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  • CSS H.L. Hunley Submarine Torpedo Boat

    The remains of the CSS H.L. Hunley were recovered in 2000 and is on display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.

     Updated: 9/30/2014; Authored By JR Potts, AUS 173d AB; Content ¬©www.MilitaryFactory.com

    The CSS H. L. Hunley was the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship while submerged, this occurring on February 17th, 1864 against the screw sloop USS Housatonic. The historical action was recorded during the American Civil War Between the Northern and Southern states with the Hunley - a classified as a submarine boat - serving in the Navy of the Confederate States of America (South).

    Horace Lawson Hunley was born to a farming family on December 29th, 1823 in Sumner County, Tennessee. His father, John, had fought with General Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans against the British in the War of 1812. In 1830, times proved challenging across Tennessee so the family uprooted to New Orleans where John became a cotton broker. Life proved evermore challenging when young Horace lost his father but the situation was made better when Horace was able to gain admission into the University of Louisiana (now Tulane University). Horace graduated with a law degree in 1849.

    He subsequently opened a law practice in New Orleans and worked part time at the Customs House, a business center for cotton, sugar cane and tobacco brokers. Business was good and Horace was able to buy an 80-acre sugar plantation in Assumption Parish and some land in Texas. In 1850, he had become a prosperous land owner and went on to purchase eight slaves for domestic and plantation work. To increase his wealth, Horace accepted a job as a Customs House clerk with a yearly salary of $1,500. His sales of sugar cane from his plantation and some incoming legal fees only served to increased his individual wealth.

    The Inventors

    As the mood of succession increased between the rural South and the mechanized North, Horace supported succession from the United States proper. Horace was to never join the Confederate Army or Navy per se as his feelings for the southern cause did not lead him down the road to joining the military. His patriotism was his partnership with James McClintock and Baxter Watson and their joint ownership of a machine shop that lead to the development of the "submarine torpedo boat". Whether it was Hunley, McClintock or Watson who first entertained the idea of formally building the submarine, we will never know. By the middle of 1861, the three partners began to work on the craft for simple fame, profit, and - of course - Southern patriotism.

    Being the first to build a working submarine would bring the three partners the fame they desired and the profit would come sales to the Confederate government as well as the sinking of Union ships - the Confederacy was paying upwards of $50,000 or more for the sinking a single Union ship. At the beginning of the war, the North fielded 83 warships ranging from heavy "Men-of-War" types sporting 84 guns to Brigs having just six onboard cannons. The South had about 10 armed warships and a number of merchant vessels donated by the succeeding states at the outbreak of war. It was obvious the South was at a serious disadvantage by sea.

    The Civil War Strategy

    The American Civil War promptly began at sea with Confederate forces firing on Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861. The Federal Navy was arming a number of the large merchant ships to increase the number of warships in the Union Navy. They were also building ironclads to help stop the South from receiving aid from the British and allied pirates by sea. General Winfield Scott, the Commanding General of the Northern Federal Armies, accepted the naval Anaconda plan as a strategy to "strangle" the South of supplies. The plan was a blockade of all Southern ports along a 3,500 mile coastline down the East Coast of America, around the Florida peninsula and up to Texas. The plan also called for a Federal Navy advance of ironclads and gun boats down all major Southern rivers designed to cut the South into two, effectively dividing the Confederate States.

    The Confederate Navy needed ships but building just a single vessel took two years so it was prompted to capture as many Union ships as possible. Upgrades were soon installed that took sailing ships and made them steam-powered through the fitting of boilers and screw propellers. Some wooded tall ships had iron plates bolted onto their existing wooden external hulls, effectively making them "ironclads". As war breeds innovation, this methodology proved the norm for the resource-strapped South - a second vessel was better than none at all. In this war time environment, ways to break the Federal blockade along the east coast was being looked into and one such idea became the submarine torpedo boat. In October of 1862, the Confederate Congress passed legislation to establish a torpedo bureau in the army as well as a navy submarine battery service. Amazingly, the US Navy of the Northern States did not establish such services until1869.

