H. L. Hunley


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The First Submarine to Sink a Ship in Combat

17 February 1864

Martin Wade and Frank Lamotte

On the evening of 17 February, the H. L. Hunley commanded by Lt George Dixon, was towed out of port by a semi-submersible, known as a David, cut loose and sent off in search of the blockading ships.


At approximately 8:45 PM, just outside of Charleston Harbor, near Sullivan’s Island, Dixon spotted the USS Housatonic waiting for blockade runners and Hunley began closing in for the kill. The Union ship’s Officer of the Deck noticed the approaching vessel and called for reversing the engines to maneuver,but it was too late, the torpedo containing 70 – 90 pounds of explosives had penetrated the her hull near the after magazine and exploded. USS Housatonic became the first vessel to fall victim to an attack by a submarine.

 By presenting this article, we are hoping to whet your appetite for more information about the little ship that changed the world of warfare. The Civil War produced many “firsts” on the battlefield and at sea. Hunley was an American first, from its inception in 1862 to the sinking of the Housotanic in 1864, the discovery of its resting place in 1970, verification of the site in 1997, the salvage and return home to Charleston in 2000. Although Hunley had no impact on the outcome of the war, the sinking of the Housatonic and Hunley’s subsequent disappearance created a legend that actually had the Union blockading forces concerned that the South had more of these little boats.


From its earliest beginnings, the world’s militaries have sought ways to explore and exploit the oceans’ surface and depths to gain advantage over their adversaries. These included improving on designs for people to go under water for prolonged period. The well-known sketches of Leonardo DaVinci included such ideas. During the American Revolution, David Bushnell created a submersible named Turtle, attempting to sink a British Man of War by attaching an explosive charge to its hull; an attempt that failed. But it was Horace Hunley and his associates who produced the first militarily successful submersible during the American Civil War. While other designers and builders, such as John Holland and Simon Lake would improve upon the designs and later builders would perfect them, Hunley, remarkably, was the first the have a design sufficient to sink a major man-of-war and insofar as it is possible to ascertain, escape enemy retaliation.

Sullivan's Island

Sullivan's Island at the time of the Hunley Expedition

The project to design and build a submersible boat capable of attacking a surface ship started in February 1862 when a group of New Orleans businessmen became inspired by the concept of a combat submarine presented to them by James McClintock and Horace L. Hunley.

Using their own money as well as monies from investors, McClintock and Hunley began construction of the submersible in New Orleans. As Southern patriots, they wanted to help the Confederacy break the blockade of southern ports by sinking or capturing Union blockaders and, as businessmen, earn a profit doing so. Thus it came about that the first operational attack submarine would be a “privateer”.

McLintock and Hunley’s first attempt resulted in a craft they called Pioneer. After several successful trial runs in Lake Pontchartrain, Pioneer showed that she was capable of diving and moving underwater, however several significant defects made her unsuitable for the mission. As Union forces were moving to capture New Orleans, Pioneer was scuttled in a deep cut of the lake to keep her from being taken by the enemy. The project to build a submarine moved to Mobile, Alabama. This area was relatively safe from Union forces in part due to the natural protection afforded by Mobile Bay. At Mobile, they obtained the services of a machine shop owned by Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons. Fortune was in their favor. Two of the men working in the Park and Lyons shop were William Alexander a master machinist and George Dixon, a recently promoted Lieutenant in the Confederate Army whose mechanical talent was noted by his superiors who sent him to work at the shop building new weapons.

The second boat had improved features over the first since Mclintock had noted every defect of the Pioneer and made corrections to the design to overcome the defects. The second boat named American Diver made several trial runs in Mobile Bay that encouraged the builders to plan an attack on Union ships off Sand Island, outside the Bay.

To expedite the trip to their target, American Diver was to be towed to a point near Sand Island and then submerge for the attack. The kill method was an explosive charge on a rope trailed behind them on the surface. The idea was to pass under a Union ship thus pulling the explosive charge against the Union ship.

Unfortunately, as Diver was being towed to a position closer to the target, it suddenly submerged and sunk. Thus, the second attempt to build a successful submarine had failed. But McLintock and Hunley did not give up.

As the story unfolds, the project persisted to build a third and more successful model called Fishing Boat or Porpoise which incorporated sleek lines and improved engineering in its design. This was the boat destined to add a new and terrifying chapter to the history of naval warfare. The boat was renamed H. L. Hunley after the designer-builder died in the second sinking of this boat in Charleston Harbor.


