovation that overcame limitations, is a classic example of if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Whether inspired by nationalistic pride or the profit move – likely both – a group of New Orleans businessmen and innovators made three Confederate submersibles before an eight-member crew in one of the “curious” vessels made warfare history.

The Pioneer and the American Diver never saw action. But the Hunley, named for a member of the shipbuilding coalition, did eventually see combat as the Confederacy tried to break a Northern blockade of Charleston, S.C., during the Civil War.

On the moonlit evening of Feb. 17, 1864, the 40-foot iron vessel -- bullets pinging off its iron exterior -- planted a torpedo in the hull of the Union ship USS Housatonic, setting off a charge that sent the Federal vessel and five crew members to the sandy bottom outside Charleston Harbor within minutes.

The Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy warship.

Hunley rests in a conservation tank in North Charleston, S.C.

"It was the first successful use of submarine in warfare,” said Rick Hatcher, historian at Fort Sumter National Monument. “It is not just a Civil War event, not just an American event. It is a world-history event."

Sesquicentennial events next week in the Charleston area, culminating with a memorial service at the exact time of the mission, will remember the daring innovation of the Hunley and the early dangers of manning a submarine. The eight men aboard the Confederate submarine died, a fate that befell the two previous crews, including Horace Lawson Hunley himself, during trial runs.

Discovered a few miles off Charleston in 1995, and raised in 2000 by a group led by author Clive Cussler, the Hunley is being conserved at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston.

Historians and others continue to ponder mysteries of why the Hunley sank and reports of a blue light emanating from the doomed vessel.

Hatcher will give free talks on Feb. 15-17 at Fort Moultrie, a few miles south of where the Hunley churned through Breach Inlet on its way toward the Housatonic.

"My main thrust is to cover the history of the evolution of the boat up through its recovery,” Hatcher told the Picket this week. “I will leave it to the specialists to give the science."

The story of the Hunley is rich in both science and history.

Union naval forces were wary

Likened to the appearance of a whale, the Hunley was fashioned from a large boiler piece in Mobile, Ala. Innovations included watertight hatches, two short conning towers, sea cocks, pumps and ballast tanks.

But there were shortcomings. There was constant concern about a sufficient oxygen supply for the crew, which limited its dive time.

The Hunley, like its predecessors, was dependent on the crew hand-turning a crank to power the single propeller. The captain had the inability to measure the horizontal movement while running submerged.

Still, the Union fleet paid close attention to the development of the Hunley and other torpedo boats. And they were aware of the loss of life aboard the Hunley in 1863.

Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren in January 1864 ordered defensive measures against the torpedo boats lurking on the islands around Charleston and off the city itself.

“I have reliable information that the rebels have two torpedo boats ready for service, which may be expected on the first night when the water is suitable for their movement. One of these is the ‘David,’ which attacked the Ironsides in October; the other is similar to it,” Dahlgren wrote.

“There is also one of another kind [H. L. Hunley], which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.”

Another letter said the Hunley was “on the lookout for a chance.”

That chance came on the chilly evening of Feb. 17, 1864.

Working the hand crank, heading to target

Lt. George Dixon, the submarine’s commander, had seen distinguished service above water. Now he was leading a small crew in a naval attack.

(Naval Historical Center)

Dixon would carry with him a unique, misshapen $20 gold coin. He had been wounded in the thigh at the Battle of Shiloh nearly two years before. He credited the coin with blunting the bullet’s impact and saving his life.

The officer had the coin engraved and carried it as a charm.

He would need all the luck he could get that night, given the wariness of Union ships and the constant anxiety of operating the Hunley. Five members of the first crew died in August 1863 while the hatches were still open. The second crew’s eight members succumbed in October when they were apparently unable to open a forward sea valve while underwater.

Still, the Confederates were determined to strike fear in the enemy and sink vessels.

In the early evening that day, the Hunley set out from the shadow of Battery Marshall on the north end of Sullivan’s Island. Breach Inlet separated that island and Long Island, now called the Isle of Palms.

