H. L. Hunley and the story of the first submarine to sink a warship

Nikola Petrovski
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Horace Lawson Hunley the child of John Hunley and Louisa Harden and was born on the 20th of June 1823. While he was still young, the family decided to leave Tenessee and settled in New Orleans. This is where Horace Hunley spent his adult life working on a couple of unsuccessful submarine prototypes before coming up with the design for H. L. Hunley itself.

Conrad Wise Chapman Submarine Torpedo Boat H.L. Hunley, Dec. 6, 1863. Author: Conrad Wise Chapman – American Civil War Museum – Chapman Paintings Portfolio Public Domain

The idea of a submerged vessel was mind-boggling at the time, but nonetheless, it was something that Horace, James R. McClintock, and Baxter Watson wanted to pursue. The first submarine they built was named Pioneer.

It was the first Confederate submarine to be built around the same time as the first Union submarine USS Alligator. But this early prototype had a fairly short existence, for in order to prevent the Union from stealing their brainchild, the three of them sunk Pioneer on purpose.

The Confederate submarine Pioneer – by Ensign David M. Stauffer of the Mississippi Squadron, 1865.  Author: David M. Stauffer Public Domain

After this pioneering attempt followed yet another prototype and a new failure when the vessel was lost in Mobile Bay. But Horace Hunley refused to give up and went on to design his third submarine. This is when H. L. Hunley was born, a 12-meter-long, hand-powered vessel – though sadly this is when it was also lost, taking with it its crew of five men crew, who were the first to ever board this submarine.

The Alligator. Author: PMG Public Domain

Four of the crew members managed to survive and the vessel was brought up to the surface. After initial repairs, she was once more submerged. The design itself was not perfect and would take the life of all eight crew members, among which was Horace Lawson Hunley himself, during what should have been a normal routine test drive.

The interior of the sub. Author: Pi3.124 CC BY-SA 4.0

The submarine in a sodium hydroxide bath. Author: Pi3.124 CC BY-SA 4.0

After a while, the vessel was once more brought up to the surface in 1864 to be repaired and restored after which followed the attack upon USS Housatonic. On February 17, 1864, around 9 PM, the landsman Robert F. Flemming, Jr. spotted an object moving in the water 100 meters from the ship and slowly closing in on it.

USS Housatonic. Author: PMG Public Domain

The object was H. L. Hunley moving at about four knots with the intention of hitting the ship with a torpedo, then lighting a blue lamp that would signal to the troops on the shore about the successful attack and in return they would light a signal fire, after which the sub would return to safety, although events did not go according to plan.

Hunley replica. Author: DrStew82 CC BY-SA 4.0

“…Acting Master’s Mate Lewis A. Comthwait, who studied the object for only a second before he dismissed it as floating debris. It’s a log, he said. Queer-looking log, Flemming replied. He noted that this log was not floating with the tide—it was moving across it,” writes usni.org in their article about the history of this vessel.

Location of the Hunley submarine. Author: United States Coast Survey Public Domain

It took time before the crew members of USS Housatonic realized what was happening, all the while H. L. Hunley was getting closer. They had heard rumours about an underwater vessel, stories coming from deserted Confederate soldiers and the object that was approaching them seemed like one, although no one had ever seen such a contraption before; nevertheless, something had to be done.

The sailors started to fire with small arms at this strange vessel, though as far as they could tell, nothing hurt the submerged ship; and before long, crew members heard a loud explosion that caused their ship to begin sinking, and thus the mission was accomplished, or so the Confederates though. It would take time before they realized that the sub was missing and remained lost for years.

H.L. Hunley recovery. 


H.L. Hunley crew gravesite. Author: David Dugan CC BY-SA 3.0

It wasn’t until 1995 that the submarine was rediscovered and brought to the surface in 2000. Today, there is an ongoing project that aims to restore H. L. Hunley and understand what happened to sink the ship 150 years ago, a program that will last until 2020.