Back in 1999, I watched a little TNT film called, “The Hunley”. That film stuck with me because, a) I love history, and b) because it was a true story, or at least as close as it could get, about a submarine. Yeah, I know submarines are old news, but this was the first submarine. Built during the first year of the Civil war. You heard me! The Civil War ( I hate to call it The Civil War because there is nothing Civil about wars, especially those that pit brothers/fathers against brothers and fathers), the Great Unpleasantness, the War Between the States. Anyway sit back and let me tell you the story of the C.S.S. Hunley, that made history due to the fact that it made the first successful submarine attack, sinking the U.S.S. Housatonic. A feat that would not be repeated again for over fifty years when the second demonstration of just how effective submarines could be when the H.M.S. Pathfinder was sunk by the German U-boat U-21, in the fall of 1914.
The movie, tells an incredible true tale about the crew of the manually propelled submarine, (yes, I mean it wasn’t run by engines, but by man power alone) C.S.S. Hunley and its mission during the siege of Charleston in 1864. It tells a tale of gallantry and valor in the face of misfortune; how the Hunley had the honor of being the first submersible vehicle to sink an enemy ship during a time of war. It connects the humanity and that of the exceptional and prodigious disposition of the 9 men who would lead the Hunley into the history books and to their valiant deaths in accomplishing this amazing feat. Since the movie was made prior to the actual recovery of the C.S.S Hunley some details of the boat shown in the film are not accurate. The films mock up was actually about 10% roomier than the actual boat.
The Hunley wasn’t the first submersible boat built. During the first year of the war, in New Orleans, wealthy attorney, Horace L. Hunley, was financing and actively assisting marine engineers James McClintock and Warren Watson design and build a submersible boat called the Pioneer. The Pioneer was successfully tested in the Mississippi River and in lake Pontchartrain. However, when the Federal Navy under Captain David Farragut drew too close they scuttled the boat so they could keep it out of the hands of the enemy. Scuttling a boat means it was deliberately sunk.
After this setback, the builders moved their operation to Mobile, Alabama where they joined with the Park and Lyons Machine shop, where they began to build their second boat, which unfortunately was lost in rough seas. Their third and final boat, the “Fish Boat”, which was later Christened H. L. Hunley after its greatest supporter.
During this time Lieutenant William Alexander joined the team because he was assigned by the Army. He was a British born mechanical engineer, and a member of the 21st Alabama Volunteer Infantry. Another member of the 21st Alabama Volunteer Infantry, Lieutenant George E. Dixon, who was recovering from a serious leg wound would also provide them assistance. This Lieutenant was a former steam ship engineer. His tale is quite remarkable as his sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, had presented him with a good luck token. That of a shiny twenty dollar gold piece. During the battle of Shiloh, he was struck with a mini ball that hit the coin in his pocket, making that coin a very good luck charm as he could possibly have suffered from a much more serious leg wound, in point of fact a mortal wound at that time. Dixon was so enamored of this coin that he had it inscribed and kept the heavily bent coin with him always. He also kept a gold watch with a very distinctive fab on it.
Building the iron boats took considerable funding that Horace L. Hunley could no longer continue to do on his own. So two more backers were found; Dr. John R. Fretwell and Edgar Singer (a relative of the famous singer sewing machine inventor), the two men were in town to plant torpedoes (what we refer to as mines) in Mobile Bay. These very devices that would later prompt Farragut’s famous order of, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Hunley was interested in the “torpedoes” as an armament for the submarine. Singer and Fretwell both donated the extreme amount of five thousand dollars to build the third submarine. The human powered “Fish Boat” was improved upon, by making it bigger and adding some technological advances. The boat was more hydrodynamic with its new flush rivets. At a whopping forty feet long with an interior four feet high and three and a half feet wide, allowing a seven man crew to sit along the port side and turn a hand crank to propel the boat, while the commander of the boat operated levers that move the rudder and dive planes.
On a cold February night, Dixon and seven volunteers in their boat headed out to target and sink the Federal ship U.S.S. Housatonic. At approximately 8:45 p.m. an explosion ripped open the hull at the stern of the U.S.S. Housatonic which sank about 5 minutes later. The Hunley never returned, and her exact location was uncertain until 1995. A project lead by Clive Cussler (yes, the author), was able to positively identify the boat as the C.S.S. Hunley. She was about a hundred yards from where the U.S.S Housatonic went down, hidden under several feet of silt. Five years later on August 8, 2000, the Hunley was recovered from the depths of the Charleston harbor. She was finally returned home after one hundred thirty-six years after her loss. The bodies of the crew were recovered along with a gold watch with it’s distinctive fob and a very heavily bent gold coin. On April 17th of 2004 the crew of the Hunley were finally laid to rest with full military honors.
If you are interested in seeing the recovered artifacts of the Hunley, including the watch and coin carried by Dixon, you can find them at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina. Tours of the Hunley restoration are given on weekends by the “Friends of the Hunley” group. As an interesting aside, all of the funding members of the Hunley were Masons. While many details of the tale of the Hunley are lost to us, and some of the details that we think we know about continues to change as new information is literally uncovered from the silt.