In the north channel entrance to the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, the Federal steam sloop USS Housatonic rode quietly at anchor, its sailors totally unaware of the extraordinary danger that menaced them. It was Wednesday night, February 17, 1864.
Two miles away a Confederate officer, Lt. George Dixon of Alabama, followed his crew down through the hatch on the main deck of a revolutionary vessel. Called the Confederate States Ship H. L. Hunley, it was capable of attacking enemy ships while submerged beneath the water.
The Hunley, constructed in Mobile, Alabama, was basically the metal shell of a cylindrical steam boiler 30 feet long, enclosed on its ends by a tapered bow and stern. Propulsion for the iron craft was provided by eight crewmen sitting side by side, each cranking a shaft which turned the single propeller in the submarine's stern. Under ideal conditions the vessel could make 4 knots.
Tragic luck plagued the Hunley from the start. On one occasion early in 1863 it failed to surface from trials in Mobile Bay. Working desperately, divers and tugs brought the craft up from the depths, but it was too late for the crew — all aboard had suffocated.
A replacement crew — the first of several — took the Hunley on a submerged run of two hours and thirty-five minutes, and brought the submarine back to the surface without incident, even though its lamps had flickered out from lack of oxygen after only thirty minutes.
In the summer of 1863 the Hunley was taken by rail from Mobile to Charleston where it was to attack blockading Federal warships. Disaster went with it. On August 29, while operating on the surface of Charleston harbor, the Hunley passed too close to a paddle steamer. Before the submarine's hatches could be closed, the steamer's wash rolled over the submarine's low deck and poured down its open hatches, sinking it like a stone. All hands drowned.
Not long afterward the ill-fated submersible drove its nose into the muddy bottom of Charleston harbor at an angle of 45 degrees. Not having the power to work itself free, it remained stuck for several days, and another entire crew was lost.
On October 15, while making training attacks on the Confederate ship Indian Chief, the tricky submarine was thrown out of control when it struck the Indian Chief's anchor chain. Once again air bubbles breaking the surface of Charleston harbor marked the watery grave of all aboard. Among them was Horace L. Hunley, the New Orleans cotton merchant who financed the building of the submarine and for whom it was named.
The Hunley was refloated again, this time from 54 feet of water, and made ready for action. Command was given to Lieutenant Dixon. With good reason the submarine was now widely known as "the coffin," and when a call was made for volunteers, only five soldiers and a captain named Carlson, all of the 21st South Carolina Infantry, stepped forward.
On a Wednesday night in February, 1864, Dixon and his volunteers took their places in the dank innards of the Hunley's iron cylinder where a total of forty-one men had died in less than a year.
The submarine was quickly underway in the moonlight, with Dixon's six crewmen straining at the crankshaft in the shadowy light of swinging oil lamps. Their objective was the blockading Federal warship Housatonic .
As a safety measure after its previous disasters, the commanding general at Charleston, P. G. T. Beauregard, had prohibited the Hunley from submerging entirely. Tonight it moved with its deck just breaking the surface.
From the forward hatch Lieutenant Dixon peered into the darkness and softly spoke the helm orders that directed the submarine toward the distant Union ship. Projecting out from the bow in front of him was a long wooden spar tipped with a powerful charge of black powder in a waterproof container.
Surprise was essential to the Hunley. If it were seen too soon, the Housatonic's muzzle-loading guns would send steel cannonballs smashing through the submarine's hull. Dixon, assuming that most of the Housatonic's vigilance would be directed toward land, circled his craft around to the seaward side of the steam sloop.
As the submarine turned to make its attack, Dixon ordered all lamps extinguished. Inside the iron cylinder his men labored shoulder to shoulder in total darkness, their muscles by now almost paralyzed with the pain of fatigue.
The Hunley succeeded in making its way to within a hundred yards of the Housatonic before Acting Master J. K. Crosby, pacing the sloop's deck, saw the submarine in the moonlight. His shouted orders brought Union sailors leaping from their hammocks. Men manning the sloop's cannons found the Hunley so close that their guns could not be lowered far enough to bear on it.
From the Housatonic's spar deck, sailors poured a hail of musket fire onto the approaching submarine's deck and hatches. The lead balls, flashing as they struck metal, whined off into the darkness without effect.
Closing the hundred yards in two minutes, Dixon spent another frantic minute trying to drive the detonator of his powder charge into the Federal warship's hull.
Equally frantically, Housatonic sailors worked to get their ship under way and out of danger. Sailors firing muskets concentrated on the only vulnerable target on the Confederate submarine — Dixon's head and shoulders, dimly visible in the flicker of gunfire as he directed the Hunley's attack from the submarine's forward hatch.
At last the explosive-tipped spar drove into the starboard side of the Housatonic at the waterline and exploded, detonating the sloop's powder magazine. In three minutes the Federal ship had sunk in 27 feet of water and the roar of battle abruptly ended, replaced by the sighing of wind over the water. From the time of Acting Master Crosby's first sighting of the submarine, only six minutes had passed.
Fortunately for the Housatonic's sailors, their ship remained upright, its masts extending out of the water. The sloop's crew, minus two officers and three men lost in the sinking, climbed wet and shivering into the sunken ship's rigging, from which they were rescued by the USS Canandaigua .
The men of the Hunley were not so lucky. Their submarine, carried with the rush of water into the hole blown in the Housatonic's side, was dragged to the bottom with the sinking sloop. It remained on the bottom for the rest of the war. There were no survivors.
The battle fought on that moonlit night a century ago, though far from well known to history, proved almost as portentous of later naval developments as was the more celebrated battle of the first ironclads two years before. In the Hunley-Housatonic action a submarine — admittedly experimental, inefficient, and more dangerous to its own crew than to its enemies, but nevertheless a submarine — had sunk a ship for the first time.
Coming years and wars were amply to demonstrate that this first submarine victory was to be far from the last. Man, having moved for countless centuries on the surface of the sea in peace and war, had begun to move under the sea as well.
|« NEXT »||« Action in Subs »||« Library »||« Home »|