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Drawing of the H. L. Hunley. Based on a Photograph taken in 1863 by George S. Cook
Career (C.S.A.) Conf Navy Jack (light blue).svg
Name: H. L. Hunley
Builder: Horace L. Hunley
Laid down: early 1863
Launched: July 1863
Acquired: August 1863
In service: February 17, 1864
Out of service: February 17, 1864
Fate: sunk February 17 1864
Status: examined
General characteristics
Displacement: 7.5 short tons (6.8 metric tons)
Length: 39.5 feet (12.0 meters)
Beam: 3.83 feet (1.17 meters)
Propulsion: hand-cranked propeller
Speed: 4 knots (7.4 kilometers/hour) (surface)
Complement: 1 officer, 7 enlisted
Armament: 1 × spar torpedo

H. L. Hunley was a submarine of the Confederate States of America that played a small part in the American Civil War, but a large role in the history of naval warfare. Hunley demonstrated both the advantages and the dangers of undersea warfare. She was the first combat submarine to sink an enemy warship, although the vessel was not completely submerged and was lost at some point following her successful attack. The Confederacy lost 21 crewmen in three sinkings of the Hunley during her short career. Following the death of her inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley, the submarine was named for him shortly after she was taken into service under the control of the Confederate Army at Charleston, South Carolina.

H. L. Hunley, nearly 40 feet (12 meters) long, was built at Mobile, Alabama, and launched in July 1863. She was then shipped by rail on August 12, 1863 to Charleston, South Carolina. On February 17, 1864, Hunley attacked and sank the 1240-short ton (1124 metric tons)[1] screw sloop USS Housatonic on blockade duty in Charleston's outer harbor. Soon after, Hunley sank for unknown reasons, drowning all eight of her third crew. 136 years later, on August 8, 2000, the wreck was recovered. On April 17, 2004, the DNA-identified remains of the eight Hunley crew were interred in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery with full military honors.


Hunley and two earlier submarines were privately developed and paid for by Horace Lawson Hunley, James McClintock, and Baxter Watson.

Predecessors to Hunley[]

Hunley, McClintock, and Watson first built a small submarine named Pioneer in New Orleans, Louisiana. Pioneer was tested in February 1862 in the Mississippi River and was later towed to Lake Pontchartrain for additional trials. But the Union advance towards New Orleans caused the men to abandon development and scuttle Pioneer the following month. The poorly documented Bayou St. John Confederate submarine may have been constructed about the same time as Pioneer.

The three inventors moved to Mobile and joined with machinists Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons. They soon began development of a second submarine, American Diver. Their efforts were supported by the Confederate States Army; Lieutenant William Alexander of the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment was assigned oversight duty for the project. The men experimented with electromagnetic and steam propulsion for the new submarine, before falling back on a simpler hand-cranked propulsion system. American Diver was ready for harbor trials by January 1863, but it proved too slow to be practical. One attempted attack on the Union blockade was made in February 1863 but was unsuccessful. The submarine sank in the mouth of Mobile Bay during a storm later the same month and was not recovered.

Construction and testing of Hunley[]

Construction of Hunley began soon after the loss of American Diver. At this stage, Hunley was variously referred to as the "fish boat," the "fish torpedo boat," or the "porpoise." Legend long held Hunley was made from a cast-off steam boiler—perhaps because a cutaway drawing by William Alexander, who had seen the real boat, showed a short and stubby machine. In fact, Hunley was purpose-designed and built for her role, and the sleek, modern-looking craft shown in R.G. Skerrett's 1902 drawing is an accurate representation. Hunley was designed for a crew of eight: seven to turn the hand-cranked propeller and one to steer and direct the boat. Each end was equipped with ballast tanks that could be flooded by valves or pumped dry by hand pumps. Extra ballast was added through the use of iron weights bolted to the underside of the hull. In the event the submarine needed additional buoyancy to rise in an emergency, the iron weight could be removed by unscrewing the heads of the bolts from inside the vessel.


Inboard profile and plan drawings, after sketches by W.A. Alexander (1863)

Hunley was equipped with two watertight hatches, one forward and one aft, atop two short conning towers equipped with small portholes and slender, triangular breakwaters. The hatches were very small, measuring 14 by 15¾ inches (36 by 40 centimeters), making entrance to and egress from the hull very difficult. The height of the ship's hull was 4 feet 3 inches (1.2 meters).

