H L Hunley – Confederate submarine, 1864

The H L Hunley carried two separate test crews with her to the bottom, as well as her final crew on 17 February 1864. But on that date, the hand-powered Confederate submarine did manage to sink the Union steam-sloop Housatonic – the first successful kill by a submersible warship in history.

Throughout the American Civil War, the Confederacy was hopelessly mismatched against the maritime, financial and industrial resources of the Northern States. Tennessee-born Horace Lawson Hunley, with two associates, sought a technological equalizer. Their third design was built in Mobile, Alabama and after an initial trial success was shipped by rail to Charleston, South Carolina (the scene of the longest combined arms siege of the entire conflict). Hunley was placed under Confederate Army command but the target was clear: the Union blockading fleet. In addition to the pilot, she was powered by seven men, cranking the propeller and ballast tanks by hand. Somehow the Confederate submarine proved both manageable and undetectable, though her armament consisted of a spar torpedo extended from the bow and she was surfaced when she finally touched the Housatonic.  The ensuing blast sank both ships; ironically, more men perished on board the brave attacker than the unsuspecting victim. As the Hunley never returned from her mission, faith in the new ‘wonder weapon’ collapsed and Charleston remained a doomed symbol of Southern defiance. On 8 August 2000, her wreck was salvaged and the remains of the crew were subjected to forensic analysis before burial with full military honours.

Howard Fuller


39.5ft x 3.8ft (12m x 1.2m) • 6.8 tons [D] • Hull iron • Armament 1 x spar torpedo • Complement 8 • Built Horace L. Hunley, Mobile, Alabama, USA, 1863

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Taken from Ship, edited by Andrew Lambert.

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