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I learned that good judgement comes from experience and that experience grows out of mistakes.

-- General Omar N. Bradley

History of the CSS HUNLEY

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History of the CSS HUNLEY

The Civil War-era was one of industrious innovation, fascination and sweeping cultural change. Not only would the country forever be changed, but Warfare would be drastically transformed by the events that unfolded during this armed conflict of brother against brother. In late 1860 and early 1861, the Southern states voted to secede from the United States, and formed the Confederate States of America. When South Carolina seceded, the first Confederate state to do so, they began to seize the forts within their borders and off their coastline. The only fort that they were unable to seize was the most strategic and important one to the Union: Fort Sumter.

Robert Anderson was the Federal Major assigned to Fort Sumter and by April 1861, he and his men did not even have enough supplies to get them through the end of the month. On April 11, General Beauregard sent a letter to Major Anderson demanding the surrender of the fort. When Anderson refused, the next day at 4:30 AM Bueragard ordered his forces at the Charleston battery to open fire onto Fort Sumter. After two days of heavy bombardment, Fort Sumter surrendered to the Confederates.

The Civil War had begun.

On April 19, 1861 President Abraham Lincoln issued an order for the Union forces to begin a blockade of all major Southern ports. This strategy set a chain of events in motion that would bring about groundbreaking advancements in naval warfare and eventually lead to the building of the world's first successful submarine: H.L. Hunley.

With Charleston housing the strategically valuable Fort Sumter and the largest port in the South, she quickly became the focal point of the blockade and the Civil War. As the war progressed, the blockade on Charleston Harbour became more fortified, allowing less and less blockade runners through.

In 1863, news from Mobile of the successful trial runs of the Hunley had made its way to Charleston. Could this secret submersible weapon help save Charleston from the ever-tightening Union blockade?

With proof of the submarine's destructive powers becoming more known, the Hunley arrived by train in Charleston on the morning of August 12, 1863 and was soon granted an audience with besieged Charleston's military commander, Pierre Gustave Tousant Beauregard.

With the Hunley's arrival in Charleston on the morning of August 12, 1863, a suitable mooring from which to strike out at the ever-growing enemy fleet was sought. Horace Hunley arrived shortly after his namesake submarine and soon filed for a requisition for nine uniforms to be worn by the Singer crew during their nocturnal patrols.

"August 21,1863. Special Requisition: For nine gray jackets, three to be trimmed in gold braid. Circumstances: That the men for whom they are ordered are on special secret service and that it is necessary that they be clothed in the Confederate Army uniform. H.L. Hunley."

One day after Captain Hunley received the Confederate jackets he had ordered for his crew to wear, the Union forces on Morris Island fired the first shots into the city of Charleston from a huge siege cannon nicknamed "The Swamp Angel." Charleston was now under heavy fire, and the Confederate forces attempting to protect the city were desperately in need of a strategic advantage.

They turned their hopes to the small, but lethal "torpedo fish" from Mobile: the Hunley.

As the Union hammered Charleston with cannons, Confederate defenders became more and more anxious for a naval victory. Why hadn't the small submarine made an attack?

Some in the Confederate military viewed Horace Hunley and the Singer Corps as engineers and prominent businessmen, with not enough military or naval experience to be in control of a weapon of massive potential that could very well save Charleston from the Union attack. This may be why the Confederate military seized the Hunley submarine and turned it over to the Navy.

Besieged Charleston remained hopeful that the curious torpedo boat would be able to break the blockade of ships that were choking the city.

First Crew: August 29th, 1863

From Civilians to Military Takeover


Michael Cane
Nicholas Davis
Frank Doyle
Charles Hasker (survived)
John Kelly
Lt. John A. Payne (survived)
Charles Sprague (survived)
Absolum Williams
William Robinson (survived)

With the Confederate Navy now in control of the Hunley submarine, a crew to man her had to be assembled. The new volunteer skipper of the small submarine was Lieutenant John A. Payne, a veteran of the Confederate Navy assigned to the Charleston-based ironclad Chicora. Little is known about the lives of the civilian volunteers who first manned the Hunley.

With a volunteer crew and a Naval officer at the helm, the curious sub readied herself for a nighttime attack on a Union ship. But tragically, disaster struck and the Hunley disappeared off the end of Fort Johnson wharf. Four crew members escaped; the other five were drowned. Charles Hasker, a crewmember who survived, later reported that the officer in charge, Lt. John A. Payne, accidentally stepped on the lever controlling the dive planes causing the submarine to dive while her hatches were still open.

The Confederacy did not give up hope. Within 72 hours of the fatal accident, General Beauregard sent the following order: "Fish Torpedo still at bottom of bay, no one working on it. Adopt immediate measures to have it raised at once."

Work quickly began to salvage the submarine from the harbor's bottom and exhume the crew from their iron sarcophagus.

From a letter sent to Charleston native, Beckie Honour, by her husband who was stationed at Fort Johnson, come the following lines summing up both the submarines arrival and ultimate sinking.