Hunley was ready for a demonstration by July 1863. Supervised by Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan, Hunley successfully attacked a coal flatboat in Mobile Bay. Following this demonstration, the submarine was shipped to Charleston, South Carolina, by rail, arriving August 12, 1863.

The military seized the vessel from its private builders and owners shortly after its arrival in Charleston, turning it over to the Confederate Army. Hunley would operate as a Confederate Army vessel from this point forward, although Horace Hunley and his partners remained involved in the submarine's further testing and operation. While sometimes referred to as CSS Hunley, the Confederate government never officially commissioned the vessel into service.

Confederate Navy Lieutenant John A. Payne of CSS Chicora volunteered to be Hunley's skipper, and a volunteer crew of seven men from Chicora and CSS Palmetto State was assembled to operate the submarine. On August 29, 1863, Hunley's new crew was preparing to make a test dive to learn the operation of the submarine when Lieutenant Payne accidentally stepped on the lever controlling the sub's diving planes while the crew were rowing and the boat was running. This caused Hunley to dive with her hatches still open, flooding the submarine. Payne and two others escaped, while the remaining five crewmen drowned.

On October 15, 1863 Hunley failed to surface during a mock attack, killing Hunley and seven other crewmen. In both cases, the Confederate Navy salvaged the vessel and returned her to service.


Hunley was originally intended to attack by means of a floating explosive charge with a contact fuse (a torpedo in Civil War terminology) towed behind it at the end of a long rope. Hunley would approach an enemy vessel, dive under it, and surface beyond. As she continued to move away from the target, the torpedo would be pulled against the side of the target and explode. However, this plan was discarded as impractical due to the danger of the tow line fouling Hunley's screw or drifting into Hunley herself.

The floating explosive charge was replaced with a spar torpedo, a cask containing 90 pounds (41 kilograms) of gunpowder attached to a 22-foot (6.7 meter)-long wooden spar, as seen in illustrations of the submarine made at this time. The spar was mounted on Hunley's bow and was designed to be used when the submarine was some 6 feet (1.8 meters) or more below the surface. The spar torpedo had a barbed point, and would be stuck in the target vessel's side by ramming. The spar torpedo as originally designed used a mechanical trigger attached to the attacking vessel by a cord, so that as the attacker backed away from her victim, the torpedo would explode. However, archaeologists working on Hunley have discovered evidence, including a spool of copper wire and components of a battery, that it may have been electrically detonated. Following Horace Hunley's death, General Beauregard issued an order that the submarine was no longer to attack her target underwater. In response to this order, an iron pipe was attached to the bow of the submarine and angled downwards so the explosive charge would still be delivered under sufficient depth of water to make it effective. This was the same method developed for the earlier "David" type surface craft so successful against the USS New Ironsides. The Confederate Veteran of 1902 printed a reminiscence authored by an engineer stationed at Battery Marshall who, with another engineer, made adjustments to the iron pipe mechanism before Hunley left on her last mission on the night of February 17, 1864. A drawing of the iron pipe spar, confirming its "David" type configuration, was published in several early histories of submarine warfare.

Attack on Housatonic[]

Hunley made her first and only attack against a live target on the night of February 17, 1864. The vessel was the USS Housatonic. Housatonic, a 1240-ton (1.1 million-kilogram)[1] steam-powered sloop-of-war with 12 large cannons, was stationed at the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina harbor, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) out to sea. In an effort to break the naval blockade of the city, Lieutenant George E. Dixon and a crew of seven volunteers attacked Housatonic, successfully embedding the barbed spar torpedo into her hull. The torpedo was detonated as the submarine backed away, sending Housatonic and five of her crew to the bottom in five minutes, although many survived by boarding two lifeboats or by climbing the rigging until rescued.

Loss of Hunley[]

Template:Original research After the attack, Hunley failed to return safely. There is convincing evidence that Hunley survived as long as an hour after the attack, which took place at approximately 8:45 p.m. The commander of Battery Marshall reported the day after the attack that he had received "the damn signals" from the submarine indicating she was returning to her base. The signal, from a blue carbide gas signal lantern, was received at around 9:00 p.m. at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island. The signal was also seen by crew members of Housatonic who were in the ship's rigging awaiting rescue. The reports are quoted in the official enquiries of both Federal and Confederate Governments and in the Official Records of the war. This type of lantern cannot be seen at distances beyond about one and a half miles, indicating that the submarine had come fairly close to shore after the attack on Housatonic.

After signalling, Dixon would have taken the sub underwater to try to make it back to Sullivan's Island. What happened next is unclear.

