Inside the H.L. Hunley Submarine’s Dire Past

Inside the H.L. Hunley Submarine’s Dire Past

Image to the left drawn by R.G. Skerrett, and taken from hnsa.org

Under the control of the Confederate Army of Charleston, South Carolina, the H. L. Hunley played an important role in the American Civil War.  This was the first submarine used to sink an enemy warship, and named after its inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley. It was lost at some point following the successful attack, but not completely submerged.

The Hunley, built in Mobile, Alabama, was nearly 40-feet long and launched in July of 1863. On August 12, 1863 it was shipped to Charleston, South Carolina, via rail. Originally called Fish Boat, it sank on August 19, 1863 during a training exercise and it killed five members of its crew. It was raised and repaired and, again, sunk on October 15, 1863 this time killing all eight of the crew members, including Horace Hunley himself who happened to be aboard at the time. Once again, she was raised and repaired and on February 17, 1864 it attacked and sank the USS Housatonic that was on Union blockade duty about five miles out to sea at the mouth of Charleston harbor. This was its first and only attack on a live target, and at this point, the Hunley was lost.

It was not until 1995 that the ship was located, but not recovered until 2000.  It was raised from the Atlantic, about 3.5 miles from Sullivan’s Island, just outside the mouth of Charleston harbor. It is now on display in Charleston.

The recovered artifacts of the Hunley suggest that the sub was as close as 20 feet away from its target when its deployed torpedo exploded, thus causing the Housatonic to sink, as well as the Hunley. Although it did not play a huge part in the Civil War itself, it played an enormous part in the advancement of navel warfare.

The Hunley was designed for a crew of eight, seven to turn the hand-cranked propeller and one to steer the boat. At each end was a ballast tank that could be flooded by the use of valves or pumped dry by hand pumps. It was equipped with watertight hatches and small portholes. The hatches were quite small measuring only 14 x 15 ¾ inches, making entrance from the hull very difficult.

Soon after its arrival in Charleston, the military took control of the vessel from its private builders and owners and turned it over to the Confederate Army. Although the Confederate government never officially commissioned the vessel into service, from this point forward the Hunley would operate as a Confederate Army vessel.

There is a lot more to learn about this fascinating submarine and visitors can obtain tickets for guided tours of the conservation laboratory that is home to the Hunley at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on weekends. You can view artifacts and exhibits regarding the Hunley, and a video. It is located at:  Warren Lasch Conservation Center, 1250 Supply Street (on the old Charleston Navy Base), North Charleston, South Carolina, 29405. For tour inquires you can reach them by phone at: (843) 743-4865, Ext. 10.

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