Friends of the Hunley, a non-profit group that is organizing some of the sesquicentennial events, provides a history of the ship and current conservation updates on its website.

“While the cold bit through the lookout's coat, 8 men poured sweat over hand cranks that powered a spinning propeller while their captain manned the dive planes -- steering man, iron, anxiety and raw courage towards its final destination."

The Housatonic was at anchor four of five miles away. The Friends’ website further details the Hunley’s appointment with history.

“A lookout aboard the Union Navy's largest ship was tired, cold -- but restless. Talk of a Confederate secret weapon was in and out of his thoughts. Suddenly he spotted something move in the chilly waters. A porpoise? There were certainly a lot of them around. But something about this one didn't seem right."

‘In an instant, the ship was struck’

An account posted by the Naval History & Heritage Command details the alarm raised onboard the Housatonic, which carried 12 guns.

Lt. Higginson, the ship’s executive officer, wrote, “About 8:45 p.m. the officer of the deck, Acting Master J. K. Crosby, discovered something in the water about 100 yards from and moving toward the ship. It had the appearance of a plank moving in the water. It came directly toward the ship, the time from when it was first seen till it was close alongside being about two minutes.”

The Hunley was too close and low to be hit by artillery fire, so crew and officers of the Union ship fired small arms, rifles and even a shotgun at the approaching menace. 

“The officer of the deck perceived a moving object on the water quite near and ordered the chain to be slipped; the captain and executive officer went on deck, saw the object, and each fired at it with a small arm,” Dahlgren wrote. “In an instant the ship was struck on the starboard side, between the main and mizzen masts; those on deck near were stunned, the vessel begun to sink, and went down almost immediately.”

Five crew members died; 150 others were soon rescued.

The Hunley had disappeared from view. What happened to it has become the stuff of legends and research for decades. Various parties searched for the wreckage, but they believed it went down near the Housatonic wreck. Instead, it sank about 100 yards or so beyond that point, covered by several feet of silt.

For a long time, one prevailing view held that a lucky shot broke the glass in one of the Hunley’s portholes, bringing in rushing water and causing the sub to sink. But research has not proven that theory.

In January 2013, Hunley scientists reported a significant discovery.

“Until now, the conventional wisdom has been the Hunley would ram the spar torpedo into her target and then back away, causing the torpedo to slip off the spar,” a press release said. The men may have run out of air at some point, the theory held.

Instead, research showed the submarine was less than 20 feet from her 135-pound torpedo when it exploded. The Hunley had a 16-foot spar that carried the weapon.

“There is overwhelming evidence to indicate this was not a suicide mission. The crew no doubt knew the dangers facing them, but still, they hoped to make it back home. They must have believed this was a safe enough distance to escape any harm,” said Hunley Commissioner Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell.

It’s possible that the force of the explosion incapacitated the crew, eventually causing the sub to slide down into the chilly depths.

A crew member on the Housatonic reported seeing a blue light, but research on the Hunley’s recovered lantern thus far shows no evidence it had glass with a blue tint. While there were several reports of a signal being sent by the Confederate vessel to shore, experts say it likely was not done by the lantern. Some speculate it may have been sent by a hand-held pyrotechnic flare.

Schedule of events for anniversary

The conservation of the Hunley has continued for nearly 14 years after it was hauled to the surface and taken to the large laboratory where visitors can take a tour, see films and learn more about the Hunley and its final crew. 

The vessel sits upright in a 90,000-gallon freshwater tank, as time and workers chip away at concrete-like sediment and salinity.

Friends of the Hunley’s Kellen Correia told the Picket she expects the vessel’s conservation to be complete in about five to six years. It will be housed in a North Charleston museum, but a site has not yet been determined.

The eight men who trained and fought in her were laid to rest on April 17, 2004, in Magnolia Cemetery after a 4.5-mile funeral procession through the city. Experts are learning more about their murky past – several were immigrants – and produced facial reconstructions that are on view at the Lasch lab.

