H. L. Hunley: Confederate Submarine

Written by: John Maguire

The H.L. Hunley was a submarine used by the Confederacy that demonstrated the effectiveness and possibilities of submersible warfare. Submarines were already in existence at the time, but this particular submarine was the first underwater vessel to engage with and destroy an enemy warship.

Built in 1863 at the Park and Lyons shop in Mobile, Alabama, the H.L. Hunley was made from an iron steam boiler with a cylindrical shape and elongated by adding narrowed ends. This submarine was not powered by diesel or a nuclear reactor, as so many are today: The H.L. Hunley was designed to be powered by eight men cranking a propeller from inside the submarine while one man (also on the inside) had the job of directing their path of travel by steering the vessel. Both ends of the submarine were fitted with ballast tanks, which could be flooded by opening valves or emptied using hand pumps, causing the H.L Hunley to float up to the surface or dive down to the depths of the ocean. An emergency ballast was added in the form of iron weights underneath the vessel. If the crew felt the need to quickly rise to the surface, these weights only needed to be unscrewed and removed.

Late at night on Feb. 16, 1864, the H.L. Hunley made history when it attacked the USS Housatonic, a 1,800-ton, 23-gun Union warship, off the South Carolina coast. The H.L. Hunley daringly rammed a spar torpedo, which was connected to a long pole on the front bow and chock full of explosive powder, directly into the warship's wooden siding. As the Hunley backed away, the crew detonated the charge using a rope attached to a trigger, sending the Housatonic and its crew of five to the bottom of Charleston Harbor. This attack put the H.L. Hunley down in history as the first submarine to sink a ship in war. Unfortunately, the proximity of the submarine to the explosion it had created sent it and its crew of nine to the bottom of the harbor along with the very ship it had attacked.

The Wreck and its Recovery

A 14-year search, headed by author Clive Cussler and assisted by a team from the National Underwater and Marine Agency as well as the South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology, located the wreckage of the H.L Hunley in 1995, 131 years after it sank. The team exposed the forward hatch and the ventilator box, which served as the attachment for the snorkel. They found the vessel lying at a 45-degree angle on its starboard (right) side. Such a long time underwater had left the submarine covered in a crust of iron oxide that had then bonded with seashell particles and bits of sand. Upon closer inspection, the team found that most of the vessel had been well preserved underneath the sediment.

The time to bring the H.L. Hunley up from its resting place in Charleston Harbor came in August of 2000. Professionals from the Naval Historical Center's Underwater Archaeology Branch, the National Park Service, and the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology measured and documented the vessel's condition. Then, the submarine could be carefully raised. Harnesses were attached to a truss, which was then attached securely to a crane on the Clarissa B, a Navy barge. The crane slowly brought the H.L. Hunley from the depths of the harbor, and at 8:37 a.m. on Aug. 8, the submarine broke the surface of the sea once again. The event was met with cheers and applause from the public, both onshore and in surrounding boats. The Hunley was then placed on a barge for its final cruise into Charleston Harbor, where it would be taken to a freshwater tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center for excavation and conservation.

From here, work began on exploring the vessel's crew compartment, uncovering many artifacts from the 19th century. The remains of the crew were also found, still at their stations; these were removed and given a proper burial. Conservation work continues on the submarine itself, which will eventually be displayed at a museum.