The Submarine That Wouldn’t Come Up
The Confederates’ Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy warship, but her crude design made her a coffin for her crew
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
The sun set in a clear sky behind Charleston the afternoon of February 17, 1864. The besieged city lay in defiant silence, watching the Federal monitors at the entrance to the harbor. Out at Fort Sumter, where the war had begun, the faint boom of the sunset gun proclaimed that the little pile of rubble, now scarcely more than a symbol of resistance, was still held by its Confederate garrison. As the shadows lengthened, picket boats put out from the ironclads to begin the nightly vigils which the Federal Admiral John Dahlgren had so insistently prescribed.
Outside the bar, where the wooden ships comprising Dahlgren’s second line of blockade lay guarding the harbor’s entrance, the handsome sloop of war U.S.S. Housatonic prepared for a quiet night. A slight mist lay on the water as lookouts of the first watch took their stations. They were watchful but relaxed; it was not the sort of night a blockade-runner would choose for crossing the bar, and besides, the hard-driving Dahlgren was away on a trip to Port Royal.
About 8:45, Acting Master J. K. Crosby, officer of the deck, observed a slight disturbance in the water about a hundred yards distant and abeam. Crosby thought it was a porpoise, or a school of fish, or even a plank moving in the water. Whatever it was, it came on directly toward the ship. Crosby looked once more, decided to take no chances, and gave orders to slip the chain, beat to quarters, and call the captain.
His decision was a wise one. The Housatonic’s was about to experience the only submarine attack of the Civil War.
The Housatonic’ s dubious distinction came about by chance. If David Farragut had waited longer to capture New Orleans, Acting Master Crosby would have stood an uneventful watch. For the story of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley , known variously and mistakenly as the Fish , the American Diver , and the David , and nicknamed with grim accuracy the Peripatetic Coffin, really began in New Orleans. But for the early fall of that city, the Hunley ’s builders would never have begun a journey that led, eventually, to Charleston.
Sometime in 1861, James R. McClintock and lîaxter Watson of New Orleans, marine engineers and machinists, determined to build a submarine at private expense and operate it against the Federal blockade at the mouth of the Mississippi.
No submarine in recorded history had ever sunk a ship in combat, but McClintock and Watson were not discouraged by this. David Bushnell’s one-man submersible, the Turtle , had almost done the trick during the Revolutionary War, and Robert Fulton’s later submarine demonstrations left no doubt that men of daring and ingenuity could make and operate a lethal undersea weapon. Caught up in the fervor of the war’s first year, the two engineers determined to try.
To patriotism was added another motive, profit. At the start of the war, Jefferson Davis had invited applications for letters of marque authorizing private citizens to wage war against Union vessels. The Confederate government was ready to pay handsome financial prizes for the destruction of enemy men-of-war. A submarine operated with any success in the waters of a blockaded port might pay its way and show a return on the investment without ever going to sea.
Work on the boat began late in 1861. As expenses mounted, others joined in the project—John K. Scott, Robin R. Barron, H. J. Leovy, and Horace L. Hunley, a man whose enthusiasm for submarines was to grow with every setback. In the spring of 1862 the submarine, christened the Pioneer , was ready for a trial run in Lake Pontchartrain. When she destroyed a target barge, the enthusiasm of her owners was boundless. A letter of marque was obtained and plans were laid for action against the blockade.
At this point, Farragut entered the picture. He moved up the Mississippi late in April and captured New Orleans. The Pioneer disappeared, sunk either by accident or design, and was forgotten until it was found and raised many years later. McClintock, Watson, and Hunley packed their bags and moved to Mobile.
Farragut would come to Mobile, too, but not until the summer of 1864. When the ardent trio of submarine builders from New Orleans arrived, the city-seemed an ideal spot for their work. There were plenty of enemy vessels for their craft to operate against when they built it; there were shops in Mobile and about as much raw material for the construction as could be found anywhere in the blockaded South; and the city was under the command of an imaginative officer, Major General Dabney H. Maury, who was sympathetic toward projects involving underwater torpedoes. He welcomed the three men heartily, approved their plans for private financing of the project, and ordered the boat to be built in the machine shops of Park & Lyons. Furthermore, he extended technical assistance. Two young engineers from the 21st Alabama Infantry, Lieutenants George E. Dixon and William A. Alexander—the latter an Englishman who had come to America in 1859—were detached for special duty at the shops.
A submarine was built and towed off Fort Morgan to be manned for an attack on the blockading fleet. It promptly sank, and the job had to be done all over again. It is with this third effort that we are concerned.