by Rich Wills, former Assistant Underwater Archaeologist, Naval Historical Center
(Material contained herein is made available for the purpose of peer review and discussion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.)
In the past century of naval warfare, the submarine has emerged as one of the world's premiere weapons of military combat and deterrence. However, it wasn't until the end of the nineteenth century that the U.S. Navy truly began to recognize the submersible vessel for its potential as an undersea weapon and provided it with an operational role within its strategic organization. This enhancement of status was made possible by a series of decisive events in which American technological and tactical experimentation figured prominently. Significantly, Americans were involved in the first use of a submersible vessel in combat against an enemy warship (David Bushnell's Turtle), the development of the first practical navigable submersible vessel (Robert Fulton's Nautilus), and the first successful use of a submersible to destroy an enemy naval vessel under combat conditions (James McClintock's H. L. Hunley).
At the outset of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy and the Southern Confederacy embarked on parallel paths of submersible craft development which, while they may have differed in the manner in which they were executed, in retrospect essentially comprised a race of sorts to produce a successful offensive submersible weapon. While vessels like Pioneer, American Diver, H. L. Hunley, and others were being built by enterprising individuals within the struggling Southern Confederacy, similar efforts were being undertaken within the Union in the form of Brutus de Villeroi's Alligator, and later the Intelligent Whaleof Scovel S. Meriam and Oliver Halstead (indeed, one of the original missions outlined for Alligator was for it to be transported to Hampton Roads in order to face the ironclad CSS Virginia, and if not for logistical problems, the history of the Hampton Roads engagement may have borne itself out in a quite different manner). But while the Federal efforts did not prove themselves to be as successful as those of the Confederates, they did capture a substantial degree of official naval interest in terms of funding, research, and development. By the late nineteenth century the submersible vessel, once mated with the self-propelling torpedo, finally achieved recognition as a viable (though still often misunderstood) component of naval warfare. The record of American Civil War submersibles on both sides inspired the next generation of American submarine visionaries, namely John Phillip Holland and Simon Lake, and set the stage for the future emergence of an American naval-industrial complex capable of designing and delivering operational submarines to the U.S. Navy and foreign navies, including those of Britain, Russia, and Japan.
Prelude: Antebellum American Submersible Vessel Development
The Circumstances Which Produced the H. L. Hunley and its Predecessors
McClintock, Watson, Their Coalition of Supporters, and their Boats
The First Attempt: Pioneer
The Second Attempt: American Diver
The Third Attempt: H. L. Hunley
Prelude: Antebellum American Submersible Vessel Development
The concept of a vessel capable of submerged navigation was not a new idea in America at the time the Civil War began. Americans had previously attempted to use submersible vessels to help fulfill military aims with varying degrees of unsuccessful performance in both the War for Independence (Abbot 1966; Morgan 1972, 1499-1511; Roland 1978, 62-88) and the War of 1812 (Field 1908, 73-76; DeKay 1990, 131; Dudley 1992, 211-212). Nevertheless, between the wars it was Robert Fulton's Nautilus which successfully demonstrated that a stable platform capable of controlled underwater navigation could be constructed and employed to meet limited military objectives (Parsons 1922, Hutcheon 1981). However, before the concept of employing a manned submersible vessel in combat could fulfill its potential, three parallel concepts needed to reach maturity: the design and construction of a submersible platform, the design and construction of the weapon to be employed by the platform, and the tactical system of weapon delivery. The definition of the submersible's role relative to the larger military and naval strategy within which it was to be operated remained largely unchanged. That is, such weapons were generally considered as compatible with either riverine and coastal defense, or with attempts to sink enemy blockading naval vessels, as had been the objective of such vessels in both the War for Independence and the War of 1812, and would be again in the Civil War.
Between 1814 and 1861, work to improve upon Fulton's fundamentally sound design continued through the efforts of the American shoemaker Lodner Phillips (Field 1908, 80-82; Gruse Harris 1982), the French engineer Brutus de Villeroi (Luraghi 1996, 251), and others. The concepts of air supply storage and replenishment, ballast arrangement and regulation, configuration of movable surfaces for steering and depth control, and instrumentation for navigation and depth determination had all seen varying levels of advancement in these intervening years. Perhaps the greatest problem was the recurring inability to devise a self-powered propulsion system capable of operation while running submerged. Bushnell had designed into his vessel the new innovation of hand powered "oar[s]...based upon the principle of the screw" (Morgan 1972, 1503). Significantly, this appears to have been the earliest use of screw propulsion in watercraft (Abbot 1966, 44). Better means of propulsion than hand power were subsequently sought, and although several dual propulsion systems were experimented with (including Fulton's auxiliary sail concept, and McClintock's electromagnetic drive unit), hand power remained the primary means of propulsion for the American vessels built before and during the war. During this time work also progressed considerably in regard to weapons systems. Far-reaching advancements on developing galvanically controlled underwater explosive weapons were made by Samuel Colt in the 1840s, building upon the work of Bushnell, Fulton, Elijah Mix, Moses Shaw, Robert Hare, and their European contemporaries. Among other things, Colt made progress in the development of contact detonators, remote electrical fire control systems, and multicell voltage storage batteries (Lundeberg 1974).