    The CSS Pioneer

    Work on the first submarine by the Hunley partnership resulted in the "Pioneer" which was under way by July of 1861. The partners divided up the project with Horace Hunley working on the problems of sustaining forward and reverse motion and the energy needed to propel the boat. The most knowledgeable engineer of the three was McClintock who worked on designing the body of the submarine. Horace, himself, was a visionary and the businessman of the group, having established connections to a circle of investors interested in the project. Problems had to be overcome with the major one being how to replenish fresh air for the crew. Another was how the crew would navigate in an underwater environment. How would the boat's captain set a course while submerged with visibility being minimal or impossible? How would the crew control speed or maintain a course while moving in unstable waters? How would the vessel dive and its ascent be controlled? The three partners spent hours upon hours on concepts to help develop solutions to these questions and hired craftsmen with practical knowledge to work on the project.

    The craft's operating problems were of great concern particularly with men's lives at stake. By the winter of 1862, Hunley, Watson and McClintock were nearing completion of the 35-foot long Pioneer submarine boat. The outer hull was made up of quarter-inch iron plate cut from old boilers. The craft's middle section was cylindrical in shape and measured 10-feet long and 4-feet high with the bow and stern noticeably tapered. A hatch on top of the craft was fitted to a small conning tower allowing the two- or three-man crew to enter and exit the boat as needed. One screw propeller powered the craft and this was cranked by two men. The plans called for a vertically set rudder and side-mounted dive planes said to mimic the pectoral fins of a fish. The controls were handled by the boats commander who kneeled in the center with his head up in the conning tower for better visibility and his hands free to operate the rudder and dive planes.

    The purpose of the boat was to deliver a torpedo which, in itself, was a another problem to overcome. How large a devise should it be how would it be delivered and detonated without placing the crew and vessel in harm's way? Two methods were discussed. The first involved simply a torpedo or mine set on a spar connected to the bow. The submarine would impale the spar into the wooden hull of the ship and back off leaving the torpedo set in the enemy's hull. The second proved the more popular route and involved towing a torpedo behind the submarine with a rope and diving under the ship. The submarine would then pass the enemy target and drag the torpedo into the underside of the enemy hull. The contact would trigger the explosion. The towed method was chosen by the partners as it was simply less engineering and available at less cost.

    The boat was ready for trials and was towed down some three miles to Lake Ponchartrain. Early tests led to tragedy when the craft sank in 12 feet of water, killing the entire crew within. Some reports indicated two slaves had drowned when they could not escape from the one small hatch. The deaths saddened the partners but they made some effort to suppress the tragedy from the public, concerned that the Confederate government might cancel the project. After she was raised and some modifications were made, the builders felt the Pioneer to be seaworthy even though she continued to leak and had navigation problems.

    The inventors felt she could be used on the lake and not in the ocean. Two Union targets were on the lake - the steamers the USS New London and the USS Calhoun. A letter was sent to the Confederate government requesting a privateering license to capture or destroy ships at war with the Confederacy; this was formally issued on March 31st, 1862. This officially made her the "CSS Pioneer". However, a few weeks later, Union troops were advancing on New Orleans and the Confederate Navy decided the CSS Pioneer needed to be scuttled to avoid capture. The partners collected their papers, tools, and moved to Mobile, Alabama to continue building the next submarine.

