3D Model of the H. L. Hunley

The big mystery of the H. L. Hunley, the first successful military submarine, is why it sunk and how the crew died. Off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina she planted a torpedo on the USS Housatonic that sent the ship to the bottom. But while she may have signaled to friends on shore, the Hunley never returned to port and she was never see again. When her wreck was discovered a few decades ago, it held the promise that we would finally know what sank the Hunley. Researchers still continue to study the wreckage, but thus far their research has created more questions than answers. All of the crew were all found in their positions. There was no signs of damage to the ship other than a possible missing window. There was no evidence of any efforts to open to the hatches or to bring the boat to the surface. There are many theories, here are four of the most popular.

Torpedo Theory
A fragment of copper was found attached to the end of the spar, that the Hunley used to attach its torpedo. This suggests the possibility that the torpedo could have exploded while still attached. If this were the case, the shock of the explosion could have caused enough damage to the sub to bring it to the bottom.

Objection: There is no evidence of shock impact or damage on the submarine or the men.

Lucky Shot Theory
There was a missing glass plate in the hatch, possibly made by a musket ball. The water might have come in and drowned the crew.

Objection: There would have been plenty of time for the crew to try to escape through the other hatch. The crew were all found sitting at their places. On two other occasions the Hunley had gone down with her crew, but then they made every effort to escape the sinking boat.

Collision Theory
The submarine hit the Housatonic, or another ship, and the submarine was damaged, allowing water to enter.

Objection: There is no evidence of damage or impact on the submarine, and the bodies recovered do not show evidence of drowning.

Entrapment Theory
The men anchored the submarine to the bottom to wait for the tide to go out, but died of asphyxiation before returning. On reason they may not have been able to return is if they got stuck on the bottom.

Objection: There is no evidence of any unoperational equipment, and the crew did not release the emergency weights, which would have helped them rise to the surface. The crew had decided before sailing that they would rather die by drowning than asphyxiation, but they had not opened the valves that would let water in to flood the ship.

So what do you think happened? What’s your vote?


  1. My theory is that the torpedo explosion caused the glass plate, used for viewing
    by the captain, to be shattered. Water came gushing in and the small contraption was flooded within minutes.
    The eight men had little time to escape.

    Steve McCormick

    1. I believe the concussion shock of the blast did not significantly damage the hull but caused serious injury to the crews’ internal organs, leaving them incapacitated while the boat flooded.

  2. My theory is a form of the Entrapment Theory. I think they were waiting at the for the time to turn, but they fell asleep and died in their sleep from carbon monoxide, or possibly dioxide poisoning.

  3. I think they were knocked unconscious by the blast that also shattered the window and they all drowned peacefully.

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