Underwater attack is a first for naval warfare

During this week 150 years ago in Civil War history an event occurred which involved no one from Trumbull County, but was a notable first in the annals of naval warfare. On Feb. 17, 1864, a Confederate “submarine,” the C.S.S. H.L. Hunley attacked and sank the Union blockade ship U.S.S. Housatonic off the coast of Charleston, S.C. Never before had a submersible craft sunk a naval warship in combat.

Soon after the beginning of the war in 1861 a small group of Confederate citizens in New Orleans, including Horace Hunley, embarked on building a “submarine,” which did perform with positive results in the testing phase. However, the Union forces captured New Orleans in early 1862, forcing the group to scuttle the project. It then migrated with its project to Mobile Bay, where it built the Hunley. Engineers from the 23rd Alabama Regiment, lieutenants George Dixon and William Alexander, were assigned to oversee construction. After construction and extensive testing, the vessel was eventually shipped to Charleston, S.C., via rail in August 1863, at the request of Gen. P. T. G. Beauregard, Confederate commander of the southeastern coastal defenses, to help break the tightening Union blockade.

Once in Charleston the Hunley underwent several trial runs, two of which were totally unsuccessful and wherein 13 men lost their lives. The unsuccessful trial on Oct. 15, 1863, took the life of Horace Hunley himself, one of the ship’s inventors and its namesake. He had decided to substitute that day for the usual skipper, Lt. Dixon. After that calamity, Gen. Beauregard said no to any more diving. In spite of this prohibition, Dixon and his second in command, Lt. Alexander, continued to take the boat on submerging exercises, once staying under for two and a half hours.

It should be noted that the Confederate vessel was an extremely crude precursor of the submarines we have come to know since World War I. In fact, the standalone word “submarine,” as we know it, was not used in naval parlance in the Civil War era. The Confederate records refer to the Hunley as “a submarine torpedo boat” and a “submarine propeller.” In the case of the Hunley the means of propulsion was human power. Six or seven crewmen manually plied cranks that turned the screw that propelled the boat.

What in 1864 was called a torpedo in our modern interpretation is a mine. In the case of the Hunley, the mine (torpedo) was attached to the end of a spar that extended 22 feet off the front of the vessel. In this case, the mine contained 90 pounds of explosives. The object was to imbed the torpedo into the hull of its target by ramming, detonate it at a safe distance and retreat to safety before the explosion. In order to detonate the mine the submarine would only be semi-submerged to allow the detonating wire or rope to be pulled from target to the assailing vessel before battening down the hatches. The boat would then submerge and hopefully make its way undetected back to port.

In the trial runs, it was determined that the Hunley could only be effective in calm waters, a condition that rarely occurred in the Atlantic in winter. But, conditions were right on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, and its skipper, Lt. George Dixon, decided to seize the moment and go out looking for prey. The Housatonic, whose commander that night was Capt. Charles W. Pickering, was the nearest target.

At 8:45 p.m. per the eyewitness account of Acting Ensign Edward A. Butler on the Housatonic, the lookout officer on the forecastle reported to “… the officer of the deck a suspicious looking object apparently drifting out with the wind and tide in our direction. It appeared at first like a snag or drift log, 30 or 40 feet long, with a slight projection above it, about a third of the way from the end. Ordinarily this would have excited no particular attention, but it was promptly reported to the captain, who gave the order ‘All hands to quarters.’ The alarm by drum beat must have been heard on board the torpedo boat, for such proved to be, as its speed quickened, and it moved rapidly for us, and was soon along side our starboard side, too close for the depressing of our broadside guns … This unwelcome visitor steered for our magazine, but having too much headway the point of contact came under our starboard quarter, and the torpedo, being evidently exploded by concussion, sent the whole stern of the ship flying into the air for a hundred feet or more, in a dense smothered column of smoke, water and wreckage … The ship had just returned from Port Royal, and was heavily laden with coal and stores. She sank like a stone…”

All but five of the Housatonic’s crew survived the explosion that quickly took the ship to the bottom. The normal complement of officers and men on the vessel was 160. Most of the survivors saved themselves by hanging onto the rigging, which still remained above sea level when the hull settled on the bottom on a shoal. One cutter aboard the Housatonic was usable to transport some of the survivors. All eight of the crew of the Hunley perished. (Interestingly enough, the official Confederate letter by Capt. M.M. Gray of the office of Submarine Defenses to Maj. Gen. Dabney Maury said that only seven men were aboard the vessel.) Although the military impact of the event was minor, it did throw a scare into the Union Navy for a brief period. But, the Confederacy was unable to follow with an encore, since the Hunley was the only one of its kind.

The Hunley was never heard from again. Its underwater position was predicted in 1970. But, it was not found by a diver, Ralph Wilbanks, until April 1995. It was raised in August 2000 and is now on public display in Charleston. It had been buried and protected all those years in tact under a layer of silt several feet thick. It was found about 100 yards on the seaward side of the Housatonic.

There are many theories but no conclusive evidence of how or when the Hunley went down. When the craft was raised the position of the remains (bodies) indicated that the men died at their stations and were not trying to escape from the sinking submarine. One eyewitness survivor of the Housantonic said he saw a blue light displayed from the Hunley after the explosion. There is some documentation that suggests a blue light was intended to tell Charleston that the Hunley was on its way back to the city. However, the lantern found on the craft after it was raised only had a clear lens. There are theories that the Hunley was too close to the explosion it created and was itself a victim. One eyewitness from the Housatonic said the Hunley was 100 yards out when the explosion occurred. But, examination in 2012 of recovered Hunley artifacts suggests that the submarine was as close as 20 feet to her target. In either case, the shock of the explosion may have rendered the crew unconscious and unable to control the vessel. Or perhaps their air supply was exhausted during such an interlude.

Maybe time and study will yield a definitive answer. But without a doubt, the Hunley was a major event on the timeline of the incredible story of man’s underwater travel epic.

Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren’s Sutliff Museum.