Small Confederate Submarine Plays Big Role in Naval History
On the night of February 17, 1864, near Charleston, South Carolina, the captain and seven crewmembers of the Confederate submarine H.H. Hunley made naval history. While the captain manned the dive-planes, the crew feverishly worked the hand-cranked propeller, moving the 40-foot-long vessel forward at three knots. It headed out to the Union warship Housatonic, which was part of the blockade of Charleston. With its long, metal spar, the Hunley planted a 135-pound mine (then called a “torpedo”) to the hull of the Housatonic’s stern and backed away, the 150-foot detonation rope playing out. Shortly thereafter, the Housatonic exploded. In just three minutes the burning ship sank, killing five Union sailors. In the process, the Confederacy’s top-secret torpedo fish was also lost.
It was the first successful combat submarine in history; the top-secret weapon had sunk twice before, with the loss of 13 crewmembers, including its inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley. And twice the Confederacy had raised the submarine, removed the bodies of the deceased (apparently having to dismember them to get them out of the vessel), and returned it to service.
The precise cause of the Hunley’s demise is not known for certain, and the exact location of the Hunley was not known for many years. After the Civil War, showman and promoter P.T. Barnum offered a $100,000 reward to encourage people to search and find the vessel. It was only found in 1995, remarkably well-preserved, buried deep in sand and silt just outside Charleston Harbor.
In 2000 the ruins of the submarine were recovered for the third and final time. Inside were found human remains, fabric, and sailors’ personal effects. Michael Drews, director of Clemson University’s Restoration Institute, one of several organizations responsible for recovering the Hunley, said that the vessel was “a more sophisticated feat of engineering than historians had thought. It had the ballast tanks fore and aft, the dive planes were counterbalanced, the propeller was shrouded, . . . all of the elements that the modern submarines have, updated.” He added, “At that particular time, the mindset of naval warfare was, basically, big ships sink little ships. Little ships do not sink big ships. And the Hunley turned that upside down.”
An effective submarine might have been of real strategic importance to the Confederacy because the Union had maintained, since early in the war, a naval blockade of the Confederacy. As the war progressed, the blockade of Charleston, the South’s largest port, and elsewhere, had become increasingly effective, allowing fewer and fewer ships to slip through.
The blockade was part of the Anaconda Plan, set forth at the outset of the war by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott to suffocate the Confederacy. Although Scott’s plan was initially derided in part because few thought that the war would last long enough for such efforts to wear the Confederacy down, the plan was implemented; it proved instrumental in the Confederacy’s eventual defeat.
The Hunley played little strategic importance to the outcome of the Civil War, but its successful — even if fatal — engagement on February 17, 1864 was a major turning point in the history of naval warfare.
– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter A. Gilbert