Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The Hunley Submarine: Part One - Its Civil War Mission and Mysterious Disappearance

By Mary Dodge Allen

"Confederate Submarine, Hunley" artist Conrad Wise Chapman, 1864

In the early evening of February 17, 1864, the Hunley, a Confederate sub with a crew of eight men and armed with a primitive torpedo, set out on its first mission: to sink a Union warship blockading Charleston’s harbor. In less than three hours, the Hunley made history as the first combat submarine to sink an enemy ship. But after accomplishing its mission – the Hunley disappeared without a trace. And for the next 131 years, its fate would remain a mystery.

During the Civil War, both sides actively sought to design a workable submarine. The Confederacy was more successful because they relied on independent engineers and private funding, and they weren’t hampered by the Union’s government bureaucracy. Before building the Hunley, the Confederacy built two other submarines.

First Sub – Pioneer:

In 1862, this sub was built In New Orleans by a team headed by three key men: former riverboat captain James McClintock, engineer Baxter Watson, and lawyer Horace L. Hunley. In February, they began testing the sub’s performance in Lake Pontchartrain. But only weeks later, in April, Admiral David Farragut’s fleet captured New Orleans. The team quickly scuttled the Pioneer to keep it out of Union hands.

James McClintock, Horace L. Hunley (Public Domain)
No photo of Baxter Watson found

Second Sub – American Diver:

The team moved to Mobile, Alabama, determined to build a new sub powered by an engine. Machinists Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons joined the effort, and the team set up its operations at the business these machinists co-owned, Parks & Lyons machine shop.

Parks & Lyons Machine Shop in Mobile (Public Domain)

In January 1863, American Diver began sea trials in Mobile Bay. But its engine, powered by a primitive electro-magnetic battery, wasn’t powerful enough to propel the heavy sub through the water. One month later, American Diver sank during a fierce storm, with no crewmen on board.

(Graphic Image from Hunley.org)

Third Sub – originally referred to as the “fish torpedo boat”:

Learning from their mistakes, the team built a new, improved sub – powered by a crew of eight men using hand cranks, attached by a long screw to the rear propeller, guided by a steering rudder. They used a 40-ft metal boiler to craft the sub’s body and added hydraulic and ballast systems. The sub had two top hatches with glass port holes, and glass port holes along the top of the crew compartment. It was designed to tow a torpedo (a contact bomb), and dive under an enemy ship while dragging the bomb against its hull. In July 1863, this sub successfully sank an old coal barge during a trial run in Mobile Bay. 

Diagrams of the "fish torpedo boat" - later renamed Hunley (Public Domain)

The “fish torpedo boat” suffered two tragic accidents:

The First Accident: After the success in Mobile Bay, the Confederate Navy took control of the sub and placed Lt. John A. Payne in command of a new crew – all navy volunteers with no submarine experience. On August 29th, after only five days of training, the sub sank when its top hatches were accidentally left open during a dive. Lt. Payne and two crewmen escaped, but the other five crewmen perished.

The Second Accident: The sub was recovered, and Captain Horace L. Hunley was placed in command of a new volunteer crew. In October 1863, after several weeks of training, the sub sank once again, during a practice dive. The entire eight member crew perished.

After the Confederate Navy recovered the sub, it was formally renamed Hunley, in memory of its commander, who was also the submarine project’s original key investor.

The Hunley Submarine:

Due to safety concerns, the Hunley was redesigned. A 16-foot long metal spar was fixed to its bow, and the torpedo (a copper cylinder containing 100 pounds of gunpowder and a detonation fuse) was attached to the spar’s tip. This new torpedo system eliminated the danger of choppy waves propelling a towed torpedo into the sub. 

Diagram of redesigned Hunley (Public Domain)

Because the sub was lost twice during dives, the new volunteer crew, commanded by First Lt. George E. Dixon, was ordered to operate the sub above the surface until just before an attack.

The Hunley’s Attack - February 17, 1864:

At approximately 8:15 PM, one and a half hours after the Hunley set off from Sullivan’s Island, it began its fast run toward its target: USS Housatonic, three miles offshore – one of the Union ships blockading Charleston Harbor.

USS Housatonic (US Naval History and Heritage Command)

USS Housatonic’s Officer of the Deck, John Crosby, was on the eight to midnight watch. He stated: “I saw something in the water, which at first looked to me like a porpoise... about 75 to 100 yards from us on our starboard beam... Looking again within an instant, I saw it was coming toward the ship very fast.”

USS Housatonic’s Captain Charles W. Pickering rushed on deck and issued the order to ‘Go Astern’ when he saw the danger. He stated: “I saw something... moving towards the ship... I turned instantly, took my double barreled gun loaded with buck shot... and jumped on the horse block on the starboard quarter... It was shaped like a large whale boat... within two or three feet of the ship’s side. I fired... and ran to the port side, singing out, ‘Go Astern Faster’...”

Crewman Mayer, Assistant Engineer on USS Housatonic, stated: “The engine was immediately backed, and had made three or four revolutions when I heard the explosion, accompanied by a sound of rushing water and crashing timbers and metal... I then jumped up the hatch, saw the ship was sinking and gave the order for all hands to go on deck.”

The USS Housatonic sank in only a matter of minutes, taking the lives of five of its crewmen.

Shortly after the explosion, men standing onshore reported spotting a blue light (the Hunley’s signal for a successful attack). But the sub never returned. Its whereabouts remained a mystery until its location was confirmed in 1995. Later that year, a team of archaeologists and government agencies began devising a plan to recover the Hunley.

Read about the sub’s recovery in my blog next month on October 5th – The Hunley Submarine: Part Two - Recovery, Restoration, Solving the Mystery of Its Loss.

Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at Amazon.com:

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Thank you for your post today, and I am eagerly awaiting the rest of the story!

    1. Hi Connie, The rest of the story has a few interesting surprises!