In February 1864, the Union naval blockade was strangling the Confederacy and, as a major port, Charleston, South Carolina, was a primary point of embarkation and debarkation for the Southern blockade runners. Food and other commodities including weapons and ammunition were in short supply.

Among the blockading ships was the USS Housatonic, a steam and sail driven man-of-war, launched in 1861, with a crew of 160. With a top speed of 9 knots, she weighed 1,240 tons with a length of 207 feet, a beam of 38 feet and a draft of 8 feet 7 inches. Housatonic’s armament consisted of 1 100-pounder Parrott rifle, 3 30-pounder Parrott rifles, 1 11" Dahlgren smoothbore, 2 32-pounders, 2 24-pounder howitzers, 1 12-pounder howitzer, 1 12-pounder rifle.


The USS Housatonic: The First Ship Sunk by a Submarine

During the Housatonic’s tour of duty with the Union blockade, she participated in shore bombardment of a number of Confederate installations and received credit for the capture of some Southern blockade runners and assisting in the capture or destruction of several others. Housatonic’s war record was a credit to her officers and crew, but her place in history was confirmed when she became the first ship ever sunk by submarine action.

Charleston Harbor MapOn the evening of 17 February, the Housatonic moved out of the line of blockading ships into shallow water off Charleston Harbor in order to catch enemy blockade runners. At approximately 8:45 PM, the Officer of the Deck, LT John Crosby, noticed something moving through the water towards the Housatonic and thought that it was either a porpoise or a log. By the time he realized his error, Hunley was too close to be engaged by Housatonic’s guns and, although evasive action was attempted, Hunley rammed its torpedo into Housatonic’s hull. Backing off, Hunley triggered the torpedo which set the Housatonic on fire setting off an explosion that blew off the aft starboard quarter of the ship, sinking the Union vessel within five minutes of the original attack. The Housatonic went down in about 27 feet of water with the loss of five crew members.

According to various reports, Hunley then displayed a blue lamp towards shore signifying mission success and was returning to port. The Confederate lookout lit a bonfire to guide the victorious submarine home, but the H. L. Hunley disappeared in the night, not seen again for 137 years.


To counter the Union blockade, the South had already constructed a small fleet of semi-submersible torpedo boats called “Davids” which sat very low in the water and attacked Union ships with varying success. Although there is no record of the Davids successfully sinking a blockader, these little craft and numerous ironclads (most famous of which is the CSS Virginia) attempted to clear the blockade in order to expand commerce with Europe.

The plans for the submersibles called for either steam or battery driven engines, but the builders were unable to build an engine that would provide the necessary power and had to resort to manpower for propulsion. The first attempts, Pioneer and American Diver, ended in failure, the Pioneer scuttled in Lake Ponchartrain to avoid capture by Union forces and the American Diver sinking in Mobile Bay. The Diver was subsequently recovered, studied by Union forces, and then sold for scrap.

One of the stories about the construction of the Hunley is that her builders used a railroad boiler 48 inches in diameter and twenty-five feet long. The boiler was cut in half lengthwise and two 12 inch boiler iron strips on either side increasing the diameter approximately 60 inches. She was lengthened by about five feet, tapered fore and aft with bow and stern castings attached. However, when the Hunley was raised in 2000, archeologists found that she was constructed of iron plates riveted to a purposely constructed frame tapered fore and aft to provide “streamlining” allowing her to move fairly easily under the surface of the ocean. The final configuration was about 30 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep. The plan to use steam or battery power was not realized and a hand crank was installed to provide propulsion. A tiller provided direction for the little ship. Ballast consisted of iron bars bolted to the bottom of the hull and tanks at either end which could be opened manually to allow Hunley to submerge. Hand operated pumps were used to expel water to allow her to surface. Her armament was a torpedo (also known as a mine) at the end of a 20 foot spar extending from the bow. The torpedo was placed by ramming the victim, penetrating the hull, then backing off, using a long cord to trigger the explosive.


While the Hunley was being developed, General P.T.G. Beauregard, the Confederate Commander of Charleston, SC was trying to clear the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor. He appealed for assistance and Hunley was dispatched to attack the enemy forces cutting off shipping.

