Raise the Hunley!

CSS H.L. Hunley 2001

The CSS H.L. Hunley is salvaged from the bottom of Charleston Harbor in 2001.

When the American Civil War erupted in 1861 it's first battle happened off the coast of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina at Fort Sumter. During the war, from 1861 to 1865, one of the major military goals of the Army of the Union, located in the northern half of the United States, was to blockade and capture the major Confederate seaports, like Charleston, located in the eastern and southern parts of the United States.

The Union used its blockade tactics to shell seaport cities with warships moored in the relative safety of the harbors. The ships inflicted massive damage to sea towns and successfully stopped shipments of British arms from coming into the Confederate territories as well as the shipments of cotton, tobacco and wheat that were used as payment for these munitions. This also isolated large troop movements of the Southern armies.

In the important seaport city of Charleston, the Confederacy was desperate to break the Union blockade that had begun in 1863. Destruction to the city was devastating. The Confederate military leadership was willing to try anything to attack the blockade including using a secret weapon - an early version of an armored submarine.

Ruined buildings in Charleston, South Carolina, April 1865
Ruined buildings in Charleston, South Carolina photographed in April of 1865.

February 17th, 1864 the Confederate States Ship the CSS H.L. Hunley, became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in modern warfare. The confederate boat did so against the Union blockade in Charleston Harbor by targeting the USS Housatonic. The Hunley successfully deployed and secretly approached under cover of darkness. As it was sighted by the Housatonic, right off it's bow, the Hunley used it's unique electrically triggered "spar torpedo".

The Union ship Housatonic burned quickly at sea and sank - claiming the lives of five of it's sailors. Shortly after signaling the Charleston shoreline of it's victory the Hunley submerged. The sub sank to the bottom Charleston harbor killing it’s entire eight man crew and disappearing from history for 137 years.

CSS H.L. Hunley Schematic circa 1863
Schematics showing the interior of the Confederate submarine the CSS HL Huntley.

This single combat mission came at a great cost of brave men and hard years in practical development. The Hunley itself was essentially a 40-foot long cast iron coffin. It carried no stored other oxygen than its hand pumped ballasts it used to rise or dive. This was in contrast with Union boats that were being developed using compressed air. The Hunley was powered by a crew of eight men who hand-cranked a long shaft attached to a small screw at the end of the iron coffin that propelled this early submarine.

The prototype boat sunk a total of three times killing 28 of its crewmen during its commission. This was due to both crew negligence and severe design flaws. It was reported by a survivor of the Hunley's first crew that the commander, Lt. John Payne, had accidentally stepped on a diving lever when the hatches were open causing the compartments to flood and killing four men. Payne survived this accident but no mention of a court martial remains today.

The second crew was made up of eight more men, culled form the original test crews in Mobile, plus the boat’s inventor Horace Hunley. The entire second crew died when the Hunley sank in a battle drill on October of 1863.

In 1864, after being salvaged by Confederate divers, the Hunley set out on it's first combat mission in Charleston. Almost immediately after sinking the Housatonic, the third crew of the Hunley, this time captained by the legendary Lt. George Dixon, signaled to shore news of the victory and then, perhaps due to collateral damage done by the spar torpedo, sank to the bottom of Charleston Harbor where it remained lost in the murk and mire for over one hundred years.

After being sieged by Union forces for four years, and with no way to break the blockade, the Confederate city of Charleston was surrendered on February 18th, 1865.

In the 1970's two groups of adventurous historians suspected they located the wreck a mile offshore of the Charleston coast. They offically charted it's position as just a few dozen feet from the ship it had historically sunk - the Housatonic. In August of 2000, a group of scientists and researchers began the colossal effort of raising the iron coffin from the murky harbor where it had rested since the worst of the American Civil War.

The effort, documented by National Geographic, located and ingeniously excavated the H.L. Hunley along with the watery remains of it’s final crew. The Hunley was moved to a laboratory at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.

The remains of the third and final crew made up of Lt. George Dixon, Frank Collins, Joseph F. Ridgaway, James A. Wicks, Arnold Becker, Corporal J. F. Carlsen, C. Lumpkin, and Miller, whose first name is still uncertain, were found at their stations. This suggested that they died, perhaps as a result of a sudden ordnance misfire, and not trying to escape from the boat. They were interred with full military honors on January 21st 2004 in Magnolia Cemetery.

New World Encyclopedia, History of Submarines
Wikipedia, The Historic Mission
Hunley.org, The Recovery of the H.L. Hunley
Shipwrecks.com, Dr. E. Lee Spence's discovery of the H.L. Hunley

No comments: