Monday, November 06, 2006

CSS H.L. Hunley

Date: February 17, 1864

Place: Charleston, SC


Union: Captain Charles Pickering aboard USS Housatonic.

Confederate: Lieutenant George Dixon aboard CSS H.L.Hunley.

Prelude: Not many people know this, but the Hunley was not the first time the Confederates attempted to build a submarine vessel. In New Orleans, LA a vessel called the Pioneer was built with the aim to assist in the city’s defense. The vessel was completed in February 1862 and was towed to Lake Pontchartrain for tests. Following the completion of the tests, on March 12, 1862, a letter was sent to the CS War Department requesting that the vessel be commissioned in the CS Navy. The commission was secured with a CS$5000 bond by the submarine’s builders, Horace L. Hunley and Henry J. Leovoy.

Pioneer never had a chance to fight. As a Union fleet was sailing up the Mississippi River, Hunley was forced to scuttle Pioneer and flee with his diagrams to Mobile, AL.

It was believed that Pioneer was found in 1878 and was displayed at a Confederate Old Soldiers Home. It was handed to the Louisiana State Museum and put on display at the Presbytere in New Orleans. Recent research revealed that the vessel on display is not the Pioneer but a second vessel of that class. The Pioneer may have been recovered and sold for scrap.

In Mobile, Hunley set up shop at the Park and Lyons machine shop and went back to the drawing board. A request for assistance from the military commander in Mobile, Major General Dabney Maury, brought a mechanical engineer to the team, a British-born lieutenant in the 21st AL by the name of William Alexander. Alexander was already at the machine shop working on rifling musket barrels when Hunley requested him.

A second submarine was soon on the drawing boards. Called by most accounts the American Diver, she was planned to be fitted with an “electro-magnetic” drive for propulsion. Finding that system almost impossible to work, a steam engine was also tried. That was also abandoned and a hand-cranked propulsion system, adding four to the crew, was finally adopted.

In mid-January of 1863, American Diver was ready for trials in Mobile Bay. The initial trials showed that the hand-cranked propulsion system could only move the vessel at a speed of two miles an hour, making the vessel too sluggish to be maneuverable.

In late February of 1863, the American Diver sunk during another trial, with the crew managing to abandon ship. Hunley went back to the drawing board and a third submarine began to take shape.

They first took a long boiler, cut it in half, then bolted the two halves together using more iron boilerplate, lengthening it. A tapered section was then bolted to each end, giving the vessel a total length of 40 feet. Water tanks were installed at both ends with sea cocks to let water in and hand pumps to get the water out. On the top, a 12-inch wide strip of iron was bolted with two hatches installed. The hatches had rubber gaskets in order to have a proper seal. Also on the top were two snorkels for breathing air, but these soon probes to be impractical and were never used. On the keel, iron plates were bolted for ballast. These could be released by bolts on the floor of the submarine. The rudder was controlled by a wheel at the captain’s station, while diving and ascending was controlled by lever-operated fins, also at the captain’s station. A mercury filled tube served as the depth gauge. Propulsion was by means of a crank-turned shaft attacked to a screw. The crank required seven to operate it. With the Captain in the front and the Executive Officer in the rear, the new vessel would have a crew of nine.

The armament consisted of a single torpedo (what a sea mine was called in the 1860s) that was towed behind the vessel. The submarine was sent below the surface while the torpedo was dragged towards the target ship. As the submarine passed beneath the target, the torpedo made contact with the ship’s hull. The torpedo was studded with contact points containing large percussion caps. The cap would be struck by the impact, igniting the fulminate of mercury and sending a spark into the main explosive charge, several pounds of gun powder, detonating the bomb and blowing a hole in the hull.

While the new vessel was being constructed, Lieutenant George Dixon of the 21st AL joined the team.

July, 1863: The new vessel is launched at Mobile and christened H.L.Hunley after its builder. This provided a lift to the locals, who were just hearing of the twin Confederate defeats at Vicksburg, MS and Gettysburg, PA.

Sea trails proved the Hunley to be faster and better maneuverable than its predecessors. The only problem seen so far was that due to the snorkels not working, the air supply was limited to 25 minutes.

July 31, 1863: A trial was held in which the Hunley was sent under a flat boat. The torpedo was dragged against the flatboat and the resulting explosion destroyed it. The local naval commander, Admiral Franklin Buchanan, sent a letter to the commander of the naval defenses around Charleston, SC, praising the trials.

Soon, orders arrived to get the Hunley to Charleston as fast as possible.

August, 1863: The Hunley was pulled out of the water and placed on two rail cars for transport.
August 10, 1863: The train with the Hunley and its crew departs Mobile.

August 12, 1863: The Hunley arrives in besieged Charleston. The vessel was placed in the water shortly afterwards.

August 20, 1863: After a period of detached duty, Hunley himself arrives in Charleston.

An area known as The Cove, near Fort Moultrie, was selected as Hunley’s base. The object would be to attack Union blockading ships in the area.

During this time, Charleston was bombarded by Union warships as well as a massive cannon known as the “Swamp Angel.” Charlestonians were getting pummeled day and night.

The Hunley was seen going out of its berth, but was not able to reach the Federal blockade line. The crew was considered timid, however it seems that the opportunity had not presented itself for a strike.

August 24, 1862: Hunley is seized by the CS Navy and the crew replaced by Lieutenant John Payne of CSS Chicora and a volunteer crew. Hunley and his staff are kept as advisors.

August 29, 1862: During a practice cruise, Payne was caught in the forward hatch. While he was trying to free himself, one of his feet struck the lever controlling the diving fins. Hunley dove straight to the bottom with both hatches open. Four escape, including Payne, while the remaining five drowned.

