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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
Tomb was skeptical, but in the days that followed, Dixon, Alexander, and their crew appeared to have broken the Hunley jinx at last. They made a series of successful dives in Charleston’s immediate vicinity, and it was decided the Hunley must seek a victim among the blockading vessels outside the bar instead of going out after a monitor, as had been earlier planned. For, alarmed by the success of the David in disabling his finest warship, Admiral Dahlgren had ordered chain booms to be placed around the monitors—the Weehawken , the Passaic , the Montauk , the Catskill , and the Nahant . Accordingly, Dixon was ordered to moor his boat off Battery Marshall on Sullivan’s Island, where it could proceed by interior channels to the area where Dahlgren’s wooden boats lay.
By now it was November. Quarters for the crew were provided at Mount Pleasant, seven miles from the battery, and practice runs were begun in earnest.
A major problem soon became apparent, the matter of distance. The station of the nearest frigate, which they understood was the Wabash , was twelve miles away. The Hunley could reach a speed of about four miles an hour in comparatively smooth water and light current, but in rough water her speed was much slower. The ideal attack plan, Dixon and Alexander agreed, would be to go out with the ebb tide on a dark, calm night, strike, and come in with the flood tide.
But whole weeks went by, and the wind held contrary. The Wabash , or whatever vessel it was that lay off in the distance, was too far for the crew of the Hunley to reach by a reasonably safe hour. They ventured out five, six, even seven miles, but each time they were forced to turn back, the men cranking with all their might to avoid drifting out to sea.
In all this time, the Hunley showed only one structural fault. The air box, which was supposed to provide fresh air through a pipe while the Hunley lay just below the surface, had not worked out well. When ventilation was needed it was necessary to come up high enough for the after-hatch cover to be opened. Several times, when they did this, they could hear conversation and song from Federal picket boats, and they realized how vitally important it was to choose dark nights for their expeditions.
The whole matter of the limited air supply at last led Dixon and his English associate to undertake an experiment. Painfully conscious of their exposed condition and low speed when they had to surface, they decided to find out just how long it was humanly possible for them to stay down without coming up for air.
The Back Bay off Battery Marshall was chosen for the test. All hands agreed they would go out, submerge, sink, and lie on the bottom for as long as possible. When any man felt he had reached the limit of his endurance and must go up for air, he was simply to say, “Up.” Regardless of who spoke the word, it was to be considered an order for all hands to obey instantly.
Late one afternoon, after making several brief dives, they were ready. While a crowd of soldiers watched from the bank, unaware of the plan, Dixon and Alexander compared watches, noted the time, and took the Hunley down. She sank to the bottom of the bay, the men quit turning the propeller, and the experiment was on.
For a long time they sat motionless, looking silently at one another across the shadows cast by Dixon’s candle. Twenty-five minutes passed. The candle went out and could not be relit. Still no one spoke the word that would terminate the experiment.
As the Hunley continued to lie on the bottom of the bay, the curiosity of the watching soldiers ashore turned to alarm, and then to a conviction of disaster. A message was sent to General Beauregard, reporting that the ill-fated “coffin” had claimed another crew. Powerless to attempt a rescue, the watchers gradually drifted away as the sun set.
And now, in the darkened boat, the limit was reached at last. A man gasped, “Up!” and, in the instant he spoke, every other man aboard echoed the word.
“Start the pumps!”
The bow of the Hunley began slowly to rise, but the stern clung to the bottom. Something had gone wrong with Alexander’s pump; it was not emptying its tank. As the boat began to tilt dangerously, Alexander made a desperate guess. The valve must be fouled. Working frantically, he felt for the cap of the pump, took it off, lifted the valve, and fumbled for an obstruction.
Seaweed lay thick around the valve. The Englishman snatched it off, replaced the cap, and renewed his pumping. One of the crew had begun to babble incoherently as the stern of the Hunley slowly began to rise.
But the worst was over. They reached the surface, and with all the strength he had left Alexander flung open his hatch cover. For a while they slumped, gasping. Then they made for shore. A match was struck, and watches were examined. It had been two hours and thirty-five minutes since the submarine had dived.