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H.L. Hunley

Submarine / Torpedo Boat

Confederate States | 1863

"The remains of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley were recovered in 2000 and are on display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center."

Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited: 10/24/2020 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site; No A.I. was used in the generation of this content.
The 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.

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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.

To dive the boat, the first and last crewman simultaneously were ordered to open their sea cocks, allowing water to fill the forward and aft ballast tanks. Once submerged, the boat was a few feet below the surface but the craft had held enough oxygen to stay submerged for about thirty minutes. When the commander decided it was time to ascend, the boats same two crewmen would close the sea cocks and crank the pumps, forcing water from the ballast tanks. Once on the surface, the hatches could be opened to replenish the fresh air into the boat. This allowed the commander to check the boats location and make any course corrections.

Hunley had left the partners while traveling on unknown business while the boat sat and did little but drill. General Beauregard had felt the boat shown great promise but the inactivity of the submarine against Union ships in Charleston Harbor changed his mind. He ordered the boat be seized by the Confederate Navy and manned by a volunteer crew. The partners felt it was pointless to complain and they would at least be compensated for monies spent on the craft, this now totaling $27,500. The Confederate navy sent Lt John Payne, having ironclad experience, and Lt. Charles Hasker, who served on the CSA Virginia when she battled the USS Monitor. Lt. Payne and the crew became accustomed to the craft over time and received cheers from onlookers when the boat would submerge on one side of the harbor and reappear on the other.

On August 29th, 1863 Lt Payne ordered the boat tied up to the CSS Etowah - or perhaps the boat became entangled to her anchor chain - as the submarine began to sink with both hatches open. She sank by the head to the bottom of the harbor some 40 feet deep. The entire crew was onboard at the time and five of the men drowned while Lt's Hasker and Payne, along with one seaman, had managed to escape. The fate of the craft hit the navy hard with many ships providing members for the crew. General Beauregard, hearing of the event, ordered the fish torpedo craft raised. The navy paid a salvage company $7,000 to raise the boat and $400 to remove the five bloated bodies, these needing their arms and legs amputated so they could be removed through the small hatches. She was pumped out, cleaned and returned to Lt. Payne on September 11th, 1863.

The H.L. Hunley

Within days of her raising, Horace Lawson Hunley had returned to Charleston, South Carolina and upon, hearing of the sinking, sent a letter to General Beauregard that he was part owner of the submarine. He proposed to the General that the boat be placed in his hands and furnished with a capable crew so he could sink Federal ships in the harbor. Beauregard had Lt. Payne dismissed and turned the boat and crew over to Horace Hunley at the expense of the Confederate Navy. Horace painted the craft's name "H.L.Hunley" on the side of the hull.

Lt Dixon of the Confederate Army had been involved with the project for some time and maintained some interest in the craft. He was the logical choice to command the boat and, with the new crew, they practiced for weeks until Dixon was satisfied that all was ready for action. Dixon had been called away for the day on October 15th, 1863. Horace Hunley then took command and decided on a mock attack against the sloop CSS Indian Chief. Several hundred feet away, Hunley submerged with the craft heading for the ship. Many watched from the shore as the submarine never surfaced on the other side - she sank in 42 feet of water, killing Horace Hunley and his seven-man crew.

General Beauregard felt the craft was dangerous unto itself but still might be used to break the Federal blockade so he had the Hunley raised once again. Once raised, the cause was found to be the bow sea cock had been opened and the ballast weight drove the boat into the mud on the bottom. The men were removed from the ship by five slaves that were also ordered to clean the boat with soap and lime. The crew's effects and monies found were sent to relatives. Horace Hunley had left a letter that the bulk of his property, worth about $48,000, would be left to his sister Volumnia Barrow. On November 12th, Lt Dixon asked General Beauregard for one more chance to sink a ship using the Hunley. Due to the continuing blockade, Dixon would get his way.

A new crew was needed now that the Hunley had been raised and was given a new mission. Over the coming weeks she was repaired and the inside painted white to reflect any light that would come through the small port windows. General Beauregard made it clear that when volunteers were found they would be told of the deaths of the last two crews. The CSS Indian Chief was in the harbor acting as a receiver ship for new navy recruits. Dixon was allowed to board the ship and, telling all of the submarines past and current mission, plead his case. Only four stepped forward - Frank Collins, Joseph F. Ridgaway, James A. Wicks, and Arnold Becker. Three other volunteers were found and these were Corporal C. F. Carlsen, C. Lumpkin, and a Mr. Miller. Shakedown training with the new crew continued for weeks and, since the navy had not furnished a towing ship, they powered the vessel themselves, only managing 4 knots or less based on Dixon's best calculations.


The original partners felt the best torpedo option was in towing a torpedo or floating mine with a contact fuse behind the submarine, diving underneath and coming up on the other side to have the contact fuse on the explosive detonate. The negative with this method was that the rope connecting the torpedo could come afoul with the submarine's own screw or drift into the submarine itself instead of the targeted ship. The new decision was to replace the towed torpedo with a spar torpedo, this connected to the bow with a water-tight cask containing gunpowder.

The submarine would ram the 22-foot iron pipe spar into the vessel 6-feet under the waterline and then pull back. The spar with the cask of explosive would detach from the submarine. It would sit harpooned into the enemy ship. Some entertained designs used a cord that deployed as the submarine reversed course and, using a mechanical trigger at a safe distance, detonated the gunpowder. Another advanced detonation method was to electrically detonate the charge using a spool of copper wire instead of the cord and this would be connected to a battery inside the craft itself. The commander would then decide when to detonate the charge. The second method was selected for the Hunley.