From CSS Chicora: Frank Doyle, John Kelly, Michael Cane, and Nicholas Davies.

From CSS Palmetto State: Absolum Williams.

Ten days later, the Hunley was salvaged and the crew recovered for burial.

September 19, 1863: Hunley offers to form another crew, this time with himself in command.

During the first week of October, 1863, Dixon arrived in Charleston with a new crew for the Hunley. The submarine was soon back in service.

October 15, 1863: During another training cruise, with Hunley in command. The submarine was seen diving under CSS Indian Chief but not surfacing. After several minutes, it was plain that another accident had happened.

October 18, 1863: Hunley was found in 9 fathoms of water but it was several days before the submarine was brought to the surface and the bodies of the crew recovered. This time, the entire crew perished.
It was determined that the forward sea cock was left open while the aft sea cock was closed. Water had overfilled the forward ballast tank, making the vessel bow-heavy. Water pressure was such that the hatches were held down. The crew never had a chance.

Horace Hunley was 39.

November 14, 1863: It is clear by this time that Lt. Dixon has been given command of the Hunley and is spending his time cleaning up the vessel and recruiting a new crew. Alexander has become second-in-command.

Both men boarded Indian Chief and talked to the crew, asking for volunteers. Under orders from the military commander in Charleston, General P.T.G. Beauregard, the hazardous nature of the assignment was fully explained. There were five volunteers.

Joseph Ridgeway, C.F. Simkins, Frank Collins, Arnold Becker, and James Wicks. Two others from Mobile filled out the crew, one unknown and another possibly named White.

December 14, 1863: Dixon receives orders placing him officially in command of Hunley and ordered to commence operations against the Federal blockade.

That evening, the submarine was towed out towards Fort Sumter and cast off to begin training sorties.

During the training sorties, it was found that the rope attached to the torpedo tended to foul the propeller. Also it was found that the Federals had received word about the Hunley’s existence and devised chain curtains that could be hung over the sides of the warships, defeating and towed torpedoes. After talking with those who sailed in CSS David when she attacked USS New Ironsides on October 5, 1863, a long spar was placed on the bow of the Hunley. The torpedo was bolted to the spar. The idea was to run the vessel at the target and ram the torpedo into the hull. The spar was designed to break away as the submarine was backed away from the target. The captain then pulled a rope attached to a trigger, which sets off a percussion cap, which detonates the torpedo.

There were several more practice sorties in January of 1864, during which several Federal vessels were scouted for a possible target.

There was one such test in which the submarine was sent to the bottom and the crew tried to hold out as long as possible against lack of oxygen. There was only 25 minutes of air. The crew lasted an hour before a mad rush to the surface.

It was also during this time that Alexander was ordered back to Mobile, so he would not take part in the attack.

Soon the Federals positioned a warship near an area known as Rattlesnake Shoals to prevent blockade runners from escaping. Dixon spotted the vessel and identified it as USS Housatonic, a sloop-of-war of the Ossipee class with 13 guns. Throughout early February, 1864, Dixon and his crew kept Housatonic under observation. Commanded by Captain Charles Pickering, the ship had orders to keep an eye on the area and keep steam up in case they had to move quickly. Pickering also had information concerning the “infernal machine” that the Confederates were employing.

Dixon decides that Housatonic would be the target.

February 17, 1864: dusk: After a day of preparations, the crew enters the Hunley and takes their places. Because of the short distance, a tow was not required. When all is ready, the lines are cast off and Hunley pulls away from the dock and heads into the bay.

Everything from here on is speculation.

As night fell, Hunley was steered toward Rattlesnake Shoals. All this time they would have sailed on the surface, waiting to get close before diving. There was a pre-arranged signal for those watching from the nearby forts but beyond that, they were on their own.

As Hunley approached, Dixon might have been looking out the front hatch, guiding the vessel towards Housatonic. A Federal lookout might have seen the vessel approach and shouted an alarm. Housatonic’s compliment of Marines would have brought musket fire on the Hunley. Dixon, having finalized the attack course, would have ordered full speed ahead, slamming down the hatch as he came down. Hunley went down about 20-30 feet and bored on toward the Housatonic. On collision, the spar was smashed into the Federal ship’s hull. Dixon orders the Hunley backed away as he prepared to detonate the torpedo.

Either the submarine rolled, or Dixon was too eager. Either way, the trigger was pulled and about 20 pounds of gun powder exploded, tearing open the Housatonic. The Union warship sank rapidly but only five sailors were killed, the rest getting picked up by another Federal warship.

What happened to Hunley was something else. Perhaps the shockwave from the explosion damaged the vessel. It is also possible that the spar was caught in the hull of Housatonic. In either case, a crewmember on the Hunley managed to send a signal to an observer at Battery Marshall. That observer reported seeing a flashing calcium light, the signal that all was successful.

The next morning dawned to show that the Hunley did not return to her berth.

Who knows what happened in the submarine as it settled to the bottom. The water pressure prevented the hatches from being opened. The crew had a choice, either die slow as the air ran out or die quick as the sea cocks were opened and the Hunley was flooded. Either way, the crew died knowing that they made history, the first underwater vessel to successfully attack and sink a surface vessel. That would not be duplicated until the 20th Century.

Epilogue: In May of 1995, an expedition supported by author Clive Cussler found the Hunley.

August 8, 2000: CSS Hunley was raised.

April 17, 2004: Lieutenant George Dixon and the crew of the Hunley were laid to rest at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, SC.

The Hunley is undergoing restoration work in preparation for display in a museum being built to house the submarine.

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