To move Hunley, she was cut in half, loaded on railcars and camouflaged for the journey from New Orleans to Charleston to continue preparations and training to face the Union forces. One interesting point is that during her entire career, Hunley was operated by the Confederate Army (not the Navy) and in her short life, sank twice with the loss of most personnel even before meeting the enemy. The first sinking happened when she was swamped by a tender pulling away from the little ship. There were three survivors. The second accident took the lives of the entire crew including that of H. L. Hunley, one of her inventors, when she submerged, rammed the bottom of Charleston Harbor, and became stuck. Because of these two accidents and the loss of nearly two complete crews (approximately 16 men); General Beauregard placed restrictions on Hunley requiring her to operate as a surface ship.

CHRONOLOGY: Confederate Naval Victories

In 1864 when the H. L. Hunley sank the Union blockading ship USS Housatonic, the war was going poorly for the Confederacy. Union forces were slowly advancing on all fronts and the Confederate States were being squeezed into a smaller and smaller area of operations. Although the Union blockade of Southern ports against overseas commerce was fairly tight, the South was somewhat successful at sending fast cargo ships through the encircling warships and Confederate naval vessels scored numerous victories including those of the commerce raider CSS Alabama (69 Union vessels sunk or captured) until the USS Kearsarge destroyed her in June off Cherbourg, France. Among the Southern successes were:

2 February, 1864

Confederate boat expedition led by Commander J. T. Wood captured and destroyed USS Underwriter in the Neuse River, North Carolina.

17 February, 1864

Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley sank Union blockader USS Housatonic off Charleston -- the first submarine to sink a ship in combat.

12 March, 1864

Ships of Rear Admiral D. D. Porter's Mississippi Squadron moved up the Red River to commence the unsuccessful Army-Navy campaign to gain a foothold in the Texas interior.

19 April, 1864

CSS Albemarle, Commander J. W. Cooke, sank USS Southfield and forced the remainder of the Union squadron at Plymouth, North Carolina, to withdraw. Having gained control of the waterways in the area, the Confederates were able to capture Plymouth on 20 April.

5 May, 1864

USS Sassacus, Wyalusing, and Mattabesett engaged CSS Albemarle off the mouth of the Roanoke River as the Union sought in vain to regain control near Plymouth.

6 May, 1864

Confederate torpedo destroyed USS Commodore Jones in the James River, Virginia, one of several losses the Union suffered from torpedoes during the year.


A total of 21 sailors died in the three sinkings of the H.L. Hunley. The Union forces lost five sailors in the sinking of the USS Housatonic.

The Hunley crew members are buried at the Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, S.C.

Crew List for the H.L.Hunley

(Also listed are those who survived)

Sinking #1 - 29 August 1863

Payne, Lt John - Commanding – survived
Hasker, Charles - Seaman - survived
Williams, Absolum – Seaman
Cane, Michael – Seaman
Davis, Nicholas – Seaman
Doyle, Frank – Seaman
Kelly, John – Seaman
Sprague, Charles – Seaman – survived - (Some accounts list Sprague as the third survivor of this tragedy although other accounts state that this survivor was unknown.)

Sinking #2 - 15 October 1863

Hunley, Horace L. - Commanding and one of the builders
Beard, Henry – Seaman
Brookbank, Robert – Seaman
Marshall, John – Seaman
McHugh, Charles – Seaman
Parks, Thomas W. - Designer and builder
Patterson, Joseph – Seaman
Sprague, Charles L. - Seaman

Sinking #3 - 17 February 1864

Dixon, Lt George - Commanding
Becker, Arnold - Seaman
Carlsen, J.F. – Seaman
Collins, Frank – Seaman
Miller, Augustus - Seaman
Ridgeway, Joseph - Seaman
Simkins (Lumpkin?), C. – Seaman
Wicks, James A. - Seaman

Crew Members Lost with the USS Housatonic

Hazeltine, Ensign E. C. – Ship’s Officer
Williams, John - Quartermaster
Walsh, John - Fireman Second Class
Parker, Theodore - Landsman
Muzzey, Charles O. – Yeoman


H.L. Hunley in Historical Context, Rich Wills, former Assistant Underwater Archaeologist, Naval Historical Center, 805 Kidder Breese SE, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC 20374-5060 www.history.navy.mil

The Civil War Book of Lists, Donald Cartmell, New Page Books, The Career Press, 3 Tice Road, PO Box 687, Franklin Lakes, NJ 07417 www.newpagebooks.com

Raising The Hunley, The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine, Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf, A Presido Press Book www.presidiopress.com

Find A Grave.com – The Hunley Submarine Crew

SubmarineAlso See this Fascinating Rebel Submarine predating the Hunley in this January 30, 1864 Harper's Weekly



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