In terms of tactical delivery of the explosive weapon, three general methods were recognized as viable delivery systems: the use of a time-delay explosive charge (basically a limpet mine) carried on the outside of the boat and manually attached to the hull of the enemy vessel, such as was employed by Bushnell's Turtle; the towing of a contact torpedo in the wake of the torpedo craft in which the idea was to detonate the charge by diving beneath the target in such a way that the charge would collide with the target; and variations upon the bow-mounted spar torpedo concept originated by Fulton. McClintock's series of boats would utilize all three of these methods at various stages of their progression.
The Circumstances Which Produced the H. L. Hunley and its Predecessors
The American Civil War was the first major armed conflict to significantly reap the benefits of the industrial revolution on a large scale. It saw the practical utilization of screw- propelled warships powered by steam, ironclad warships, torpedo craft, underwater and subterranean mines, rifled ordnance, rapid troop movements by rail lines, telegraphic lines of communication, and reconnaissance aviation. Additionally, this war has been succinctly described by one historian as "the only occasion in the course of history when at the beginning of a conflict between two nations facing the ocean, one of the two had incontestable and total dominion over the waters" (Luraghi 1996, 61). To counter the overwhelming naval presence arrayed before him, the strategy ultimately formulated by C.S. Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory was a four-fold one based upon "technical surprise" which utilized armored vessels, rifled naval guns, steam-driven commerce destroyers, and submarine torpedoes, or what we today would call mines (Luraghi 1996, 68). The development of specialized vessels to act as offensive torpedo delivery platforms can be categorized as a variation upon the employment of submarine torpedoes. Three general classes of such craft emerged, comprised of traditional surface craft modified to some extent, steam-powered semi-submersible boats (or "david boats"), and hand-powered boats capable of complete submergence such as H. L. Hunley.
Submersible efforts on both sides began as early as 1861. Whereas the U.S. Navy's submersible development efforts were laboriously slow and generally less successful than those of their Southern counterparts, within the Confederate States there rapidly emerged a somewhat more widespread and independant interest in submersible construction which localized in a number of coastal and riverine cities. One reason for this more rapid progression might have been that while Federal development efforts were burdened with conventional naval bureaucratic processes of contracting and evaluation, the Confederate efforts were able to benefit from a quick application of private initiative, which was in turn met with swift support from a government unburdened with the traditional bureaucracy of the type extant in the North. This is not to say that the Confederate Navy Department was without involvement in such efforts; it initiated its own program as well, centered at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. However, the C.S. Navy's program was not as successful as those projects which were initiated with private funding.
The private Confederate initiatives were primarily spurred by motives of both nationalism and profit. A fading but still remembered tradition of government-sanctioned privateering was revitalized through congressional legislation providing for the issuance of letters of marque by the Confederate government. This feeling was further encouraged by the actions of Southern corporations such as John Fraser & Company, which placed individual and blanket bounties on the warships of the U.S. Navy blockading squadrons that were gradually gaining an ever-tightening stranglehold on Confederate maritime commerce. One of the approximately 50 Confederate privateers ultimately authorized by the government was James McClintock and Baxter Watson's New Orleans-built Pioneer, which, while unable to fulfill its intended mission, in hindsight can be seen to have essentially comprised an experimental prototype for the H. L. Hunley. The Pioneer also owned the distinction of being the only submersible provided with a letter of marque and reprisal by the Confederate States. Some Southern submersible efforts ultimately found cooperative partner in the Confederate military. At least four Confederate boats, American Diver, H. L. Hunley, St. Patrick, and the unnamed vessel or vessels constructed at the Tredegar Iron Works, were either built at government facilities or with the assistance of military personnel. However, this cooperation may have later caused unforeseen ramifications for the initial sponsors when some of the boats, namely McClintock's Hunley and John P. Halligan's St. Patrick, were subjected to complete military seizure as a result of the military's disenchantment and impatience with their civilian operators. The vessel (or vessels) built at Tredegar appear to have been the only boats constructed under a full-fledged Confederate Navy Department building program, and they evidently did not prove successful.
It is important to view the work of McClintock and Watson's coalition within the larger context of such projects undertaken within the Southern Confederacy. Based upon our present understanding of historical records, submersible construction efforts in that nation were basically centered in four areas: at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia (Harper's Illustrated Weekly, 2 November 1861; Pinkerton 1888, 395-403; Dew 1966, 123; Coski 1996, 116-121), at the Leeds Foundry in New Orleans, Louisiana (Robinson 1928, 166-167), at the Park & Lyons Machine Shops in Mobile, Alabama (Perry 1965, 96; Ragan 1995), and at the Confederate naval facilities at Selma, Alabama (Schell 1992, 178-181). The most successful of these initiatives would ultimately prove to be the effort begun in New Orleans by McClintock, Watson, and their core coalition of financial backers. Upon the fall of New Orleans and the loss of their first boat, some of the members of this group relocated to Mobile where they built and lost a second boat, and ultimately gained a tactical success off Charleston at the expense of their third boat and some or all of at least three crews.