One possibility is that the torpedo was not detonated on command, but rather malfunctioned due to damage incurred during the attack. It was intended that the torpedo be detonated when Hunley had retreated to approximately 150 to 175 feet (46 to 53 meters) from the target, to minimize damage to the sub. However, witnesses aboard Housatonic uniformly stated that the submarine was no more than about 100 feet (31 meters) away when the torpedo detonated, and possibly as close as 75 feet (23 meters).

If the torpedo did not explode as planned, then shock damage from the torpedo and from Housatonic's magazine explosion might have opened the sub's seams and allowed water to enter. Her crew may have failed to realize that the submarine was slowly going under. Submerging again would have put enough water aboard that her crew would likely have driven her directly into the shallow bottom, blocking the ballast intakes and making it impossible to pump her back out. Cold and immersion would have killed the crew relatively quickly.

In October 2008, scientists reported that they had found that Hunley's crew had not set the pump to remove water from the crew compartment, which might indicate that it was not being flooded. "It now really starts to point to a lack of oxygen making [the crew] unconscious," the chairman of the South Carolina Hunley Commission said. "They may have been cranking and moving and it was a miscalculation as to how much oxygen they had."[2]

Her crew perished, but H.L. Hunley had earned a place in the history of undersea warfare as the first submarine to sink a ship in wartime.

The wreck[]

The Hunley discovery was described by Dr. William Dudley, Director of Naval History at the Naval Historical Center as "probably the most important [American underwater archaeological] find of the [20th] century."[3] The tiny sub and its contents have been valued at over $40 million, making its discovery and subsequent donation one of the most important and valuable contributions ever to South Carolina.


H. L. Hunley, suspended from a crane during its recovery from Charleston Harbor, August 8, 2000. (Photograph from the U.S. Naval Historical Center.)

The Hunley discovery is claimed by two different individuals. Underwater Archaeologist E. Lee Spence, president, Sea Research Society, reportedly discovered Hunley in 1970.[4][5] and has a collection of evidence[6] claiming to validate this, including a 1980 Civil Admiralty Case.[7]

On September 13, 1976, the National Park Service submitted Sea Research Society's (Spence's) location for H.L. Hunley for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Spence's location for Hunley became a matter of public record when H.L. Hunley's placement on that list was officially approved on December 29, 1978.[8] Spence's book Treasures of the Confederate Coast, which had a chapter on his discovery of Hunley and included a map complete with an "X" showing the wreck's location, was published in January 1995.[9]

Diver Ralph Wilbanks claims to have found the wreck in April 1995 while leading a NUMA dive team funded by novelist Clive Cussler,[10] who announced the find as a new discovery[11] and first claimed that it was in about 18 feet (5 meters) of water over a mile inshore of the Housatonic, but later admitted to a reporter that that was false.[12] The wreck was actually offshore of the Housatonic in 27 feet (8 meters) of water at the location previously mapped and reported by Spence.[13] Wilbanks claims to have located the submarine buried under several feet of silt, which had concealed and protected the vessel for over a hundred years. The divers exposed the forward hatch and the ventilator box (the air box for the attachment of a snorkel) to identify her. The submarine was resting on her starboard side at about a 45-degree angle and was covered in a ¼- to ¾-inch (0.6- to 1.9-centimeter) encrustation of rust bonded with sand and seashell particles. Archaeologists exposed part of the ship's port side and uncovered the bow dive plane. More probing revealed an approximate length of 37 feet (11 meters), with all of the vessel preserved under the sediment.[14]

On September 14, 1995, at the official request of Senator Glenn F. McConnell, Chairman, South Carolina Hunley Commission,[15] E. Lee Spence, with South Carolina Attorney General Charles M. Condon signing, donated the Hunley to the State of South Carolina.[16][17] Shortly thereafter NUMA disclosed to government officials Wilbank's location for the wreck, which, when finally made public in October 2000, matched Spence's 1970s plot of the wreck's location well within standard mapping tolerances.[18] Spence avows that he not only discovered the Hunley in 1970 he revisited and mapped the site in 1971 and again in 1979, and that after he published his location in his 1995 book that he expected NUMA (which was actually part of a SCIAA expedition directed by Dr. Mark M. Newell and not Cussler[19][20]) to independently verify the wreck as the Hunley, not to claim that NUMA had discovered it. Interestingly, Dr. Newell has sworn under oath that he used Spence's maps to direct the joint SCIAA/NUMA expedition and credits Spence with the original discovery and credits his expedition only with the official verification.[21] This is an ongoing dispute involving allegations of political manipulation, official misconduct, and other questionable behavior.

