On a cool February night in 1864 naval warfare was shaped by an act, that in the context of the ongoing Civil War, was generally insignificant. The Confederate States’ Submarine (CSS) Hunley plunged a torpedo into the hull of the United States’ Ship (USS) Houstonic, becoming the first submersible vessel to successfully sink an enemy ship in combat. Though it did little to help the Confederacy’s cause, it was a major step for marine warfare. The South, which was sometimes perceived as being technologically inept, created the first successful submarine; a very important nautical accomplishment.
The concept of a submersible vehicle had been around since the time of the American Revolution. In 1776, David Bushnell designed and built a single-man submarine named the Turtle. The Turtle was used against the British and their blockade of New York harbor, but never managed to inflict any damage on an enemy ship.
The concept for the Confederate submarine was fueled by Horace Lawson Hunley. Hunley was the Deputy Customs Collector in New Orleans. He knew better than most southerners the need to keep trade lines open with Europe. The Confederates’ trade, at the time, was suffering due to the Union’s blockade of southern ports. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the succeders had no real naval force and thus needed something extra to help overcome the United States Navy. Horace Hunley, along with a few other noteworthy investors such as E. C. Singer and Gus Whitney, would finance a project to build a submarine for the Confederacy.
By late 1861, Hunley had joined up with two southern inventors, James McClintock and Baxter Watson, who were already designing a submarine named the Pioneer. The Pioneer had completed successful underwater trials, but a quick advance by the Union Army forced the trio to scuttle the sub and flee Lake Pontchartrain, where they were testing it. A second submarine was built, but it sank in rough waters near Fort Morgan.
In 1863, the third and final submarine to be produced by the group was christened the CSS Hunley, and after successful trials the Hunley was sent to Charleston to be reviewed by General Beauregard. Charleston was being blockaded and heavily shelled by the Union Navy and desperately needed a way to strike back. The curious vessel was warmly received by the people of Charleston who were hopeful it could break the blockade and stop the shelling.
On its first mission from Charleston, in the summer of 1863, the submarine sunk due to pilot error and killed more than half of its crew of nine. Not wanting to give up hope the Confederacy salvaged the Hunley and repaired it. The people of Charleston were anxious to get the Hunley into service, and because of the initial sinking there were delays. This induced the Confederate military to take control of the submersible. In their haste to make the Hunley ready for service, the submarine with its hatches open was swamped by a swell. It sunk again killing the entire crew save the captain.
After this second sinking, the commanders salvaged the sub once more and selected yet another crew to man the Hunley. This time, they selected a crew of more experienced seamen, including Horace Hunley, to man the underwater ship. All on board were killed when it once again sunk.
Before the Hunley had been brought back to the surface, for a third time, a new crew of volunteers stepped forward. This seemed indicative of the ideology of the South at the time; they must do what ever is necessary to win the war. “Inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability. Thus not only does economy, but naval success, dictate the wisdom and expediency of fighting with iron against wood, without regard to cost.” This mentality made it possible for the Confederates to create the first successful submarine.
After loosing three crews and not successfully completing a single mission, the military commanders, including General Beauregard, were reluctant to put the Hunley back in the water. General Beauregard thought the ship to be more dangerous to his men than the Union and he made sure the crew was aware of the dangers.
The inventors redesigned certain aspects of the craft and the crew did months of more rigorous testing. Finally in February 1864, the ship and crew was ready to embark on another mission.
It was February 17 at 8:45 PM when an officer on USS Houstonic noticed an unusual swell in the water. At first he believed it to be a porpoise, but the steadiness of its course soon alerted the officer of the impending danger. The officer sounded the alarm and the crew of the Houstonic was reported to engage the CSS Hunley with small arms fire, but to no avail. The bullets bounced off the rounded steel hull of the Hunley. It struck its target with a 135 pound barbed torpedo, which exploded as planned. After three minutes of burning, the USS Houstonic floundered killing five of her crew. The Hunley had finally succeeded at sinking a Union ship.
On shore, fires were lit to guide the submarine back to Sullivans Island. The Hunley was to surface and light a blue lantern to signify that they were heading for port. Though the men tending the fires reported to have seen the blue light, the CSS Hunley never returned home. The Hunley and its accomplishments would lay forgotten until 1995 when archeologists discovered its wreckage.
The significance of the Hunley during the Civil War was very minimal, four Confederate submarine crews perished and only one Union ship was sunk. The loss of men from the Houstonic sinking was only five, while the Hunley lost her entire crew of eight. The Union never thought of the Confederate submarine as a serious threat. Moreover, even if it would have became a serious threat, the South would have been limited in the number of submarines that it could produce. The Hunley was mainly a private venture, and the investors lost interest when they saw how unsuccessful it was.
The significance of the CSS Hunley in the perspective of maritime history was enormous. It was the first submarine to successfully perform any actual work. The true measure of any machine is its ability to perform work, prior to the Hunley subs were simply novelties.
The sinkings of the Hunley contributed to the success of future submersible vehicle designers. The CSS Hunley was technologically successful and ahead of its time, created primarily because of necessities brought by the Civil War. It is unlikely that submarine technology would have advanced as far as it did, during the period it did, without the Civil War. The Hunley was a first step that led technology toward the modern nuclear submarines of today.
Originally written April 18th, 2002