Thursday, February 16, 2012

Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley (1863-1864)

February 17, 1864. The H. L. Hunley becomes the first submarine to engage and sink a warship, the USS Housatonic.

H.L. Hunley, a small, hand-powered submarine, was privately built at Mobile, Alabama, in 1863, based on plans furnished by Horace Lawson Hunley, James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson. Her construction was sponsored by Mr. Hunley and superintended by Confederate officers W.A. Alexander and G.E. Dixon. Following trials in Mobile Bay, she was transported to Charleston, South Carolina, in August 1863 to serve in the defense of that port. On 29 August, while moored to a steamer, the submarine was accidently pulled over on its side and sank, drowning five members of her crew. After salvage, she was given a new crew and began a series of tests. However, during diving trials on 15 October 1863, she failed to surface. Horace Lawson Hunley, who was directing her operation, and the rest of her men were drowned.

H.L. Hunley was again raised and repaired. With a third crew, and under orders to only operate on the surface, she began a series of attempts to attack United States Navy ships on blockade duty off Charleston. On 17 February 1864, these efforts were successful. H.L. Hunley approached the steam sloop of war USS Housatonic and detonated a spar torpedo against her side. The Federal ship sank rapidly, becoming the first warship to be lost to a submarine's attack.

However, H.L. Hunley did not return from this mission, and was presumed lost with all hands. Her fate remained a mystery for over 131 years, until May 1995, when a search led by author Clive Cussler located her wreck. On 8 August 2000, following extensive preliminary work, the H.L. Hunley was raised and taken to a conservation facility at the former Charleston Naval Base. At present, she is the subject of a careful preservation effort that ultimately should place her in suitable condition for general public exhibition.

The search for Hunley ended 131 years later when best-selling author Clive Cussler and his team from the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) discovered the submarine after a 14-year search. At the time of discovery, Cussler and NUMA were conducting this research in partnership with the South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology (SCIAA). The team realized that they had found Hunley after exposing the forward hatch and the ventilator box (the air box for the attachment of a snorkel). The submarine rested on its starboard side at about a 45-degree angle and is covered in a 1/4 to 3/4-inch encrustation of ferrous oxide bonded with sand and shell particles. Archaeologists exposed a little more on the port side and found the bow dive plane on that side. More probing revealed an approximate length of 34 feet with most, if not all, of the vessel preserved under the sediment.

In August 2000 archaeological investigation and excavation culminated with the resurrection of Hunley from its watery grave. A large team of professionals from the Naval Historical Center's Underwater Archaeology Branch, National Park Service, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology and various other individuals investigated the vessel, measuring and documenting it prior to preparing it for removal. Once the on-site investigation was complete, harnesses were slipped underneath the sub one by one and attached to a truss designed by Oceaneering, International, Inc. Then after the last harness had been secured, the crane from Karlissa B began hoisting the submarine from the mire of the harbor. On August 8 at 8:37 AM the sub broke the surface for the first time in over 136 years where it was greeted by a cheering crowd in hundreds of nearby watercraft. Once safely on its transporting barge, Hunley finally completed its last voyage back to Charleston, passing by hundreds of spectators on Charleston's shores and bridges. The removal operation reached its successful conclusion when the submarine was secured inside the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in a specially designed tank of freshwater to await conservation.

All who viewed the vessel said Hunley incorporated an unexpectedly graceful and beautiful design. It is certainly a marvel both for its time period and for modern day researchers. No doubt this small submarine will be the key to unlock many mysteries of a bygone era.

Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley (1863-1864)

Photo #: NH 999 Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley (1863-1864) Sepia wash drawing by R.G. Skerrett, 1902, after a painting then held by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society Museum, Richmond, Virginia.

Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

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