The "in situ" underwater archaeological investigation and excavation culminated with the raising of Hunley on August 8, 2000. A large team of professionals from the Naval Historical Center's Underwater Archaeology Branch, National Park Service, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, and various other individuals investigated the vessel, measuring and documenting it prior to removal. Once the on-site investigation was complete, harnesses were slipped underneath the sub and attached to a truss designed by Oceaneering, Inc. After the last harness had been secured, the crane from the recovery barge Karlissa B hoisted the submarine from the sea floor.[22][23] She was raised from the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, just over 3.5 nautical miles from Sullivan's Island outside of the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Despite having used a sextant and hand-held compass, thirty years earlier, to plot the wreck's location, Dr. Spence's 52 meters accuracy turned out to be well within the length of the recovery barge, which was 64 meters long.[24][25] On August 8, 2000, at 8:37 a.m., the sub broke the surface for the first time in over 136 years, greeted by a cheering crowd on shore and in surrounding watercraft. Once safely on her transporting barge, Hunley was shipped back to Charleston. The removal operation concluded when the submarine was secured inside the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, at the former Charleston Navy Yard, in a specially designed tank of fresh water to await conservation.

The crew[]

The crew was composed of Lieutenant George E. Dixon (Commander), Frank Collins, Joseph F. Ridgaway, James A. Wicks, Arnold Becker, Corporal C. F. Carlsen, C. Lumpkin, and a man named Miller, whose first name is still uncertain.[26]

Apart from the commander of the submarine, Lieutenant George E. Dixon, the identities of the volunteer crewmen of the Hunley had long remained a mystery. Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist working for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, examined the remains and determined that four of the men were American born, while the four others were European born, based on the chemical signatures left on the men's teeth and bones by the predominant components of their diet. Four of the men had eaten plenty of maize, an American diet, while the remainder ate mostly wheat and rye, a mainly European one. By examining Civil War records and conducting DNA testing with possible relatives, forensic genealogist Linda Abrams was able to identify the remains of Dixon and the three other Americans: Frank Collins, Joseph Ridgaway, and James A. Wicks. Identifying the European crewmen has been more problematic, but was apparently solved in late 2004. The position of the remains indicated that the men died at their stations and were not trying to escape from the sinking submarine.

On April 17, 2004 the remains of the crew of H. L. Hunley were interred in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery with full military honors. A crowd estimated at between 35,000 and 50,000, including 10,000 period military and civilian reenactors, were present for what some called the "Last Confederate Funeral." Lt. George E. Dixon, a Freemason, was laid to rest with full Masonic Rites performed by members of the Lodge of which he was a member - Mobile #40 F. & A. M., Mobile, AL. In remembrance of Lt. Dixon, each April since Mobile #40 hosts a special outdoor event in the historic Civil War site of Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, at the mouth of Mobile Bay. The event draws Freemasons from many States and countries each year.

Hunley remains at the Lasch Conservation Center for further study and conservation. Continued study has led to unexpected discoveries, including the complexity of the sub's ballast and pumping systems, steering and diving apparatus, and final assembly.

Another surprise occurred in 2002, when a researcher examining the area close to Lieutenant Dixon found a misshapen $20 gold piece, minted in 1860, with the inscription "Shiloh April 6, 1862 My life Preserver G. E. D." and a forensic anthropologist found a healed injury to Lt. Dixon's hip bone. The findings matched a legend, passed down in the family, that Dixon's sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, had given him the coin to protect him. Dixon had the coin with him at the Battle of Shiloh, where he was wounded in the thigh on April 6, 1862. The bullet struck the coin in his pocket, saving his leg and possibly his life. He had the gold coin engraved and carried it as a lucky charm.[27][28]

Tours of the Hunley[]

Visitors can obtain tickets for guided tours of the conservation laboratory that houses the Hunley at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on weekends. The Center includes artifacts found inside the Hunley, exhibits about the submarine and a video.

