Civil War Submarine

Confederate Efforts to Build an Effective Civil War Submarine

Drawing designs and constructing prototypes of 1860’s submarines was one thing, but keeping the crew alive was something quite different. The latter was more difficult.

Drawing of the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley

The impetus for the Confederate Navy to build an effective Civil War submarine was to aid in Union blockade running. Part of the Union plan to win the American Civil War was to choke off all southern ports. Union blockades were effective but not foolproof. The Confederate Navy did have a degree of success in running the blockades.

The Confederate side built their first submarine model in New Orleans in 1861. It was named the “Pioneer” made of heavy iron plates at a length of nineteen feet. A crude snorkel was used to supply oxygen to the crew. The ownership of this Civil War submarine wasn’t the Confederacy directly, but rather three southern Confederate supporters. Two were marine engineers named Baxter Watson and James R. McClintock. The third was a southern businessman by the name of Robert Barrow. Barrow was helped by his wealthy brother-in-law, Horace Lawson Hunley. Hunley, originally from Tennessee, had deep pockets.

Cartoon depicting Winfield Scott's blockade of the Confederacy

The submarine Pioneer was tested in the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. The vessel showed promise during the first test having sunk a barge with a torpedo. The second test didn’t fare quite as well in as much as the crew of four were killed. Not long after that, New Orleans was taken by the Union’s Admiral David Farragut in April 1862.

Another Attempt from Mobile Alabama

When Admiral Farragut took New Orleans, the builders of the Civil War submarine Pioneer fled east to Mobile Alabama with the plans. There, they teamed up with a British machinist and set out to build another southern submarine. The group did build another model but it soon sunk during tests without any loss of life.

The groups next creation would eventually become the submarine CSS Hunley. The basis of the CSS Hunley was an old twenty-five foot long boiler.

How the CSS Hunley Operated

The Civil War submarine CSS Hunley obviously operated quite crudely compared to the early German U-Boats of World War One. By the same token, it was engineered amazingly well for the year 1862 considering that covered wagons still crossed the Overland Trail.

Union sloop Housatonic

The power source that turned the vessels propeller consisted of the crew. A special rod bent to make handles was connected to the propeller which the crew turned by hand as shown on the CSS Hunley diagram in this article. This alone allowed the boat to move. The top of the boat’s hull had two hatches that were raised about eight inches above the top hull surface and which was fitted with glass and waterproofed by rubber edges. This was the one way the crew could observe where they were and what was on the water surface. The weapon was a torpedo that was hauled by the sub by a 200 foot long rope. When the vessel submerged the captain would light a candle and water would fill the tanks until the submarine submerged to about three inches under water. The depth was accomplished by the captain depressing a lever that worked the diving fins.

Two additional Trips Into History articles you’ll enjoy are the Confederate Navy and the Explosion of the Steamboat Pennsylvania.

Off to Charleston

The CSS Hunley appeared to be a design and operational  success and by late summer of 1862 the Civil War submarine was shipped off to Charleston South Carolina by rail. Her task in Charleston would be to help penetrate the Union sea blockade.

Unfortunately for the Confederacy, submarine troubles were not behind them. One time when the Hunley was in Charleston harbor a passing steamer’s wake flooded the open hatch of the Hunley and sent her down. A Lieutenant who was just about to close the hatch ended up escaping and was the only survivor. This demonstrated just how dangerous this type of duty was. After the sub was raised, another series of trials were undertaken and additional volunteer crews were lost including the Lieutenant who had previously escaped the first sinking. Even more tests were performed with volunteers and after some further close calls the CSS Hunley was amazingly declared ready for duty.

Diagram of the CSS Hunley

The CSS Hunley vs the Union Sea Blockade

History records show that the Union Navy was not totally unaware that the Confederacy was working on a secret new marine weapon. Nevertheless, the Union ship Housatonic surprisingly ended up being the victim of the  CSS Hunley. Ship lookouts had spotted a strange submerged object approaching their vessel but couldn’t quite figure out what it was. At first it was thought to possibly be a porpoise. Shots were fired at this submerged object as it came even closer but the ships heavier guns couldn’t shoot at that low of an angle. Rifles and shotguns were shot at the object to no avail.

Even though the Housatonic began drifting, the Hunley made contact with the hull of the Housatonic and an explosion occurred. Her crew began evacuating the sinking vessel and were picked up by another Union ship. Eventually, the Housatonic sank in about twenty-eight feet of water. Five crew members were lost and the Union investigation afterwards determined that some type of torpedo had destroyed her.

Where Was the CSS Hunley?

The Hunley disappeared. When the Confederates learned about the sinking of the Housatonic about a year later, they figured that the Hunley must have been dragged down to the bottom by her victim and her entire crew lost. Years later however some witnesses would say that the submarine was a hundred feet away from the Housatonic when the explosion occurred.

The location of the attack was well known and the wreck of the sloop Housatonic was eventually moved. At the time, divers did indeed notice the Confederate submarine during this removal but made no effort to salvage the vessel. Again, when the Housatonic had been hit, the existence of the Hunley wasn’t a known fact. The only thing that was determined was that the Houstatonic was hit with some type of torpedo or other explosive device.

Retrieving the CSS Hunley

Today's Ben Sawyer Bridge which connects Charleston to Sullivans Island

The location of the CSS Hunley was unknown for over a century after the explosion. The Hunley was eventually discovered by the National Underwater Marine Agency archeologists Ralph Wilbanks, Wes Hall and Harry Pecorelli on May 3rd 1995. One of the Hunley’s conning towers was discovered under a few feet of sediment off Sullivans Island in Charleston Bay. The silt which covered the Hunley’s hull actually served to protect it from the salt water that is known to erode most sunken ships. The vessel was pretty much intact and in good condition aside from the front viewport.

Viewing the CSS Hunley Today

The discovery of the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley is obviously one of the more historic finds of the twentieth century. The public is invited to see the Hunley themselves. The old CSS Hunley can be seen on weekends only at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, located at 1250 Supply Street (on the old Charleston Navy Base), North Charleston, South Carolina.

Two excellent books on this subject are The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts by author Burke Davis and A History of the Confederate Navy by author Raimondo Luraghi.

(Photos from the public domain)