    The American Diver

    Horace Hunley, James McClintock and Baxter Watson arrived in Mobile in the spring and needed to find new backers for the next phase of their project. The inventers set up shop at the Park and Lyons machine shop with owners Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons located by Mobile Bay. The group met with Confederate General Maury who saw promise in the new secret weapon. He did not offer financial support but assigned CSA Lieutenant Alexander to oversee the project. A larger boat was built, named the "American Diver", and it was ready for trials in the harbor come January of 1863. She was 36-feet long and 4-feet high while 3-feet wide, a foot less than the CSS Pioneer before it. Her shape was elliptical and she had three 12-foot sections and a middle section along with tapering at the bow and aft. She was showing some promise but sank in Mobile Bay during a storm, nearly losing her 8-man crew. The Confederate Navy shown some concern and it was decided not to raise her. The partners were faced with a major problem after the loss of the CSS Pioneer and the American Diver - both which had cost $15,000 of investor money. New investors were found in Texans Edgar Singer from the Sewing Machine family and A. Whitney who had made money making torpedoes for the Confederate Navy. The group was concerned about spies and moved its boat works to the former Seaman's Bethel Church, now abandoned, and began the building of the third and last boat that was called the "Fish Boat".

    The Fish Torpedo Boat

    Forty iron plates were needed for the crew cabin hull. Additional height in the crew section was built in and cast iron caps were used to cover the bow and stern. The designers wanted the craft to move through the water with ease so the plates were butted up to each other and not over lapping as they were in ironclads of the day. Metal straps were used to hold the plates together using rivets inside the boat. She was five feet longer than the CSS Pioneer and four feet longer than the American Diver. The Pioneer used a 2- or 3-man crew and the American Diver a 5-man crew while the expanded size of this new craft would now allow an 8-man crew.

    Both the forward and aft hatches were restricted to being only 20 inches wide and were set some 18 feet apart. Each crew member would have to enter and exit the craft one at a time with their arms over their head. The hatch covers on top of the conning towers could be latched from the inside the boat and had rubber seals to prevent leaking. The captain commanded the boat and steered the lever-like device connected to the floor that controlled the rudder and a second lever controlled the outside diving planes. He commanded from the forward part of the crew compartment while sitting on a short wooden bench. The captain was also positioned to put his head up into the forward conning tower to look out thru four small glass view ports that were 2-inches in diameter with two set forward and one to port and one to starboard. The aft conning tower had two port windows, one set to port and one to starboard. The boat had 12 lights that were also small glass ports running down the length of the vessel. This allowed some natural light to enter the craft. One additional light port was on top of each hatch.

    Propulsion was accomplished by seven men hand-cranking a shaft that turned a single screw propeller. The crew sat on a narrow 18-foot plank running along the port side and the men sat with their backs against the inside hull. The crew turned a crank attached to the starboard side in a circular motion mimicking, to some degree, a short-stroke rowing motion. The crank, or drive shaft, was connected to a differential gear-type box that increased the turns of the screw propeller thusly increasing speed. The men, all sitting on one side of the boat, would have created a weight dispersal issue, however, the cramped conditions required the men to hunch over the boat's center line towards starboard. The physics of this weight shift righted the boat perhaps by design or luck. Once the men were seated, the space would not allow anyone to move inside the craft.

    Images Gallery


    CSS H.L. Hunley Technical Specifications

    Service Year: 1863
    Type: Submarine Torpedo Boat
    National Origin: Confederate States
    Ship Class: H.L. Hunley-class

    Structural (Crew Space, Dimensions and Weights)

    Complement (Crew): 8
    Length: 40 feet (12.19 meters)
    Beam (Width): 3.5 feet (1.07 meters)
    Draught (Height): 4 feet (1.22 meters)

    Surface Displacement: 7 tons
    Submerged Displacement: 8 tons

    Installed Power and Base Performance

    Engine(s): 7 x hand-operated crank systems; 1 x hand-operated rudder; 1 x propeller.

    Surface Speed: 4 knots (5 mph)
    Submerged Speed: 2.9 knots (3 mph)
    Operational Range: 1 nautical miles (1 miles, 2 km)

    Armament / Air Wing

    1 x Limpet Keg Mine (130lb to 150lbs gunpowder) fitted to bow ramming pole.

    Aircraft: None.

    Global Operators

    Confederate States

    Ships-in-Class (1)

    H.L Hunley