Confederate Civil War Submarine Hunley
By James Donahue
The American Civil War was a massive struggle that occurred in the midst
of the great world-wide industrial revolution and it inspired the invention and development of some of the greatest war machines
known to man.
Much has been written about the iron-clad gunships, the Monitor and the Merrimac,
that preceded the construction of the great battleships used in the two world wars to follow. But Confederate forces also
produced the first working submarine to be used to sink an enemy vessel in war. Its name was the H. L. Hunley.
The Hunley successfully planted an explosive device on the side of the Union
Sloop-of-war Housatonic off Charleston on Feb. 17, 1864, detonated the device, and sank the ship. But the Hunley and its eight-man
crew did not return from the mission. It is believed that the explosive sent both vessels to the bottom.
The designers of the Hunley, New Orleans marine engineers James R. McClintock
and Baxter Watson, fashioned it from a cylindrical iron steam boiler. It was lengthened with tapered ends and contained neither
wind or engine power. Instead it was powered by the crew members, who turned a hand-cranked propeller. One of the men steered
and directed the boat as it moved under the water.
To keep the vessel submerged, each end was equipped with ballast tanks that
could be flooded by valves, or pumped dry by hand pumps, much like modern submarines operate even today. Extra ballast was
added by using iron weights bolted to the underside of the hull. In an emergency, these weights could be removed by unscrewing
the heads of the bolts from inside the hull.
Imagine, if you can, how it must have felt to the men who perished in that
early submarine. Eight men sat on the starboard side of the boat, turning the shaft with the help of cranks. The captain stood
at the bow and the second officer at the stern to let water into the ballast tanks. The depth was controlled by two lateral
fins connected to a transverse shaft operated by the captain. There was no periscope so the captain looked out through a glass
port in the forward escape hatch after the main hatches were closed. Hunley had two entry and escape hatches with eight-inch
coamings, both containing glass ports.
The captain steered the submarine with a wheel connected to the rudder by
rods that ran the length of the 34-foot-long boat. A mercury gage indicated the depth of the vessel during a dive. The only
light came from a single candle. The candle not only gave a small illumination, it also was there to warn when the oxygen
supply was running out.
The machine was primitive, deadly, but in the Hunley's case, effective.
The Hunley rammed Housatonic with a spar torpedo packed with explosives and
attached to a long pole on its bow. The torpedo embedded in the sloops's wooden side and was detonated by a rope as the Hunley
backed away. Unfortunately the submarine didn't get far enough away and was believed to have been sunk by its own blast.
The Hunley, which was built in 1861, sank twice during trials in 1863, killing
its crew both times. A total of 21 men died on this vessel. Such was the life of early submariners of that period. The sailors
who went on that mission in 1864 knew the odds of their coming back alive were slim.
The wreck of the Hunley was found in 1995 by a research team that included
author Clive Cussler and members of the National Underwater and Marine Agency after a 14-year search. The submarine was resting
on its starboard side. The wreck was raised in August, 2000 after months of intensive underwater research and collection of
data at the wreck scene.
The wreck is today in an especially designed tank of fresh water at the Warren
Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, undergoing restoration and conservation so that it can go on public display.