One of the most valuable sources of information on McClintock's submersible boatbuilding activities has turned out to be several documents and sketches recently uncovered at the Public Record Office (PRO) in London (the author was apprised of their existence by archaeologists Peter Hitchcock and Brett Phaneuf during their 1996 research activities on the Intelligent Whale). According to these records, in late October of 1872 McClintock journeyed from Mobile to Halifax, Nova Scotia to attend a discreet meeting with Royal Navy officers aboard the HMS Royal Alfred. The purpose of the trip was to discuss his work in submarine warfare and express his wish to build a submersible torpedo vessel for the Royal Navy. Captain F. Nicholson, RN and Chief Engineer J.H. Ellis, RN of the Royal Alfred were instructed to meet with him, gather information, and report their findings and recommendations to the Admiralty in writing. The meeting was secret, probably at least partly for McClintock's sake, as divulging such sensitive technical information to a foreign power could have been construed as treasonous (especially if he had been required to swear an oath of allegiance following Appomattox). In their subsequent report, Nicholson and Ellis recorded that they were:
...thoroughly impressed with the intelligence of Mr. McClintock, and with his knowledge of all points chemical and mechanical connected with torpedoes and submarine vessels...He is, I believe, entirely self-taught, and was much employed by the Confederates on torpedo work, on which he has much practical information which he seems ready to communicate. He hates his countrymen, Americans, and hopes to some day be a British subject ("Report on a submarine boat invented by Mr. McClintock of Mobile, U.S. of America," PRO, Adm. Series 1/6236, File 39455).
Accompanying the report and enclosures are three detailed sketches showing different views of a boat of McClintock's design (Figures 1 and 2). An obvious question to be asked is, what is the identity of the particular vessel depicted in this representation? It appears to have the Hunley's overall dimensions, but possess elements of the American Diver's internal arrangements. Essentially, it comprises the vessel McClintock desired to build, incorporating what he considered as the best elements of all his boats. Basically, McClintock admitted that his boats suffered from three basic problems: the lack of a self-propelling motive power, inaccurate compass readings, and an inability to measure the horizontal movement while running submerged. Nicholson and Ellis qualified the drawing as follows:
The drawing we enclose is a representation of the boat that effected this destruction [of USS Housatonic], it is not drawn to scale, nor did the original boat contain any engine, the only motive power then available being manual labor...It will be seen by the enclosures that the attempt to attain a proper motive power resulted in failure, only about two knots being accomplished. Mr. McClintock now proposes to use an engine [illegible, possibly "driven"] by ammoniacal gas, which he explained to us, and which he has seen in successful operation as a propelling power for street cars in New Orleans; as a very fair description of this invention is given in "The Engineer" of "Aug 70" and "January 72"...One difficulty which Mr. McClintock very frankly pointed out was the uncertain action of the compass in such a vessel...He also pointed out another requirement which he had not succeeded in applying - rather from want of means than from want of skill, or from any great difficulty in the requirement [illegible]. He states that when under weigh beneath the surface, it is quite impossible to ascertain whether the vessel is progressing as there are no passing objects by which to recognize the fact of motion; on several occasions when experimenting with his boat they continued working the crank while all the time the boat was hard and fast in the mud ("Report on a submarine boat invented by Mr. McClintock of Mobile, U.S. of America," PRO, Adm. Series 1/6236, File 39455).
Years after the war, Alexander made a sketch of the third vessel's construction (Figure 5) and described the boat as follows:
We decided to build another boat, and for this purpose took a cylinder boiler which we had on hand, 48 inches in diameter and twenty-five feet long (all dimensions are from memory). We cut this boiler in two, longitudinally, and inserted two 12-inch boiler-iron strips in her sides, lengthened her by one tapering course fore and aft, to which were attached bow and stern castings, making the boat about 30 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep. A longitudinal strip 12 inches wide was riveted the full length of the top. At each end a bulkhead was riveted across to form water-ballast tanks (unfortunately these were left open on top); they were used in raising and sinking the boat. In addition to these water tanks the boat was ballasted by flat castings, made to fit the outside bottom of the shell and fastened thereto by "Tee" headed bolts passing through stuffing boxes inside the boat, the inside of the bolt squared to fit a wrench, that the bolts might be turned and the ballast dropped, should the necessity arise.
In connection with each of the water tanks there was a sea-cock open to the sea to supply the tank for sinking; also a force pump to eject water from the tanks into the sea for raising the boat to the surface. There was also a bilge connection to the pump. A mercury gauge, open to the sea, was attached to the shell near the forward tank, to indicate the depth of the boat below the surface. A one and a quarter shaft passed through stuffing boxes on each side of the boat, just forward of the end of the propeller shaft. On each side of this shaft, outside of the boat, castings, or lateral fins, five feet long and eight inched wide, were secured. This shaft was operated by a lever amidships, and by raising or lowering the needs of these fins, operated as the fins of a fish, changing the depth of the boat below the surface at will, without disturbing the water level in the ballast tanks.
The rudder was operated by a wheel, and levers connected to rods passing through stuffing-boxes in the stern castings, and operated by the captain or pilot forward. An adjusted compass was placed in front of the forward tank. The boat was operated by manual power, with an ordinary propeller. On the propelling shaft there were formed eight cranks at different angles; the shaft was supported by brackets on the starboard side, the men sitting on the port side turning the cranks. The propeller shaft and cranks took up so much room that it was very difficult to pass fore and aft, and when the men were in their places this was next to impossible. In operation, one- half the crew had to pass through the fore hatch; the other through the after hatchway. The propeller revolved in a wrought iron ring or band, to guard against a line being thrown in to foul it. There were two hatchways - one fore and one aft -- 16 inches by 12, with a combing 8 inches high. These hatches had hinged covers with rubber gasket, and were bolted from the inside. In the sides and ends of these combings glasses were inserted to sight from. There was an opening made in the top of the boat for an air box, a casting with a close top 12 by 18 by 4 inches, made to carry a hollow shaft. This shaft passed through stuffing boxes. On each end was an elbow with a 4 foot length of 1 1-2 inch pipe, and keyed to the hollow shaft; on the inside was a lever with a stop-cock to admit air (Alexander 1902).
