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200 Years Under The Sea
2. The Years Between

March 2024
2min read

No less a figure than Robert Fulton picked up where Bushnell left off. In the late 1790's he was in Paris drafting plans for his Nautilus, a “diving boat” which, when launched in 1800, was able to submerge to twenty-five feet and could keep het three-man crew alive under water for more than four hours. He offered his invention to Napoleon, and the emperor was interested, but only on the stiff condition that Fulton find and sink a British warship. After a luckless season spent cruising the French coast, the inventor crossed the Channel and tried to sell his submarine to the English. The decisive victory at Trafalgar put an end to any interest the admiralty might have had in experimental naval devices, and in 1806 Fulton gave up and went home to work on the steamboat that would make him famous.

The idea of the submarine lay fallow until the Civil War when both North and South looked to the old experiments and tried to improve on them. The Union navy produced The Intelligent Whale , a craft whose sole virtue lay in her name, while the South fashioned a twenty-five-foot-long cylinder out of boiler iron and christened it the H. L. Hunley after its chief backer. Powered by eight sailors turning a crank, the Hunley made four miles an hour in the smooth waters of Mobile Bay and could remain submerged for more than two hours.

She was shipped over to Charleston in hopes of driving away the Union fleet from beleaguered Fort Sumter, but she sank during trials in the harbor, killing her crew. She was raised and a new crew recruited; again she foundered. Hunley himself came down from Mobile, took command, and died with yet another crew. Incredibly, the Confederate Navy got more volunteers for what was now known as the “Peripatetic Coffin,” and on the night of February 17, 1864, the jinxed boat set out against the Union sloop-of-war Housatonic . Seconds after Federal lookouts spotted her coming at them, decks awash, the sloop exploded and went down almost immediately. Nearly a century after Bushnell went out to fight, a submarine had at last sunk a ship. Even so, the Hunley ’s luck hadn’t changed; she followed her victim to the bottom.

It was not the Hunley ’s first and last combat cruise that led to the next stage in submarine development, but the clash of the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac . Seeing in that battle an augury of the death of the wooden warship, and convinced that England would soon have an iron navy of devastating power, a young Irish patriot named John Holland began to plan a vessel that could stand against the future fleet of his enemy. When he emigrated to America in 1872, Holland tried to interest the Navy in an undersea warship. Making no headway, he turned to the Fenian Society, and these Anglophobes financed his “Boat No. 1,” a fourteen-foot ram impressive enough to draw more funds from its sponsors. In 1881 Holland launched in the Hudson River the thirty-one-foot Fenian Ram . Powered by an internal combustion engine, she performed superbly. The Fenians were delighted, but shortly afterward the society began to fall apart, leaving Holland to face years of frustration and setbacks seeking Navy contracts. Finally he undertook to build the fifty-three-foot Holland at his own expense. She could make seven knots submerged, had a cruising range of fifteen hundred miles, and like most of the submarines that followed her, she was powered by batteries when underwater and by internal combustion on the surface. Despite highly successful trials, it took three years for the Navy to buy her. “The Navy,” Holland said, “does not like submarines because there’s no deck to strut on.”

Nevertheless, some regular Navy men paid attention. After watching the Holland go through her paces, Admiral Dewey decided that if the Spanish “had had two of these things at Manila, I could never have held it with the squadron I had.” As the small fleet started to grow, it attracted a cadre of men who were anxious to prove the worth of these complex, dank, malodorous, and dangerous craft.

By the outbreak of World War I, America had forty-nine submarines, but they took small part in the naval campaign. The high point came when the L-2 encountered a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. Before the Americans could open fire, however, the enemy obligingly exploded and sank.

The United States submarine service rusted between the wars. The inaugural genius that had produced the device seemed vitiated, and although by the end of the 1930's the powerful “fleet” boats were replacing their smaller predecessors, too much of the service, in the stark appraisal of the naval historian Fletcher Pratt, consisted of “small, poorly armed vessels—and these used with little imagination.” How they would perform in a war was anybody’s guess.

—R.F.S.

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