- Historic Sites
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
Meanwhile, the secret of the Hunley had reached the ears of the distracted Admiral Dahlgren. A Confederate deserter gave him a remarkably accurate account of the submarine, her construction, her weaknesses, and her potentialities. Dahlgren had called for precautions against torpedo boats after the New Ironsides was attacked, but now he made his orders doubly detailed.
“The ironclads,” he directed, “must have their fenders rigged out and their own boats in motion about them. A netting must also be dropped overboard from the ends of the fenders, kept down with shot, and extending along the whole length of the sides, howitzers loaded with canister on the decks and a calcium [light] for each monitor. The tugs and picket boats must be incessantly upon the lookout, when the water is not rough, whether the weather be clear or rainy.”
But, as Dahlgren went out nightly to see for himself whether his monitors were maintaining a proper vigil, the “diving torpedo” he feared was watching its opportunity to go against a wooden vessel outside the bar. It was an eventuality the harassed admiral had not considered.
Now that the underwater test had been successful, the Hunley resumed her regular schedule, going out as often as the weather permitted and taking even more risks than before in her efforts to reach a target. But still the wind was against her.
About the end of January, 1864, there came an even bigger disappointment. Alexander was ordered back to Mobile to build a breech-loading repeating gun. Alexander departed, crushed, and Dixon set out dejectedly to train a new second-in-command.
So matters stood when, on the night of February 17, the wind turned to fair and the sea grew calm. Dixon decided that, in spite of a bright moon, he could wait no longer. At Battery Marshall, a signal was agreed on for his use in case the Hunley wanted a light as a guide for her return trip. The crew filed aboard, the hatches were closed, and the Hunley slipped under the water. The time had come at last.
Acting Master Crosby’s prompt alarm at sight of the supposed plank floating in the water abeam of the Housatonic brought the sloop’s captain, officers, and men piling onto the deck. By now a moving phosphorescent light clearly marked the path of the strange object below them.
It had changed direction. At the sound of the call to quarters it had come almost to a halt and then begun to move toward the stern of the vessel. When Captain Charles W. Pickering arrived on deck, the object was already on the Housatonic ’s starboard quarter.
The sloop, a screw steamer of 1,240 tons launched at Boston late in 1861, carried thirteen guns, but by now it was impossible to use these weapons. The shadow in the water was so near that attempts to train a gun on it were futile. Captain Pickering and several others on deck began firing with revolvers and rifles.
The chain had been slipped, and now the engines began backing. At the time the order was given it was the right thing to do, for the submarine was abeam. But now it was approaching from the starboard quarter, and the Housatonic ’s engines sent the sloop closer toward its enemy.
It was too late to change direction. Before the men on deck had grasped what was happening, the vessel was shaken by a great explosion between the mainmast and mizzenmast. Timbers and splinters flew through the air; men fell stunned or injured to the deck; the entire stern of the vessel seemed to disintegrate. There was a great rushing of water, an immense cloud of black smoke rose from the stack, and the Housatonic went down almost immediately. Less than an hour after Acting Master Crosby had first sighted the mysterious shape in the water, the survivors of the Housatonic were being rescued. At muster next morning, only five members of the crew failed to answer.
History had witnessed the first sinking of a warship by a submarine. The feat would not be duplicated for half a century.
A Federal court of inquiry convened aboard the Wabash the following week, reviewed the evidence, and found no indication that anyone aboard the sunken ship had been remiss in his duties. Admiral Dahlgren hastened back from Port Royal, redoubled his precautions against torpedo attacks, and called on the Navy Department to offer a large reward to any crew that captured or destroyed a torpedo boat. And in Charleston and Mobile friends of the Hunley and her crew waited word of the submarine’s fate.
The word did not come for a long time. Not until a Federal picket boat was captured off Fort Sumter did Beauregard, and the whole Confederacy as well, learn the magnitude of the little submarine’s accomplishment. Coupled with this news was the report that Dixon and his men had not been captured, a grim indication that they must have been lost.
It was April before a letter was sent to General Maury, still pressing from Mobile for official word of the Hunley ’s fate. Captain M. M. Gray, torpedo officer in the Office of Submarine Defenses, expressed the opinion that she had sunk with the Housatonic . Gray believed the submarine had gone into the hole made in the Housatonic by the explosion and had been unable to muster sufficient power to back out.