"Sunday morning August 30th 1863, My Dear Beckie: You doubtless remember, and perhaps you saw while in the city the iron torpedo boat which certain parties brought from Mobile to blow up the 'Ironside.' They have been out three times without accomplishing anything, and the government suspecting something wrong, proposed to them to allow a Naval officer to go with them on their next trial, which they refused. The boat was therefore seized and yesterday some men from one of the gunboats was placed in her to learn how to work her, and go out and see what they could do. Just as they were leaving the wharf at Fort Johnson, where I was myself a few minutes before, an accident happened which caused the boat to go under the water before they were prepared for such a thing, and five out of the nine went down in her and were drowned. The other four made their escape. They had not up to last night recovered either the boat or the bodies. Poor fellows they were five in one coffin."

Second HUNLEY Crew: October 15, 1863

Horace Hunley - captain
Robert Brookbank
Joseph Patterson
Thomas Parks
Charles McHugh
Henry Beard
John Marshall
Charles L. Sprague

For the submarine's second attempt to attack the Union Blockade, Hunley convinced the Confederate Navy to man the sub with a crew from Mobile who were familiar with the Hunley's operations. Hunley went straight to where the submarine was built, Parks and Lyons machine shop in Mobile, to enlist a new crew to man the vessel. Thomas W. Parks, son of the co-owner of Parks and Lyons, joined the crew and made his way to Charleston. The other crewmen, also thought to be from Mobile, possibly were employees in the machine shop.

Even their experience proved futile. On October 15, 1863, the Hunley again sank while performing a routine diving exercise. All eight men on board, including Hunley, succumbed to the depths. Although Hunley was in charge of the sub's operations, he was not part of her crew. It is not known why he was at the helm when the sub sank for the second time.

She disappeared beneath the water in a normal fashion. After scanning the surface for what seemed like hours, it slowly became clear that the Hunley and her full crew of eight were lost. No one survived, including her namesake, Horace Hunley.

Again the Confederacy recovered the Hunley from the ocean floor, but bad weather meant divers could not get down to the ill-fated Hunley for days. When they finally put on their heavy copper diving helmets and submerged to the frigid muddy bottom, they were shocked to find the vessel with her bow buried deep in the mud with her hull protruding at about a 30? angle. It looked as if the Hunley had literally plowed nose first into the black mud.

The Cause?

If the crew had been able to close the forward sea valve, the freezing water that had already entered the ballast tank and spilled over the top could have been bailed back into the compartment and pumped into the sea. In the darkness and confusion that followed the impact with the ocean floor, the valve handle must have fallen off the stem and become lost beneath the bodies that had been thrown into the forward area.

As icy water and internal pressure steadily rose within the vessel, panic would have gripped the terrified crewmen. Beneath nine fathoms, hopelessly stuck in the mud, their shouts for help were soon silenced by the biting cold water at the black bottom of Charleston Harbour.

After a search and salvage operation was put into place the day after the sinking, the new volunteer crew was put under the command of Lt. George E. Dixon. After months of repairs, re-modification and practice missions, the Hunley was ready to attack again.

LT. George Dixon and The Third Crew

Lieutenant George E. Dixon
Arnold Becker
Corporal C. F. Carlson
Frank Collins
C. Simkins
Joseph Ridgeway
James A. Wicks

The Hunley had now sunk twice, both times killing her crew - including Hunley himself. Even so, the desperation of the times kept hope alive that the Hunley could save Charleston from the strangling blockade. Though Beauregard had grave concerns over the twice-fatal Hunley, he nevertheless approved her to be to be salvaged by divers and pulled up by ships so that she could again attempt a strike at the Union blockade.

A courageous new crew had already quickly assembled after the second sinking. Lt. George Dixon would command the Hunley and her crew on what would become their historic final mission.

Little is known about members of the final Hunley crew. Since the Hunley was a venture with close ties to the Confederate Secret Service, many records were intentionally destroyed at the end of war to protect the identities of those involved.

It is believed that there were eight men aboard Hunley on its final voyage. Below is a listing of the heroic crewmen:

Lieutenant George E. Dixon
In Spring 1861, Dixon enlisted as a private in Company "A" of the 21st Alabama Infantry and quickly rose to first lieutenant by fall of 1863. He convinced a discouraged General P.G.T. Beauregard to entrust Hunley under his command. At age 25, Dixon captained the first successful wartime submarine, accomplishing a feat that would not be repeated for more than 50 years.

One-time company commander John Cothran described the final commander of the H. L. Hunley: "Dixon was very handsome, fair, nearly six feet tall and of most attractive presence. I never knew a better man; and there never was a braver man in any service of any army." He was a man of extraordinary conviction who believed in his men and in the Hunley. Dixon, a natural leader, was also known for his good fortune and became the center of a local legend that emerged during the Civil War.

The legend told the story of a gold coin Dixon was given as a good luck charm by his girlfriend when he left home to go to war. In 1862, during the Battle of Shiloh, Dixon was shot. According to legend, the bullet struck the gold coin in Dixon's trousers and saved his life, leaving a deep impression on the coin's surface.

