History Of The Hunley Submarine
The H L Huntley was the world's first truly workable submarine. During the Civil War, it sank the Union gunship Housatonic, but also sank itself with the loss of all hands.
The world's first truly workable submarine was called the H L Hunley after the man who financed its construction during the Civil War. She was about 39.5 feet long, four feet wide and five feet deep. The sub was powered by hand cranks that permitted the crew to turn the propeller while sitting on benches inside the cigar-shaped iron cylinder. The Hunley was steered by a rudder that was turned by a wheel operated by the captain.
According to a drawing done by W.A. Alexander, a crew member involved in her construction, the Hunley was fashioned from a cylindrical iron boiler reinforced by iron strips and rivets. At each of the tapered ends water ballast tanks allowed outside sea water to enter through a sea cock. By filling the ballast tanks, the Hunley's crew could submerge. By using a force pump, they could eject water from the ballast tanks and surface. A mercury gauge indicated depth, and a 4,000 pound keel allowed the sub to travel upright. It was a very neat design.
The Hunley's early trials resulted in big problems. It sank twice in sea trials killing a total of 13 Confederate sailors before she even saw combat. Finally, about 9 pm February 17, 1864, the Hunley pushed off from Breach Inlet near Charleston, South Carolina, and headed toward the Union gunship, U.S.S. Housatonic. The Hunley had no periscope, so it had to halt from time to time, open one of its ports, and look out to see if it was still headed in the right direction. In the choppy water of the bay, it may have taken on water which may have later caused it to sink.
Guards on board the Housatonic saw something approaching it underwater. The Hunley's primitive ballast system forced it to operate just bearly beneath the surface, leaving a wake. Union officers ordered the sailors aboard the U.S.S. Housatonic to manipulate the anchor cables so that the ship could be moved out of the path of the Hunley, but multiple anchors complicated things. The soldiers on board the U.S.S. Housatonic then shot rounds of musket bullets at the iron sub, but they bounced off the Hunley's iron sides.
The sub drove its harpoon torpedo mounted on an iron shaft extending from the bow into the side of the mighty Housatonic, but unlike modern torpedos which explode on contact, the Hunley's torpedo had to be exploded by means of a lanyard attached to the front of the sub. As the Hunley's crew backed away from the hull of the U.S.S. Housatonic, the lanyard came up tight, and the explosive device was detonated. The shape of the sub supposedly allowed the percussive shock of the explosion to pass by the sub without damaging it, but since this aspect of the sub's operation had never been tested before, it might be that the sub sustained damage from exploding its own torpedo, thus sinking itself. At any rate, the Hunley was lost before it could get back to Charleston harbor to celebrate her victory.
It is true that the Hunley was the first submarine to engage in military battle at sea and win. Unfortunately, all of the men on board the Hunley died in the effort while many soldiers from the U.S.S. Housatonic survived. Still, the sub's accomplishment was significant since the next sub to sink a ship in battle did so during the First World War, more than 50 years later.
For more than 130 years, the Hunley remained largely forgotten on the sea floor. Historians speculated widely on why she sank, but no one could know for sure until the wreck was discovered early in May, 1995, off Sullivan's Island, by the best-selling author Clive Cussler helped by a team from the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA).
It will be interesting to follow their discoveries as they raise the sub and explore what its remains have to tell us about the daring deeds of early submariners.