It was decided that the boat should be shipped by flatcar to Charleston, South Carolina for anti-blockade duty under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard, CSA. Whereas Mobile's defenses were well fortified, Charleston was suffering under a siege of more serious proportions. Charleston's coastal waters may also have presented a more desirable operating environment, especially in terms of providing greater depth. Furthermore, General Beauregard in Charleston looked favorably upon unconventional weapons, while General Dabney H. Maury and Admiral Franklin Buchanan in Mobile may not have been so willing to embrace such unproven forms of naval warfare. Finally, the move was undoubtedly encouraged by the high bounties being placed upon the naval vessels of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The result was that the submersible was shipped to Charleston by flatcar in August 1863.
In a letter "inflicted" upon his fiancé, Lieutenant George Gift, CSN of the CSS Gaines described how he had "been employed during the past day or two in hoisting out of the water and sending away toward Charleston a very curious machine for destroying vessels" which he describes as follows:
In the first place imagine a high pressure steam boiler, not quite round, say 4 feet in diameter in one way and 3-½ feet the other -- draw each end of the boiler down to a sharp wedge shaped point. The 4 feet is the depth of the hold and the 3-½ feet the breadth of beam. On the bottom of the boat is riveted an iron keel weighing 4000 lbs which throws the center of gravity on one side and makes her swim steadily that side down. On top and opposite the keel is placed two man hole plates or hatches with heavy glass tops. These plates are water tight when covered over. They are just large enough for a man to go in and out. At one end is fitted a very neat little propeller 3-½ feet in diameter worked by men sitting in the boat and turning the shaft by hand cranks being fitted on it for that purpose. She also has a rudder and steering apparatus.
Embarked and under ordinary circumstances with men ballast &tc she floats about half way out of the water & resembles a whale. But when it is necessary to go under the water there are apartments into which the water is allowed to flow, which causes the boat to sink to any required depth, the same being accurately indicated by a column of mercury. Air is supplied by means of pipes that turn up until they get below a depth of 10 feet, when they must depend upon the supply carried down which is sufficient for 3 hours! During which time she could have been propelled 15 miles!
Behind the boat at a distance of 100 to 150 feet is towed a plank and under that plank is attached a torpedo with say 100 lb of powder. The steersman has a string by which he can explode the torpedo by giving it a jerk. I saw them explode a vessel as an experiment. They approached within about fifty yards of her keeping the man holes just above water. At that distance she the submarine sank down and in a few minutes made her appearance on the other side of the vessel. He pulled the string and smashed her side to atoms...(Turner 1995, 5-8).
Alexander later indicated that this towed torpedo arrangement proved unworkable, recording that:
The torpedo was a copper cylinder holding a charge of ninety pounds of explosive, with percussion and friction primer mechanism, set off by flaring triggers. It was originally intended to float the torpedo on the surface of the water, the boat to dive under the vessel to be attacked, towing the torpedo with a line 200 feet long after her, one of the triggers to touch the vessel and explode the torpedo, and in the experiments made in the smooth water of Mobile River on some old flatboats these plans operated successfully, but in rough water the torpedo was continually coming too near the wrong boat. We then rigged a yellow pine boom, 22 feet long and tapering; this was attached to the bow, banded and guyed in each side. A socket on the torpedo secured it to the boom (Alexander 1902).
As can be seen from some of the previous accounts, the dimensions of Hunley vary somewhat depending on which historical source is consulted. When put into a table form alongside the dimensions recorded for McClintock's other boats, and compared to reliable documented measurements, it may be possible to draw some conclusions regarding the relative accuracy of these dimensions (Figure 6). McClintock's descriptions of circa 1871 and 1872 descriptions emerge as being consistently near the mark, if not perhaps slightly conservative as in the case of Pioneer. Gift is not far off, while Alexander (who in all fairness cautioned 40 years after the fact that "all dimensions are from memory") seems to be somewhat further off the mark.
|Figure 6. A table comparing the dimensions of the three McClintock-built Confederate submersible boats, using historical and archaeological sources.
