Civil War Wiki
Sinking of the USS Housatonic
Part of the American Civil War
File:Css hunley on pier.jpg
H.L. Hunley on a pier before her sinking.
Date February 17, 1864
Location Charleston Harbor, Charleston, South Carolina
Result Confederate victory
Confederate States of America Confederate States Navy File:Flag of the United States.svg United States Navy
Conf Navy Jack (light blue) George E. Dixon File:US Naval Jack 35 stars.svg Charles W. Pickering
1 submarine 1 sloop-of-war
Casualties and losses
none 5 killed,
unknown wounded,
1 sloop-of-war sunk

The Sinking of USS Housatonic on 17 February 1864 during the American Civil War was an important turning point in naval warfare. On this night the Confederate States Navy submarine, CSS Hunley made her first and only attack on a Union Navy warship. CSS Hunley became the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel, the USS Housatonic, in combat. Thus began the era of submarine warfare.


On the evening of February 17, 1864, CSS Hunley made her first mission against an enemy vessel during the American Civil War. Armed with a spar torpedo, mounted to a rod extending out from her bow, the Hunley's mission was to lift the blockade of Charleston, South Carolina by destroying the sloop-of-war USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor.

Housatonic was a 1,240 ton vessel with an armament of twelve large cannons, stationed at the entrance of Charleston Harbor roughly five miles off the coast. Housatonic was commanded by Captain Charles W. Pickering and had a crew of over 400 men. The Hunley began her approach at about 8:45 pm, commanded by First Lieutenant George E. Dixon and crewed by seven volunteers.


USS Housatonic

Accounts differ about the initial approach; what is known is that the Hunley was spotted just before embedding her torpedo into Housatonic's hull. Some accounts say Housatonic was able to fire a broadside at Hunley, but failed to hit the target. Others say the Hunley destroyed Housatonic before any defense was attempted. Either way, the Hunley attached her explosive to Housatonic's side before reversing and setting a course for home.

A few moments later the torpedo detonated and sank the sloop-of-war. First-hand reports say no explosion was heard by the crew of Housatonic, who immediately began climbing the rigging or entering life boats as the sloop began to sink. Within five minutes, Housatonic was partially underwater. Hunley thus achieved the first sinking of a warship in combat via submarine.


Five men, two officers, and three crewmen went down with their ship, an unknown number of Union Navy sailors were injured, and the survivors were later rescued by other elements of the Charleston blockading force. Hunley won her first victory, but was lost at sea the same night while returning home to Sullivan's Island.


Confederate Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island looking east into Charleston Harbor.

It was originally thought that the Hunley was sunk as result of her own torpedo exploding, but Hunley survived as long as an hour after her destruction of the Housatonic. Confirmation of Hunley's sinking after her action with Housatonic has been confirmed, as the commander of Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island reported receiving a signal from Hunley at 9:00 pm.

The signal, from a blue carbide lamp, indicated that the Hunley had completed her mission and was returning to base. Signals were also reportedly seen by the crew of Housatonic, who were high up on their ships rigging awaiting rescue, thus enabling them to see a great distance. This was the last time the Hunley was heard from. While returning to her naval station Hunley sank for unknown reasons. A film entitled The Hunley was made about the story of H.L. Hunley and the Action of 17 February 1864.

See also[]

  • Action of 9 April 1914


  • This article includes text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The entry can be found here.
  • 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. 

^ a b ^ "Scientists have new clue to mystery of sunken sub". Associated Press. October 18, 2008. (Defunct as of 4/09) ^ Facts ^ Trip Atlas, "Events of 1970" ^ Cover Story: Time Capsule From The Sea - U.S. News & World Report, July 2–9, 2007