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CSS H. L. Hunley

In August 1863, a train from Mobile, Ala., arrived in Charleston, S.C., with two of its flatcars loaded with a disassembled cigar-shaped metal vessel. When reassembled in Charleston Harbor, the propeller-driven H.L, Hunley was about 30 feet long, 5 feet high, and 4 feet wide. She had no engine but was powered instead by an eight-man crew that turned cranks positioned along the drive shaft, which extended most of the length of the vessel.

Because earlier cylindrical vessels of this design had been powered by steam engines, they had to be operated at the surface. The Hunley was the world's first true submarine in that she was able to completely submerge during operations. Ballast tanks filled with water lowered the Hunley to just below the surface, and horizontal fins on the sides of the vessel were adjusted to lower or raise her when in motion. Trial dives in Mobile Bay had shown that she could stay under water for up to two hours before the crew ran out of air.

She was designed to tow a percussion-fused bomb at the end of a 200-foot rope, pass completely underneath an enemy vessel, and continue moving until the bomb made contact with the ship and exploded. During trial runs, the Hunley sank several times. Each time she was salvaged, but the loss of life caused Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding at Charleston, to order the vessel to operate only at the surface. The bow of the Hunley was then fitted with a 20-foot spar, with a torpedo containing 90 pounds of gunpowder at the end. Thus the Hunley could sink enemy ships by ramming them with her spar torpedo.

At 9:00 P.M. on February 17, 1864, the blockader USS Housatonicó200 feet long with nine gunsówas struck by an explosion that destroyed her entire stern. The Hunley was the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship, but she had also made her last attack. The submarine and all her crew went down with the Housatonic, either because the spar did not disengage or because she came apart in the explosion.

Fascinating Fact: At least 32 crewmen lost their lives during the trial runs of the Hunley. One of them was Horace L. Hunley, the builder.

Illustration courtesy The Museum of the Confederacy Written by Stephen T. Foster
Printed in USA
© MCMXCIII Atlas Editions, USA
D3 602 01-08