Next weekend’s observances will remember their sacrifice and of those lost on the Housatonic. Friends of the Hunley said events will mark the vessel’s “against-all-odds mission that changed naval warfare for all time.”

In addition to events at Fort Moultrie, the following is planned at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center:

-- Friday, Feb. 14, is military appreciation day, with tours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Active and retired personnel will pay $6, half the usual admission cost. An honor guard and living historians will be present.

William Waud drawing of attack (Library of Congress)

-- Saturday, Feb. 15, tours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The first 150 guests will receive free replicas of Dixon’s life-saving gold coin, which was found during excavation of the boat’s interior. An honor guard and living historians will be present.

-- Saturday, Feb. 15, evening reception and presentation “The Men Behind the Machine,” 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. $50 for cocktail hour, light snacks and viewing of the submarine hosted by experts conducing the preservation work. A forensic genealogist will discuss what is known about the crew.

-- Sunday, Feb. 16, tours from noon to 5 p.m. The first 150 guests will receive free replicas of Dixon’s life-saving gold coin, which was found during excavation of the boat’s interior. An honor guard and living historians will be present.

-- Monday, Feb. 17, tours from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $1.50. Living history presentation.

On Feb. 17, the Confederate Heritage Trust will sponsor a 7 p.m. memorial service for those lost on the Hunley and Housatonic at Sunrise Presbyterian Church at Breach Inlet. “After the church service, you will be asked to join the ladies dressed in black gently toss flowers from the ocean shore into the water of the men they represent.”

Some 150 years later, the Hunley is still remembered for the bravery of three crews that gave all.

Fittingly-named Lt. J.H. Tomb of the Confederate Navy called the vessel a “veritable coffin.”

Rich Wills, former assistant underwater archaeologist for the Naval Historical Center, wrote that Confederate subs acted as powerful psychological warfare tool.

“It was the H.L. Hunley's attack on the Housatonic that defined to the U.S. Navy the danger of the submersible torpedo craft in Southern waters, and demonstrated to the world the vast potential of the submersible vessel in future naval strategy.”


  1. Several points must be clarified. First, the Housatonic did not attempt to "deploy a protective chain." Federal vessels closer to Fort Sumter used protective chains; the ships outside of the bar, such as the Housatonic, were believed far enough away from possible submarine attack that chains were not necessary. "Slipping the chain" refers to quickly unfastening the anchor chain, so that the Housatonic could try to back away from the approaching Hunley.

    The second inaccuracy is the treatment of the Hunley's purported signal to Battery Marshall. Official confederate correspondence from the commanding officer at Battery Marshall stated that the "signals agreed upon" between the sub and the shore were observed and answered. There is no reason to believe that this report "is a myth." Colonel Dantzler, CSA, simply reported what was seen. This is an historical fact, not a myth. The only myth is that of a blue lantern, which is unfortunately prominently displayed in the photo of the crew's facial reconstructions. The "blue signal light" mentioned here is misleading: the historical accounts were of "blue lights," not "blue signal lights." In 1864, "blue light" was defined as a hand-held, pyrotechnic flare, widely used in both the military and civilian worlds for signaling and general illumination. It was white, not blue; it retained the old name of a technology which had been in use since Napoleonic times. Both Federal and Confederate forces used a recipe for the pyrotechnic which burned with an intense white flame. This was the source of the "blue light" which was observed by crewman Flemming from the sunken Housatonic, in the area where he believed the Hunley to be after the attack. A postwar author stated that the "signals agreed upon" cited by Colonel Dantzler were "two blue lights."

    Modern authors invented the myth of the blue lantern when they failed to appreciate the 1864 meaning of "blue light," and imagined an oil burning lantern with a blue glass lens, instead of the actual pyrotechnic signal. Modern depictions of the blue lantern perpetuate this myth, and seriously impeded the search for the Hunley's wreck, as well as the explanation of the events immediately after the Housatonic's sinking.

  2. Thanks for your comments and attention to detail. I will review those sections and make adjustments as necessary.