"34 feet" (Letter of Marque, 1862)
"35 feet" (USN drawing, 1862)
"30 feet" (McClintock to Maury, ca. 1871
"30 feet" (McClintock's Royal Navy Narrative, 1872)
"30 feet" (Baird, 1902)
"4 feet"(Letter of Marque, 1862)
"4 feet diameter" (USN drawing, 1862)
"4 feet" (McClintock to Maury, ca. 1871
"4 feet"(Letter of Marque, 1862)
"4 feet diameter" (USN drawing, 1862)
"36 feet" (McClintock to Maury, ca. 1871)
"36 feet" (McClintock's Royal Navy Narrative, 1872)
"about 25 feet" (Alexander, 1902)
"3 feet" (McClintock to Maury, ca. 1871)
"3 feet across top and bottom" (McClintock's Royal Navy Narrative, 1872)
"[about] 5 feet" (Alexander, 1902)
"4 feet" (McClintock to Maury, ca. 1871)
"4 feet high" (McClintock's Royal Navy Narrative, 1872)
"[about] 6 feet" (Alexander, 1902)
|H. L. Hunley
"40 feet" (McClintock to Maury, ca. 1871)
"40 feet long, top and bottom" (McClintock's Royal Navy Narrative, 1872)
"about 30 feet" (Alexander, 1902)
approx. 39 feet 5 inches (1996 survey)
"3 1/2 feet...breadth of the beam" (Gift, 1863)
"31/2 feet" (McClintock to Maury, ca. 1871)
"42 inches wide in the middle" (McClintock's Royal Navy Narrative, 1872)
"about 4 feet" (Alexander, 1902)
approx. 3 feet 10 inches (1996 survey)
"4 feet depth of hold" (Gift, 1863)
"4 feet" (McClintock to Maury, ca. 1871)
"48 inches high" (McClintock's Royal Navy Narrative, 1872)
"about 5 feet" (Alexander, 1902)
between 4 and 5 feet (1996 survey)
Sometime during its operations in Charleston, the boat became the object of an artistic study by the famed artist Conrad Wise Chapman. Chapman has left us two informative depictions of the boat: his pencil study and his finished oil portrait (Figure 7).
Following its arrival in South Carolina, the boat experienced a number of operational difficulties. The Army became increasingly unhappy with McClintock's management of the boat, and as a result seized it, replacing the civilian crew with C.S. Navy personnel. It was following this transition that the boat was twice accidently lost in Charleston Harbor with fatalities, being both times subsequently salvaged. The first incident killed five members of the crew of nine, most of whom were volunteers from the CSS Chicora and CSS Palmetto State. Lieutenant C.L. Stanton, CSN provides the background of this misfortune:
One day when Lieutenant Payne, my friend and shipmate, was aboard the Chicora I arranged to go down under the water with him; but as the boat was obliged to leave before my watch on deck was over, Lieutenant Charles H. Hooker [sic, he means Hasker] took my place. She dived about the harbor successfully for an hour or two and finally went over to Fort Johnson, where the little steamer Etiwan was lying alongside the wharf. She fastened to her side with a light line with the fins in position for diving... (Stanton 1914).
Lieutenant Charles H. Hasker, CSN (a former U.S. Navy hand who had been the boatswain on the CSS Virginia during the Battle of Hampton Roads) was sitting immediately behind Payne in the lead cranksman's position at the time of the accident, and related the following experience:
We were lying astern of the steamer Etowah [one of several names by which the CSS Etiwan was known], near Fort Johnson, in Charleston Harbor. Lieutenant Payne, who had charge, got fouled in the manhole by the hawser and in trying to clear himself got his foot on the lever which controlled the fins. He had just previously given the order to go ahead. The boat made a dive with the manholes open and filled rapidly. Payne got out of the forward hole and two others out of the aft hole. Six of us went down with the boat. I had to get over the bar which connected the fins and through the column of water which was rapidly filling the boat. The manhole plate came down on my back; but I worked my way out until my left leg was caught by the plate, pressing the calf of my leg in two. Held in this manner, I was carried to the bottom in forty-two feet of water. When the boat touched bottom I felt the pressure relax. Stooping down, I took hold of the manhole plate, drew out my wounded limb, and swam to the surface. Five men were drowned on this occasion (Fort 1914).
Payne and Hasker escaped the forward hatch, while the team's explosives expert, Charles L. Sprague, and another unidentified crewmember managed to fight their way out through the aft coaming. Carried to the bottom and drowned were sailors Frederick (Frank) Doyle, John Kelly, Nicholas (Nick) Davis, and Michael Kane (or Cane) of the Chicora, and Absolum Williams of the Palmetto State (Ragan 1995, 54). Following this tragedy, the military sent a request to Mobile asking for people more familiar with the boat to come to Charleston to take over its operation upon its recovery. Horace Hunley, Thomas Park's son Thomas W. Park (often misidentified as his father), and approximately six or so other volunteers, probably mechanics from the Park & Lyons shop, answered the call, journeyed to Charleston, and spent some time putting the boat through "diving and raising" tests, possibly for the purpose of testing a new adjusted compass (Ragan 1995, 66). When it finally appeared to observers that all the vessel required was experienced hands, the boat suffered another terrible disaster. While running submerged, Hunley, acting as vessel commander, made a simple error in regulating the water contained within the forward ballast tank, and the boat buried its bow in the harbor mud, stuck fast, and partially flooded, killing the entire crew of eight. In addition to Hunley, Park, and the stout-hearted Sprague, this crew contained Mobilians Robert Brockbank, Charles McHugh, John Marshall, Henry Beard, and Joseph Patterson (who may be the individual identified as "White" in Alexander's narrative). Even after the passage of nearly fifteen years, General Beauregard's recollection of the events surrounding the recovery of the boat and crew three weeks after the sinking was still vivid when he set it to paper:
Lieutenant Dixon made repeated descents in the harbor of Charleston, diving under the naval receiving ship which lay at anchor there. But one day when he was absent from the city Mr. Hunley, unfortunately, wishing to handle the boat himself, made the attempt. It was readily submerged, but did not rise again to the surface, and all on board perished from asphyxiation. When the boat was discovered, raised and opened, the spectacle was indescribable and ghastly; the unfortunate men were contorted into all kinds of horrible attitudes; some clutching candles, evidently endeavoring to force open the man-holes; others lying on the bottom tightly grappled together, and the blackened faces of all presented the expression of their despair and agony. After this tragedy I refused to permit the boat to be used again; but Lieutenant Dixon, a brave and determined man, having returned to Charleston, applied to me for authority to use it against the Federal steam sloop-of-war Housatonic, a powerful new vessel, carrying eleven guns of the largest calibre, which lay at the time in the north channel opposite Beach Inlet, materially obstructing the passage of our blockade-runners in and out (Beauregard 1878, 153-154).
