In the Second World War, as American naval power closed in on the Japanese home islands, the Japanese deployed Kamikaze aircraft to strike our ships.  Less famous was the Kaiten-class submarine – basically a manned torpedo tasked to steer itself into an American ship and self-detonate a 3400 pound warhead.  More than a hundred Kaitens were launched on suicide runs, but sank only two of our ships, the USS Underhill and Mississinewa.

Eighty years earlier, Confederate commerce is strangled by the United States navy prosecuting Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan.”  The blockade begins in May of 1861 – by early 1864, most of the major Southern port cities are either occupied or shut off by blockaders.  Charleston still holds out and, after Wilmington, is the busiest destination for the blockade runners which are the South’s lifeline to the outside world.

Desperate Confederates adopt Kamikaze-like strategies to break the Charleston blockade.  The first of these is the CSS David – as in David versus Goliath – a slim, fast steam launch designed to torpedo much larger vessels.  Not quite a submarine, she is a semi-submersible 50 feet long, six feet wide,  a draft of five feet, with a crew of four.  The David employs a 65-pound powder charge on the end of a wooden spar to hurt her opponent, praying that darkness, speed and a low profile will keep her from being detected and blown out of the water –  and that she will not be “hoist with her own petard” when her torpedo goes off.

On the night of October 5, 1863, David attacks the most powerful ship in the U.S. navy, the sea-going ironclad USS New Ironsides. The stealthy little steamer closes within fifty yards of her target before she is detected.  The ironclad’s crew opens up with small arms; the Confederates shoot back, hitting a sailor before ramming home the torpedo. While the ironclad’s hull is breached, the crew patches the crack and saves the ship.  One Yankee sailor’s legs are broken, one dies of gunshot wounds and a third is disabled by blast concussion.

The David does not fare much better. Water blown into the air falls through David’s smokestack, extinguishing her boiler; concussion damages her as well.  Dead in the water under the muskets and 11-inch guns of an irritated ironclad, her skipper orders the crew to abandon ship and swim for their lives.  An ensign who cannot swim remains aboard; under fire, an engineer returns to the boat and somehow rekindles the boiler.  David limps home, though the rest of her crew is captured in the water.  New Ironsides is repaired and soon is back on picket.  David is also repaired and attacks two more blockaders before Charleston falls, the USS Wabash and Memphis; neither is damaged.

Sketch of Hunley, Conrad Wise Chapman
Sketch of Hunley, Conrad Wise Chapman

More famous is the CSS Hunley’s attack on the USS Housatonic on the night of February 17, 1864.  Named after her inventor, roughly 42 feet long and four feet in beam, Hunley was man-powered by her crew of eight and could reach a speed of about four knots as the men turned a longitudinal crank connected to a propeller.  Like David, she carried a spar tipped with a torpedo.  Unlike David, Hunley was fully submersible.

Horace Hunley began his submarine program privately in New Orleans.  The prototype, the Pioneer, demonstrated that submarines were feasible, but had to be scuttled when the Yankees captured New Orleans.  The project moved to Mobile, where an improved sub, the American Diver, was developed.  The Diver was fitted out with a spar torpedo; as she was towed out to attack the blockaders, she suddenly sank. See: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/h-l-hunley-submarine.htm.

Hunley persisted, moving the project to Charleston.  The third craft he named after himself, the HL Hunley, which officially was not a “CSS”, but a licensed privateer operated by the army.  Hunley was never a lucky boat.  On an early test run in August of 1863, the skipper accidently steps on a dive plane control with the hatches wide-open; the boat floods and five of her eight man crew drown.  The graves of four of this crew are identified in 1999.  Their bones are hacked and sawn to pieces; it is ten days before the boat is salvaged and the dead bloat so badly they must be butchered for removal through narrow hatches. See http://www.historynet.com/hunley-crewmen-found-december-1999-civil-war-times-feature.htm.  In a second sinking in October 1863, Horace Hunley himself drowns with all hands; the sub is salvaged once more, notwithstanding P.T.G. Beauregard’s reservation that the Hunley “was more dangerous to those who use it than the enemy.”

So, thirteen men had already perished inside the Hunley’s cramped hull when George Dixon and his crew of seven squeeze inside on the evening of February 17th.  Dixon’s target is the 205 foot sloop-of-war Housatonic.  It takes approximately two hours for Dixon to close the five miles to his objective.  Up in the cold, sailors on the Housatonic see something coming in the moonlight and sound the alarm – Hunley is not submerged for the attack.  The Yankees pour small arms fire into the sub.  Closing at three knots, the Hunley’s spar tipped with a 135 pound charge detonates under the sloop’s hull in the aft section.  A huge hole is torn in the hull – witnesses describe a couch floating out of the breach – and she burns only three minutes before going to the bottom.  Five sailors are killed; 150 survivors cling to spars and rigging waiting for rescue.  Salvagers report much more devastation than expected from a torpedo, suggesting that a secondary explosion of the aft powder magazine contributed to the rapid sinking.

Hunley never returns.  Her wreck is recovered in 2000 about 300 yards from the grave of the Housatonic, her crew dead at their posts, with no signs of struggle to escape, despite the front hatch being partially opened.  This suggests all were stunned or killed by the concussion of the 135 pound torpedo detonating 20 feet from her nose through incompressible water, followed by the blast of Housatonic’s magazine.  Dixon’s watch stopped at the moment of the explosion, 8:23 p.m.  For more, see, What really happened to the Hunley, http://www.clemson.edu/glimpse/?p=1151; Friends of the Hunley, http://www.hunley.org/; The Historical Archaeology of Military Sites: Method and Topic, Ed. Clarence Geier (2010)

 Hunley is the first submarine to sink a ship, but it costs 21 Confederate lives to do so.  Her last crew’s odds were slim and they probably knew it.  They were buried together in Charleston with full military honors in April 2004.


Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@cartercoleman.com.

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