In 2001, during the excavation of the H. L. Hunley, a $20 dollar gold piece minted in 1860 was discovered next to the remains of Lt. Dixon. It was deeply indented from the impact of a bullet and inscribed with the following words:

April 6, 1862
My life Preserver
G. E. D.
With the finding of this artifact, a legend almost 140 years-old became fact and another fascinating part of the history of the Hunley and the Civil War.

James A. Wicks
A native of Virginia, Wicks was married with four daughters. He transferred to Charleston in the summer of 1863 and served as a boatswain's mate on the CSS Indian Chief before volunteering for Hunley.

Arnold Becker
Becker was a New Orleans chef before getting transferred to Charleston in August of 1863. He served as a captain's cook aboard the ironclad CSS. Chicora, then transferred to CSS Indian Chief before volunteering for Hunley.

Joseph Ridgeway
Ridgeway was a native of Richmond, Virginia. He enlisted in the summer of 1862 in the Quartermasters Corps and served as seaman on CSS Indian Chief before volunteering for Hunley.

Frank Collins
Collins was a native of Virginia. He served on CSS Indian Chief before volunteering for Hunley.

C. Simkins
Simkins served on CSS Indian Chief before volunteering for Hunley.

Corporal C. F. Carlson
A native of South Carolina, Carlson enlisted in Company "A" of the SC Light Artillery. He is the only crewmember with a regimental war record at the National Archives. He served in Mt. Pleasant and may have been secretly volunteering for Hunley. Carlson was chosen to replace William Alexander when he and a mysterious crewmember (possibly Confederate secret service agent Henry Dillingham) were reassigned to other duties only weeks before Hunley's final voyage. He was said to have gone AWOL in a Confederate military report at the end of February of 1864, but then in next month's report, he was suspected to be missing with crew of Hunley.

While no official records were found on the volunteer named Miller, the United Daughters of the Confederacy monument to Hunley and its crew in Charleston, erected in 1889, lists him as a crewmember.

The new crew, under the command of Lt. George E. Dixon, took part in months of repairs, modification and successful practice missions. The Hunley was again ready for battle. On February 17, 1864, she would have a final chance to prove herself in war.

The Historic Mission

The Date: February 17, 1864.

The Location: Just outside Charleston Harbour approximately four miles off Breach Inlet in Sullivan's Island on the moonlit sea.

The Conditions: Cold. Bone chilling. Quiet.

The Situation: Desperate. Frightening. A turning point in history.

The Ship: A lookout aboard the Union Navy's largest ship was tired, cold -- but restless. Talk of a Confederate secret weapon was in and out of his thoughts. Suddenly he spotted something move in the chilly waters. A porpoise? There were certainly a lot of them around. But something about this one didn't seem right.

The Underwater Secret: While the cold bit through the lookout's coat, 8 men poured sweat over hand cranks that powered a spinning propeller while their captain manned the dive planes - steering man, iron, anxiety and raw courage towards its final destination.

The Alarm: The alarm rang out. This was definitely no porpoise. Nor was it debris floating from a war-torn Fort Sumter. This was something bizarre. The ship's cannons could not target an object so low in the water. Shots rang out and bullets ricocheted as other union sailors joined in the frantic firing of revolvers and rifles. The object continued to approach at about three knots.

Contact: Below the waterline - as bullets bounced off its cylindrical body, the H.L. Hunley rammed her long metal spar into the stern area, planting a 135 pound torpedo into the Warship Housatonic. The men inside the Hunley lunged forward from the impact, then quickly backed their sub out as the 150-foot attached detonation rope played out. Within seconds, the world rocked and every man, above and below, became enveloped in a concussion of destruction.

Aftermath: The explosion caused the USS Housatonic to burn for three minutes before sending the sloop-of-war collapsing to the bottom killing five sailors. The Hunley then surfaced long enough for her crew to signal their comrades on the shore of Sullivan's Island with a blue magnesium light, indicating a successful mission. The shore crew stoked their signal fires and anxiously awaited the Hunley's safe return. But minutes after her historic achievement, the Hunley and all hands onboard vanished into the sea without a trace.

That night history was made. At the same moment, a mystery was born. The Hunley became the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship. But why had she suddenly disappeared? What caused her to sink? And would she ever be found?

The Hunley Today

Since the end of the War Between the States, explorers and treasure seekers have scoured the sea around the site of the fallen Housatonic, hoping to discover the Hunley and her crew. In the years following the Civil War, a reward of $100,000 was even offered by the great showman, P.T. Barnum, to encourage mercenaries to find the lost vessel. But as the years passed by, the story of the Hunley remained shrouded in mystery with her secrets hidden and her resting place unknown for well over a century.

The world would have to wait until the tools of modern technology could begin to unlock the secrets of the Hunley. In 1995, author and adventurer Clive Cussler found the Hunley resting on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Intact and remarkably well preserved, the Hunley was found buried deep within the sand and silt just outside of Charleston Harbor.

The recovery of the Hunley has turned out to be one of the most important single events in the history of South Carolina. After being lost at sea for 137 years, the Hunley was revealed on August 8, 2000, seen for the first time in her entirety, from bow to stern and top to bottom. It was indeed a remarkable moment in history.
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