The divers hired to locate and rig the boat for salvage found it buried bow-first in the mud. Alexander's insightful attempt to reconstruct the accident provides some detail of the crew's standard operating procedures:
The position in which the boat was found on the bottom of the river, the condition of the apparatus discovered after it was raised and pumped out, and the position of the bodies in the boat, furnished a full explanation for her loss. The boat, when found, was lying on the bottom at an angle of about 35 degrees, the bow deep in the mud. The bolting-down bolts of each hatch cover had been removed. When the hatch covers were lifted considerable air and gas escaped. Captain Hunley's body was forward, with his head in the forward hatchway, his right hand on top of his head (he had been trying, it would seem, to raise the hatch cover). In his left hand was a candle that had never been lighted, the sea-cock on the forward end, or `Hunley's' ballast tank, was wide open, the cockwrench not on the plug, but lying on the bottom of the boat. Mr. Park's body was found with his head in the after hatchway, his right hand above his head. He also had been trying to raise the hatch cover, but the pressure was to great. The sea-cock to his tank was properly closed, and the tank was nearly empty. The other bodies were floating in the water. Hunley and Parks were undoubtedly asphyxiated, the others drowned. The bolts that held the iron keel ballast had been partly turned, but not sufficient to release it.
In the light of these conditions, we can easily depict before our minds, and almost readily explain, what took place in the boat during the moments immediately following its submergence. Captain Hunley's practice with the boat had made him quite familiar and expert in handling her, and this familiarity produced at this time forgetfulness. It was found in practice to be easier on the crew to come to the surface by giving the pumps a few strokes and ejecting some of the water ballast, than by the momentum of the boat operating on the elevate fins. At this time the boat was under way, lighted through the deadlights in the hatchways. He partly turned the fins to go down, but thought, no doubt, that he needed more ballast and opened his sea-cock. Immediately the boat was in total darkness. He then undertook to light the candle. While trying to do this the tank quietly flooded, and under great pressure the boat sank very fast and soon overflowed, and the first intimation they would have of anything being wrong was the water rising fast, but noiselessly, about their feet in the bottom of the boat. They tried to release the iron keel ballast, but did not turn the keys quite far enough, and therefore failed. The water soon forced the air to the top of the boat and into the hatchways, where captains Hunley and Parks were found. Parks had pumped his ballast tank dry, and no doubt Captain Hunley had exhausted himself on his pump, but he had forgotten he had not closed his sea cock (Alexander 1902).
McClintock's caution with the boat may have been excessive, but in hindsight it seems to have been justifiable in light of the two tragedies which subsequently befell the boat. Both accidents seem to have been in some way attributable to personal errors on the part of the vessel commanders; in Payne's case the result was that five of the crew drowned, whereas Hunley's actions may have resulted in not only his own death but also his entire crew. In addition to these operational casualties, one of the boat's investors, Gus Whitney, also died during this period, possibly from exposure related to the operations of the boat (Duncan 1965, 66).
Upon the salvage of the boat, Dixon and Alexander saw their fellow submariners buried in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery. The surviving members of the group memorialized Hunley's efforts by naming the boat H. L. Hunley after him. Saddened but undaunted, Dixon and Alexander enlisted another volunteer crew, which ultimately came to include naval personnel James A. Wicks, Arnold Becker, C. Simkins, F. Collins, (first name unknown) Ridgeway, and (first name unknown) Miller, as well as Corporal C. F. Carlson, CSA, of Company A, South Carolina Light Artillery (Ragan 1995, 90, 126). The group moved their operations to Battery Marshall, on Sullivan's Island, where between November 1863 and February 1864 they frequently fought foul weather to cast off on night cruises on the seas off Charleston. On 5 February, fate touched Alexander in the form of orders received to report to another project, and he reluctantly bid Dixon and the crew a farewell. He never saw his friends again.
On 17 February, Corporal Donald W. McClaurin of Battery Marshall was summoned to the boat in order to make adjustments to the on-board machinery, during which time he made note of the Hunley's third and final torpedo configuration:
As I recall, the torpedo was fastened to the end of an iron pipe, about two inches in diameter and twenty to twenty-five feet in length, which could be extended in front and withdrawn at ease by guides in the center of the boat to hold it in place.
Lieutenant Dixon landed and requested that two of my regiment, the 23rd South Carolina Volunteers, go aboard and help them to adjust the machinery, as it was not working satisfactorily. Another man and I went aboard and helped propel the boat for some time while the Lieutenant and others adjusted the machinery and the rods that held the torpedo and got them to working satisfactorily (Ragan 1995, 130).