Sinking the USS Housatonic

Lt Dixon and his crew looked for their target carefully when trying to disrupt the Federal blockade of Charleston Harbor. The ironclads and monitors in the harbor were the closest for the submarine to attack but held chain booms around them for protection. Lt Dixon, therefore, had to look at ships outside of the harbor. Planning was necessary and Lt Dixon would lie on the beach with a sexton and compass, locating ships while planning the next sortie out into the Atlantic. Once the decision was made on which ship would be the target that night, the torpedo was hoisted onto the spar. The submarine would shove off towards the vessel until the tides, sea, moon and approaching daylight forced them to return to Marshall Battery.

This process went on for many days without attacking a single ship until the evening of February 17th, 1864. The Hunley left the beach inlet dock at about 7:00pm. The waters were calm and the wind was fair when the crew entered the bay at about 2.5 miles per hour towards the target picked that day. The USS Housatonic was a three-masted sail-and-steam, 11-gun Sloop-of-War. She was 205 feet long, weighing some 1,260 tons and crewed by 160 men assigned to the US Navy's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The fleet assigned eighty vessels from Cape Henry, South Carolina to Key West, Florida. The USS Housatonic lay at anchor at the entrance of Charleston Harbor.

After two hours of constant cranking of the screw propeller, the Hunley approached the USS Housatonic. On Board the USS Housatonic, the officer of the deck sighted an object about 300 feet away coming towards the ship. The ship was called to general quarters but it was too late - for within two minutes of the initial sighting the Confederate submarine rammed the spar torpedo into the side of the ship. Soon after, an explosion underwater ripped a large hole in the USS Housatonic and she began to sink. Two boats were lowered allowing some men to abandon ship but most of the crew climbed onto the mast rigging that remained above water after she had settled to the bottom. Five members of the crew died who were near the explosion.

Lt Dixon had a prearranged signal to the commander of Battery Marshall indicating he was returning to base. The signal was received around 9pm at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island. Within two days, General Ripley wrote to General Beauregard indicating the USS Housatonic had been sunk and the Hunley was still overdue. Ripley indicated that no one felt the crew had gone over to the Federals but, due to the history of the boat, she probably had sunk with all hands aboard.

Soon the questions were not about the sinking of the USS Housatonic but the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Hunley and these questions continued for decades. Did the explosion damage the craft? Did they hit a sand bar on the return trip? Did the sea cocks malfunction again? No one knew the reason why she did not return.

The H.L. Hunley Wreck

In 1980, author Clive Cussler created the National Underwater Marine Agency and spent $200,000 of his own money looking for the Hunley. On May 3rd, 1995, a driver working with the agency found the wreck less than 4 miles from Charleston Harbor in 27 feet of water buried half way in the sand, though still wholly intact. Also, E. Lee Spence, President of the Sea Research Society, had indicated he found the wreck in 1970. On September 14, 1995 the Hunley was donated to the state of South Carolina.

The next phase was the raising of the Hunley in one piece. Divers would excavate the sediment from around the submarine. Next, two platforms would be placed on the ocean floor one at each end to which a steel cage would be constructed that was 55 feet long and 10 feet wide to rest on the two platforms. Thirty-three slings were attached to one side of the platform and then placed under the boat and attached to the platform on the other side. This would allow equal lift that was expected to disperse the load allowing the craft to be raised without it breaking in two.

The next step was a lifting crane affixed to a barge. This would be required to lift the 40-foot, 8-ton submarine to the surface. With this accomplished, the wreck was placed on a barge for transport to shore on August 8th, 2000, this after sinking some 136 years earlier. The craft was moved to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center to be set in a designed tank filled with 55,000 gallons of fresh water. This process would reduce bacteria growth and corrosion. The excavation of the interior began and skeleton remains were cataloged and removed to be buried on April 17, 2004 at Magnolia Cemetery. A procession for the deceased was held through Charleston and the dead were laid to rest next to the other crew members (from the second crew).

The Hunley is currently on display and can be toured at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.

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Power & Performance
Those special qualities that separate one sea-going vessel design from another. Performance specifications presented assume optimal operating conditions for H.L. Hunley.
7 x hand-operated crank systems; 1 x hand-operated rudder; 1 x propeller.
4.0 kts
4.6 mph
Surface Speed
2.9 kts
3.3 mph
Submerged Speed
0 nm
1 miles | 2 km
The bow-to-stern, port-to-starboard physical qualities of H.L. Hunley.
40.0 ft
12.19 meters
O/A Length
3.5 ft
1.07 meters
4.0 ft
1.22 meters
Displacement (Submerged)
Available supported armament and special-mission equipment featured in the design of H.L. Hunley.
1 x Limpet Keg Mine (130lb - 150lb of gunpowder) fitted to bow ramming pole.
Ships-in-Class (1)
Notable series variants as part of the H.L. Hunley family line as relating to the H.L. Hunley group.
H.L Hunley
Global operator(s) of the H.L. Hunley. Nations are displayed by flag, each linked to their respective national naval warfare listing.
National flag of the Confederate States of America

[ Confederate States ]
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Mission Roles
Some designs are single-minded in their approach while others offer a more versatile solution to seaborne requirements.
Some designs stand the test of time while others are doomed to never advance beyond the drawing board; let history be their judge.
Going Further...
H.L. Hunley Submarine / Torpedo Boat appears in the following collections:
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