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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 word reached Mobile, and the two young engineers, Dixon and Alexander, who had been assigned to help build the boat, heard it with mixed emotions. Both men were determined now to offer their services for yet another try at operating the Hunley . They applied for permission to make the effort, and Beauregard, reserving judgment until the Hunley should be raised again, ordered them to report to his chief of staff, General Thomas Jordan.
Beauregard himself was present when the submarine was brought up, and the sight of its interior left an indelible impression on his mind. Fourteen years later he still remembered the horror of it. “The spectacle,” he recalled, “was indescribably ghastly; the unfortunate men were contorted into all kinds of horrible attitudes; some clutching candles, evidently endeavoring to force open the manholes; others lying in the bottom tightly grappled together, and the blackened faces of all presented the expression of their despair and agony.”
Sickened, he called a halt to the experiments. But Dixon and Alexander pleaded eloquently for a chance to bring some good out of the repeated tragedies. Beauregard hesitated, and General Jordan offered a suggestion: instead of using the Hunley as a submarine, why not use it as a David? In short, fit it with a spar torpedo instead of the dangerous trailing explosive, and let it attack from the surface.
Under these terms the General consented, or such was his recollection in 1878. But later his resolve may have softened, or the terms were interpreted broadly, for while the Hunley acquired a spar torpedo it continued to operate under water.
Meanwhile, Dixon and Alexander were making their own expert appraisal of the story as they pieced it together after the Hunley was raised.
The boat had been found on the bottom of the river at an angle of about 35 degrees, her bow deeply buried in the mud. The bolts holding down each hatch cover had been removed, but the hatches were closed. Considerable air and gas escaped when they were lifted. Hunley’s body was found forward, his head in the hatchway and his right hand still extended in the dying effort to open the cover. The candle in his hand, significantly, had never been lighted. The sea cock on the forward ballast tank was wide open and the cock wrench lay on the bottom of the boat. In the after hatchway the corpse of Thomas Parks, second-in-command and a member of the firm at whose shop the boat had been built, still pushed at the hatch cover; the sea cock on his tank was closed. Hunley and Parks had died of asphyxiation while the others drowned below them. The clumsy arrangement for dropping the iron keel ballast had failed; the bolts had been partly turned, but not enough to release it.
Studying the grim evidence, the two engineers thought they could agree without question on what had happened. The decisive moment had come immediately after the boat submerged. Hunley had turned the fins to go down and then decided he needed more ballast—that is, more water in his tank to assist in the dive. Without pausing even to light his candle, he had opened the cock. Instantly, the boat dropped so low that the glass panes in the coamings were covered and the craft was plunged in darkness. Hunley began trying to light his candle, the water continued to rush into the tank through the open sea cock, and the boat sank rapidly. The ballast tanks, it will be recalled, were “unfortunately left open on top.” Now, Hunley’s tank flooded in the darkness.
“The first intimation they would have had of anything being wrong,” Alexander wrote in later years, “was the water rising fast, but noiselessly, about their feet in the bottom of the boat. They tried to release the iron keel ballast, but did not turn the keys quite far enough, therefore failed.”
The boat was refitted, and Dixon and Alexander went to General Jordan to ask for a crew. Jordan relayed their request to Beauregard, who balked at first but finally agreed to let the Alabamians go aboard the Indian Chief , the Confederate Navy’s receiving ship, and ask for volunteers. He insisted, however, that they give a full account of the Hunley ’s past misadventures. This was done, and eventually a crew of volunteer sailors took their places, under command of two lieutenants from an infantry regiment, in a privately owned submarine operated on orders of an army general.
The Hunley was off and, if not running, at least limping again.
The attitude of Confederate Navy officers on the scene appears to have been skeptical if not downright hostile. Flag Officer Tucker, asked to provide the submarine with a tow down the harbor, assigned the David to the task, with Lieutenant Tomb, one of the heroes of the New Ironsides attack, in command. Tomb was directed to report his opinions as to the Hunley ’s safety and efficiency to Tucker.