In popular culture[]

  • The first episode of the 1963 TV CBS series, The Great Adventure, featured a dramatization loosely based on the events leading up to and including the Hunley's last mission. It starred Jackie Cooper as Lt. "Dickson". [1]
  • The original TNT Network made-for-cable movie "The Hunley" (1999) tells the story of the H. L. Hunley's final mission while on station in Charleston, SC. It stars Armand Assante as Lt. Dixon and Donald Sutherland as General Beauregard, Dixon's direct superior on the Hunley project. [2]
  • The Hunley is the inspiration of the Sons of Confederate Veterans H. L. Hunley JROTC Award presented to cadets on the basis of strong corps values, honor, courage and commitment to their unit during the school year.[29]


  1. 1.0 1.1
  2. "Scientists have new clue to mystery of sunken sub". Associated Press. October 18, 2008. (Defunct as of 4/09)
  3. Facts
  4. Cover Story: Time Capsule From The Sea - U.S. News & World Report, July 2-9, 2007
  5. 'Ghosts from the Coast, "Dr. E. Lee Spence, The Man Who Found the Hunley" by Nancy Roberts, UNC Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0-8078-2665-2, pp. 89-94
  6. Attachments to Spence's sworn Affidavit of Discovery
  7. United States District Court, District of Charleston, Case #80-1303-8, Filed July 8, 1980
  8. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form
  9. Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The "Real Rhett Butler" & Other Revelations by Dr. E. Lee Spence, Narwhal Press, Charleston/Miami, © 1995, p.54
  10. Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine by B. Hicks and S. Kropf, Ballantine Publishing, NY, © 2002, p. 131
  11. NUMA News release, Austin, Texas, May 11, 1995
  12. "Salvaging Hunley clues: Cussler fibs about sub's depth" by Schuyler Kropf, The Post and Courier, Charleston, SC, May 11, 1996
  13. "Spence Vindicated" by Schuyler Kropf, The Post and Courier," Charleston, SC, May 14, 1996
  14. H.L. Hunley Site Assessment, NPS, NHC and SCIAA, edited by Larry Murphy (SCRU), 1998, pp. 6-13, 63-66
  15. Minutes of the Hunley Commission Meeting of September 14, 1995
  16. "Assignment of Interest," September 14, 1995, signed by E. Lee Spence and Charles Molony Condon, Attorney General State of South Carolina
  17. "Hunley claimant signs over rights to state" by Sid Gaulden, The Post and Courier, Charleston, SC, September 15, 1995
  18. 'Whose X marks the spot?' by W. Thomas Smith Jr., Charleston City Paper, Charleston, SC, October 4, 2000, p. 16
  19. "News," official press release by NUMA, listing Clive Cussler as a contact, Austin, Texas, May 11, 1995
  20. The Hunley: Submarines, Sacrifice & Success in the Civil War by Mark Ragan, Narwhal Press Inc., ISBN 1-886391-04-1, p. 186
  21. The Andy Thomas Show, live radio interview by Andy Thomas with Dr. Newell, Dr. Spence and Claude Petrone, Columbia, SC, August, 2001
  26. Friends of the Hunley
  27. Ron Franscell (November 18, 2002). "Civil War legends surface with sub Fort Collins expert studies exhumed sailors". The Denver Post. p. A1. 
  28. The Legend of the gold coin


  • The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy" by Tom Chaffin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).
  • The Hunley: Submarines, Sacrifice & Success in the Civil War by Mark Ragan (Narwhal Press, Charleston/Miami, 1995), ISBN 1-886391-43-2
  • Ghosts from the Coast, "The Man Who Found the Hunley" by Nancy Roberts, UNC Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0-8078-2665-2
  • Treasures of the Confederate Coast: the "real Rhett Butler" & Other Revelations by Dr. E. Lee Spence, (Narwhal Press, Charleston/Miami, 1995), ISBN 1-886391-00-9
  • Civil War Sub ISBN 0-448-42597-1
  • The Voyage of the Hunley, ISBN 1-58080-094-7
  • Raising the Hunley, ISBN 0-345-44772-7
  • The CSS H. L. Hunley, ISBN 1-57249-175-2
  • The CSS Hunley, ISBN 0-87833-219-7
  • Shipwreck Encyclopedia of the Civil War: South Carolina & Georgia, 1861-1865 by Edward Lee Spence (Sullivan's Island, S. C., Shipwreck Press, 1991) OCLC: 24420089
  • Shipwrecks of South Carolina and Georgia : (includes Spence's List, 1520-1865) Sullivan's Island, S. C. (Sullivan's Island 29482, Sea Research Society, 1984) OCLC 10593079
  • Shipwrecks of the Civil War : Charleston, South Carolina, 1861-1865 map by E. Lee Spence (Sullivan's Island, S. C., 1984) OCLC 11214217
  • Robert F. Burgess (1975). Ships Beneath the Sea: A History of Subs and Submersibles. United States of America: McGraw Hill. pp. 238. 

External links[]

Template:National Register of Historic Places in South Carolina

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