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
They talked it over and decided Charleston would be a better base of operations. Nowhere was the need for aid more acute than at this beleaguered port in the summer of 1863. Fort Sumter was under almost constant bombardment, a combined land and sea attack was underway, and the magnificent Federal ironclad, the New Ironsides , loomed as one of the greatest threats to the city. If the Hunley could slip out some night and sink that great ship, it would be a tremendous blow for the Confederacy.
Maury, accordingly, offered the privately owned boat to General P. G. T. Beauregard, commander of the city’s defenses. Beauregard had been trying in vain to establish a fleet of torpedo boats, but the big brass of the Confederate Navy had been slow to assist him. Why waste money on torpedo boats when you can build ironclads?
To Beauregard, the offer must have come almost as an answer to prayer. He accepted, the Hunley was loaded on two flatcars for what must have been one of the most remarkable railroad trips of the war, and destiny’s date with the Housatonic drew nearer.
And now the Hunley ’s difficulties began in earnest.
Beauregard asked Commodore John R. Tucker, flag officer at Charleston, for naval volunteers to operate the deadly-looking little boat. Lieutenant John Payne, an Alabamian whose valor had been demonstrated in a skirmish with enemy pickets only a few weeks before, immediately asked for the command. A crew joined him, and the Hunley was towed to Fort Johnson for trial runs.
A few nights later tragedy struck. The submarine was lying at the wharf, ready to go out for a dive. The crew members had already taken their places, and Payne was standing forward ready to close the hatchway, when the swell from a passing steamer poured over the deck. The Hunley swamped and went down like a rock.
Payne escaped through the open hatch, watched the bubbles rising where the boat had sunk, and grimly asked permission to raise the boat, collect another crew, and try again.
The experiment might have been given up at this point except for an event that electrified Charleston, delighted Beauregard, and redoubled the optimism of the Hunley ’s backers.
While the Hunley had been traveling across country on her flatcars, work was being completed at Charleston on a small iron boat that lay low in the water with a long pole extending from its bow. It was called the David , and the projection off its bow was a spar torpedo—a pole capable of being raised or lowered from the boat, with a torpedo fitted into a socket at the end of it. It was operated by a crew of four men.
On the night of October 5, the David , under command of Lieutenant William T. Glassell, steamed out to the New Ironsides , rammed her with the torpedo, and damaged her so badly that she was out of action for the remainder of the siege of Charleston. The explosion poured water down the David ’s little smoke-stack and drowned her boiler, and sailors on the ironclad were peppering her with shot; Glassell gave the order to abandon ship. He and James Sullivan, the fireman, were captured in the water, but Engineer James H. Tomb after a while noted that the David was drifting away from the ironclad. Returning to the boat, he found Pilot J. Walker Cannon, who could not swim, hanging to it, and the two re-entered it, got the engine going, and brought it back into port.
This was another first, the first time a warship had been damaged by a torpedo boat, and at Charleston enthusiasm reached fever pitch. In this atmosphere, Lieutenant Payne had no difficulty in finding a second crew for the Hunley . So the Hunley was raised, repairs were made, and the practice runs were resumed. And history repeated itself, this time alongside the wharf at ruined Fort Sumter. The little boat swamped again, and only Payne and two others of the crew escaped. (It might be well to note at this point that no exact count of the men lost on the Hunley is ever likely to be made. Her unhappy fame resulted in such garbled reports, even from those close to her, that scarcely two stories agree. All that can be done at this date is to make an informed guess, and on that basis fourteen men had now lost their lives on the submarine.)
For all his enthusiasm, Beauregard began to wonder if the Hunley was worth the effort. But at that time, Horace Hunley himself arrived from Mobile with a volunteer crew and a burning conviction that the navy crews simply did not understand how to operate his boat. He asked permission to operate her himself, with a crew who had learned her eccentricities at Mobile.
With some misgivings, Beauregard agreed. The Mobile crew took out the Hunley , dived successfully, and returned safely. The general relaxed. Then, on the rainy morning of October 15, in the presence of a large number of persons, Hunley took his boat into the water, submerged, and failed to come up.