The First Submarine Attack – 150 Years Ago Today
During the Civil War the civilians suffered hardships, and many came from the blockade of their coast by the Union navy. They could not export their cotton to the world, and could not import many things they needed from the outside. There were several people in the Confederacy who tried to invent new weapons to break this blockade, and the work of several of these men produced the H. L. Hunley, the world’s first successful combat submarine.
The road to a successfully attack on a Union ship was long and costly. The Fish Boat, as the Hunley was originally was called, was the third submarine built by Horace Hunley, James McClintock and Baxter Watson. Their previous failures had helped refine the design. She had a crew of eight one steered and the other seven worked at a crank which turned a propeller. More problems were encountered in Charleston – the boat sunk twice and many of the crew were drowned, including Hunley.
The Hunley was recovered, and George Dixon, a member of the crew who happened to be absent when she sunk, was appointed her commander. After many days of waiting, they went out on the night of February 17, 1864. They had selected as their target the USS Housatonic, a 12 gun wooden steamer. It was five miles off the coast, and it took the crew of the Hunley much effort to get there. At around 8:45 pm they approached the Housatonic, and the officer on watch sighted what looked like a ripple in the water 100 yards out. But looking again he saw an object moving very fast toward the ship. The ship went into an uproar, and they tried to move forward, while the crew fired at the strange object with anything they could lay their hands on. The Hunley dove and attached its torpedo in an area that happened to be just near the magazine. Seconds later there was a huge explosion, throwing smoke, water, and debris high into the air. A huge hole was ripped in the side of the Housatonic. It sunk in less than five minutes, and the survivors were picked up by boats from other ships. Five men had been killed, and the rest survived. The Housatonic was the first ship in military history to be sunk by a submarine. But the Hunley never returned to port. Not long after the attack a light was seen by the men watching on shore, a prearranged signal for success, but she never returned.
The Hunley’s disappearance was one of the most puzzling mysteries of the Civil War. After many years of speculation, she was finally located in the late 20th century lying under 3 feet of mud, and in 2000 the wreck was brought to the surface, and investigated by archaeologists. Inside were found the bones of the crew and many artifacts they carried with them. The ongoing work on the Hunley has answered some questions regarding the boat’s fate. None of the men had left the ship. They were 1000 feet away from the wreck of the Housatonic. There was no structural damage from the explosion.
But many questions still remain. Why did they sink? Did they intentionally dive to wait for the incoming tide and for some reason not surface? Or did the Hunley sink immediately and the wreck gradually move the 1000 feet? Whatever the Hunley’s fate, it was unique. Safe and usable submarines were far in the future, and the next successful military use occurred in 1914, during World War I. With the Hunley’s sinking, the war was almost over for Charleston. New weapons had been developed and used successfully, but none were powerful enough to break the blockade and turn the war around.