Editor's note: This article was
originally published in The Charger in the Fall of 2001.
Horace Lawson Hunley, a lawyer and
planter from New Orleans, understood the importance of the shipping
trade to his beloved Confederacy. Hunley and his two partners, James
McClintock and Baxter Watson, set out to create a three-man vessel
that would travel underwater to assist in keeping the vital shipping
lanes open for trade with Europe. The three men started their
ambitious project in 1861. In February of 1862, the men were ready
for the first test of their new vessel. Christened the Pioneer,
it proved seaworthy and was transported to Lake Pontchartrain for
further testing. However, with enemy forces advancing on their
location, the three men abandoned the vessel.
Their spirits were not dashed. All
three knew the importance of their new invention. They continued to
experiment with new designs, including an attempt to outfit their
new craft with steam and electric engines. However, these efforts
were halted when they believed they could not generate sufficient
power to outrun the blockades. It was at this time that they decided
that they must build a propeller shaft that would be powered by four
men. This decision resulted in a craft that was sent to sea near
Fort Morgan. However, heavy seas forced the men to abandon that
vessel shortly before it sank.
where the H.L. Hunley was constructed in Mobile,
Hunley and his partners then moved
their operations to Mobile, Alabama and enlisted other investors to
assist in the project. One of the investors was E. C. Singer, nephew
of the man who invented the sewing machine. This is interesting to
note as the spool of rope used in the torpedo rigging was patterned
after a spool of thread used in the sewing machine.
On July 31, 1863, a demonstration
of the Hunley, as their submarine was now called, was held.
An old barge was floated in the Mobile River. The H.L. Hunley,
trailing a powder-filled cylinder attached to her stern by a long
rope, headed toward the barge. When the Hunley was in
position, a final compass reading was taken, a candle was lit for
the only light on board the vessel, and the Hunley
disappeared under the surface. Then it happened! A loud explosion
occurred, sinking the barge. The Hunley, on orders of its
captain, slowly surfaced and sailed back to shore – a success!
The H.L. Hunley was
transported to Charlestown where a presentation was made to General
P.G.T. Beauregard. It was Lt. George Dixon, later a captain of the
Hunley, who quickly understood the importance of the role the
Hunley could play in ending the blockade of Charlestown
Harbor. Dixon persuaded Beauregard to commission the Hunley
for its mission.
illustration from 1902, Horace Lawson Hunley stands next to
The first effort to strike against
Union ships ended in disaster when the Hunley sank with nine
men on board. Five were trapped and drowned and four managed to
escape. One of the sailors stated that the captain, Lt. John Payne,
accidentally stepped on the diving mechanism, causing the submarine
to dive while the hatches were still open.
The Hunley was recovered and
the five drowned sailors were buried in Charlestown.
Upon the recovery of the Hunley,
a new crew was recruited from a group of civilian volunteers.
Tragedy struck again as all of the crewmembers except Payne perished
when a sea swell swamped the Hunley during a training
This time, Horace Hunley selected a
set of sailors from Mobile – all men who were familiar with the
Hunley. Again, tragedy struck when on October 15, 1863, the
Hunley sank once more, this time with its inventor Horace Hunley on board.
Why Hunley was on board remains a mystery. The Hunley was
found with its bow buried in the bottom of the sea, indicating pilot
The Hunley's final crew was
selected even before it was recovered from its location. This crew
was to be under the guidance of Lt. George Dixon. Dixon had been
injured at the battle of Shiloh. He was saved from being killed by a
$20 gold piece his fiancé had given him. Upon recovering from his
injuries at Shiloh, Dixon inscribed the gold coin, noting how the
coin had saved his life. Dixon believed the gold coin to be his good
luck charm and carried it in his pocket. After months of repairs on
the Hunley and training of the crew, Lt. Dixon and his crew
were ready for their final battle.
inscribed side of Lt. George Dixon's 'lucky' $20 gold piece found
inside the Hunley after it was recovered from the bottom of
Charleston Harbor in August, 2000
On February 17, 1864 a classic David vs. Goliath
tale unfolded. In one corner, the H. L. Hunley
– weighing 7 ½ tons, 39 feet long, 3 feet, 10 inches wide
(approximately the width of a twin bed), 4 feet, 3 inches tall (the
length of a small bath tub), capable of a surface speed of 4 knots
(4.6 mph), with a crew of nine.
In the other corner, The USS
Housatonic, weighing 1,240 tons (165 times the weight of the
Hunley), 207 feet in length (over 5 times as long), 38 feet wide
(10 times the Hunley's width).
The Hunley, slipping out
from its dock under the cover of darkness, slowly powered its way
towards the Housatonic – three miles away – a journey that
would take an hour, but one that would never be completed.
A lookout on board the
Housatonic spotted the Hunley as it approached. Sailors
started to fire upon the Hunley, with bullets bouncing off
the steel structure.
The Hunley’s crew, battling
fatigue, fear and the cramped quarters, felt the sudden jolt as
their torpedo spar rammed into the side of the Housatonic.
Frantically, the crewmembers quickly reversed their direction,
pulling the Hunley away. With a shuddering thunder, the
Hunley’s torpedo exploded and within three minutes the
Housatonic was sunk. The first time a submarine had been used to
sink an enemy vessel.
All the past tragedies of the
Hunley seemed to disappear as the Hunley’s mission
appeared to be a success. From the watchful shores of Sullivan's
Island, supporters of the Hunley had built fires as
directional signals to guide the Hunley home. The supporters
claimed to have seen the blue signal light coming from the Hunley.
The signal was used to verify the mission was successful and the
Hunley was safe. This was the last sighting of the Hunley
– until now!
Mysteries and Discoveries of the H.
L. Hunley restoration/excavation:
- Lt. Dixon’s 'lucky' gold coin
- Inscribed: "Shiloh, April 6,
1862, My life Preserver, G.E.D."
- Union soldier's ID tag discovered inside the Hunley
- Ezra Chamberlin
- Date entered service
- Company K, 7th Regiment,
- A picture of George Washington
on other side
- Records indicate Chamberlin
was killed in 1863 during a battle at Charleston Harbor
- Candle holder for candle used to
light interior while underwater
- Remains of all crew members
- Numerous artifacts including
- Hand crank
- Wooden pipe for smoking
- Sewing kit