The manner in which the spar was rigged has been the matter of some debate. Lieutenant Stanton recorded his views on this subject as follows:
Lieutenant Payne, although a willing volunteer for this dangerous service, never at any time had faith in the success of the enterprise. I heard him say time and again that if he struck a vessel with the torpedo staff projecting horizontally he feared the boat would enter the hole made by the explosion in the ship's side, and the machinery would not be powerful enough to back the boat out before it was carried down by the wreck. His idea was that if the torpedo staff was lowered to an angle of forty-five degrees when the ship was struck the torpedo would explode near the keel, and the Fishboat's bow, striking the solid planking of the ship, would recoil sufficiently to make the machinery effective in backing out of danger of being drawn down by the wreck. I have always felt very certain that the torpedo staff was in this position when the Housatonic was struck...Besides, when the boat lay alongside the Chicora on the night of 14th of February, I examined it closely...(Stanton 1914).
On that same day as Corporal McClaurin was helping to fine-tune the boat's machinery, a recognition signal using a blue lamp was arranged between Dixon and the men of Battery Marshall for the purpose of guiding the boat back to port after dark:
The day of the night the perilous undertaking was accomplished, the little war vessel was taken to Breach Inlet. The officer in command [Dixon] told Lieutenant-Colonel Dantzler [in command of Battery Marshall] when they bid each other good-by, that if he came off safe he would show two blue lights (Cardozo 1866, 124, cited in Ragan 1995, 132).
On the evening of 17 February 1864, with Dixon at the helm, Hunley set out on patrol. Approximately two and a half miles off Charleston Bar, the Hunley observed and shaped a course for the screw sloop-of-war USS Housatonic, which lay at anchor on blockade duty. The Housatonic's lookout spotted the Hunley and voiced a warning, but the ship's attempt to get underway was not timely enough to prevent contact and detonation. The Housatonic sank in approximately three minutes. The subsequently convened board of inquiry into the Housatonic's loss provides a good amount of detail regarding the Hunley's audacious attack. Acting Master John Crosby, who was the Officer of the Deck on that moonlit eight to twelve watch, related the following:
I took the deck at 8 P.M. on the night of February 17th. About 8:45 P.M. I saw something in the water, which at first looked to me like a porpoise, coming to the surface to blow. It was about 75 to 100 yards from us on our starboard beam. The ship heading northwest by west ½ west at the time, the wind two or three points on the starboard bow. At that moment I called the Quartermaster's attention to it asking him if he saw anything; he looked at it through his glass, and said he saw nothing but a tide ripple in the water. Looking again within an instant I saw it was coming toward the ship very fast. I gave orders to beat to quarters slip the chain and back the engine, the orders being executed immediately (Ragan 1995, 136).
Lieutenant F.J. Higginson, the ship's executive officer, recorded that upon hearing the alarm for general quarters:
I went on deck immediately, found the Officer of the Deck on the bridge, and asked him the cause of the alarm; he pointed about the starboard beam on the water and said "there it is." I then saw something resembling a plank moving towards the ship at a rate of 3 or 4 knots; it came close alongside, a little forward of the mizzen mast on the starboard side. It then stopped, and appeared to move off slowly. I then went down from the bridge and took the rifle from the lookout on the horse block on the starboard quarter, and fired at this object. It had the appearance of a plank sharp at both ends; it was entirely on awash with the water, and there was a glimmer of light through the top of it, as though through a dead light (Ragan 1995, 136- 138).
The Housatonic's commanding officer, Captain Charles W. Pickering, stated that:
On reaching the deck I gave the order to slip, and heard for the first time it was a torpedo, I think from the Officer of the Deck. I repeated the order to slip, and gave the order to go astern, and to open fire. I turned instantly, took my double barreled gun loaded with buck shot, from Mr. Muzzey, my aide and clerk, and jumped up on the horse block on the starboard quarter which the first Lieutenant had just left having fired a musket at the torpedo.
I hastily examined the torpedo; it was shaped like a large whale boat, about two feet, more or less, under water; its position was at right angles to the ship, bow on, and the bow within two or three feet of the ship's side, about abreast of the mizzenmanst, and I supposed it was then fixing the torpedo on. I saw two projections or knobs about one third of the way from the bows. I fired at these, jumped down from the horse block, and ran to the port side of the Quarter Deck as far as the mizzen mast, singing out "Go astern Faster" (Ragan 1995, 136).
The ship's Assistant Engineer, Mr. Mayer, related his experiences as follows:
The engine was immediately backed, and had made three or four revolutions when I heard the explosion, accompanied by a sound of rushing water and crashing timbers and metal. Immediately the engine went with great velocity as if the propeller had broken off. I then throttled her down, but with little effect. I then jumped up the hatch, saw the ship was sinking and gave the order for all hands to go on deck (Ragan 1995, 138).
Ensign Charles Craven also managed to lay down fire at the attacking vessel, recording that:
I heard the Officer of the Deck give the order "Call all hands to Quarters." I went on deck and saw something in the water on the starboard side of the ship, about thirty feet off, and the Captain and the Executive Officer were firing at it. I fired two shots at her with my revolver as she was standing toward the ship as soon as I saw her, and a third shot when she was almost under the counter, having to lean over the port to fire it (Ragan 1995, 138).
The Housatonic took five of its crew to the bottom, including Ensign E.C. Hazeltine, Quartermaster John Williams, Fireman Second Class John Walsh, Landsman Theodore Parker, and Pickering's erstwhile yeoman Charles O. Muzzey (Ragan 1995, 142). But a final toll was exacted in exchange for the submersible's tactical victory. The Hunley and its crew never returned to Sullivan's Island, even though the prearranged lamp signals were believed to have been received from Dixon's crew and interpreted as a request for a light to guide them safely back into port (ORN I, 15, 335). The vanishing of the Hunley with all hands subsequently became one of the sea's greatest mysteries, remaining unsolved until the wreck was definitively relocated in 1995 by archaeologists Ralph Wilbanks, Wes Hall, and Harry Pecorelli III of best-selling author Clive Cussler's National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA).
A number of theories have been put forward regarding when, where, and how the boat was lost. Alexander for a long time believed that Hunley had been caught in or beneath Housatonic as the Navy warship rapidly sank (Alexander 1902), this belief being based partially upon the incorrect observations of government divers. But upon hearing from authoritative Navy sources that these reports were not authentic, Alexander still continued to believe that the wreck must have nevertheless come to rest not far away, having like Housatonic rapidly settled five feet beneath the seabed. Alexander noted that an agreement existed between the crewmembers that if the boat should for any reason be unable to surface, "the sea cocks were to be opened and the boat flooded" in order to prevent the suffering of slow asphyxiation known to have been experienced by Hunley's crew (Alexander 1903). It has been theorized that the agreement Alexander spoke of may have represented the romanticized interpretation of a practical last-ditch escape strategy, in which an attempt would be made to equalize the pressures on the hatch surfaces in order to allow the crew to open them and ascend from the wreck (Ragan 1995, 168).
It has also been conjectured that the boat succumbed to structural damage or crew injuries sustained as a result of the contact and explosion, or from the Housatonic's defending gunfire. While the potential effects of the detonation on the submersible's hull integrity remain a question, it seems very likely that the Hunley did absorb some degree of projectile damage from small arms fire, in light of the degree of fire and the close range of the two vessels at the time the defending fire was laid down. The boat drew fire from a variety of light weapons, including Higginson's rifle, Craven's revolver, Pickering's double-barrelled shotgun (presumably fired at the conning towers, based upon his testimony), and possibly the musketry fire of several other lookouts. It seems feasible that Pickering's spread of buckshot at the "two projections" may have provided a good chance for damage to occur to some of the deadlights, and perhaps even caused crew injury.
Another theory put forward to account for the boat's disappearance is that swift seas and worsening weather prevented the exhausted crew from successfully regaining port, and ultimately caused their delicately balanced boat to founder. McClintock's opinion, recorded in 1872, is as follows:
I would here state that I do not believe that the Sub Marine Boat was lost in the operation of destroying the Housatonic, but was lost in a storm which occurred a few hours after. I am aware that the Federals has made diligent search for her, and have made three different reports of having found her, yet no descriptions that I have ever heard are correct (McClintock Narrative, PRO, Adm. Series 1/6236, file 39455).
During the late 1950s researcher Louis Genella conducted research into the climatological conditions of the night of 17 February, 1864, and concluded that on the 17th tidal conditions in the vicinity of Fort Sumter were probably as follows (all times are local): high water occurring at 3:40 PM, low water occurring at 9:45 PM; beginning of ebb current occurring at 4:30 PM, maximum ebb occurring at 7:45 PM; and the beginning of flood current occurring at 10:50 PM (Letter, Chief, Tides & Currents Division, U.S. Coast Geodetic Survey, Department of Commerce to Louis J. Genella, 13 March 1958; in the Louis J. Genella Collection, Tulane University Library). The attack took place between approximately 8:45 and 9:00 PM. The time that the blue signal light was witnessed and answered by Battery Marshall may have been sometime around 9:30 PM, which is when a blue light was observed on the water near the assisting USS Canandaigua by Seaman Robert Flemming, who had climbed up into the rigging of the settling Housatonic (Ragan 1995, 139-140, 170). It may be likely that the cause of the Hunley's loss was attributable to more than one of these factors.
In addition to the question of combat-related damage, a number of other questions also remain unanswered. Were eight or nine crewmen aboard for the final mission? Is the crew still aboard, or did they manage to escape the boat only to be lost at sea? If they are still aboard, did any suffer injuries in the explosion and gunfire? Are the hatches still bolted from the inside, or are they merely resting in a closed position? Are all of the keel ballast elements present, or was there any attempt to jettison the keel ballast? Are the seacocks still shut, or was there any attempt to purposefully open them? Exactly how was the spar torpedo assembly rigged, and does any evidence of it remain? What is the identity of the third magnetic anomaly located during the 1996 National Park Service remote-sensing survey between the wrecks of the Hunley and Housatonic? Could it be an element of the Hunley's keel ballast, or perhaps the Housatonic's slipped anchor? Based upon Assistant Engineer Mayer's testimony, the force of the detonation may have either disengaged or completely blown off the Housatonic's propeller. Could it be a portion of the Housatonic's drive train? These are only a few mysteries which await an answer.
In retrospect, the Confederate submersible operations, and specifically H. L. Hunley's successful engagement of Housatonic, had several significant effects on U.S. Navy operations. They acted as a powerful pyschological warfare tool, causing fear among the squadrons, particularly within the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron following the Hunley's action. They caused expensive and logistically intensive modifications to Federal blockading strategies through causing heightened security in the vessels on station, requiring them to be ready to get underway at all times, and forcing them to be redeployed further offshore at night, which in the case of Charleston perhaps allowed a greater possibility for blockade runners to get through to that besieged port. Finally, they may have provided the impetus for accelerated Federal attempts to gather intelligence on such craft, conduct their own research, and develop similar weapons. But while such attempts had been underway as early as 1861, 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.
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