As far back as the days of ancient Greece and Rome, people have dreamed of various means of underwater travel and warfare. Over two thousand years ago, Alexander the Great even devised a type of diving bell that allowed his Macedonian troops to make surprise underwater attacks on enemy positions. It was not until two millennia later, however, that an actual submersible craft became a reality.
In 1620, a Dutch engineer in the employ of King James I of England, Cornelius van Drebbel, designed and built the first operable submarine vessel. Drebbel’s oar-powered craft and two later models were all successfully tested in the Thames River. Each contained such advanced equipment as a mercury fathometer and a system that produced oxygen from potassium nitrate.
While many patents were granted for various types of submersible vessels in England and France during the following decades, the first such craft to be designed for actual warfare was one for Peter the Great of Russia in 1720. However, when Tsar Peter died five years later, the project was abandoned and it was not until the American Revolutionary War that a workable military submarine, David Bushnell’s one-man “Turtle,” was used in a failed attack against a British warship in New York Harbor. The “Turtle” was also the first vessel to use a marine propeller, a system that did come into general practice until the next century.
During the mid-Nineteenth Century, the French efforts to compete with the British Royal Navy led to such innovations as the first steam-powered warship, the “Napoleon,” in 1850 and the first ironclad, the “Gloire,” in 1859. That same year, the plans for a revolutionary type of submarine were also accepted. The submarine that had been designed by Captain Siméon Bourgeois was called the “Plongeur”(diver) and was launched in 1863. The British, however, did not build any military submarines until 1900. The hundred forty foot “Plongeur” had a twelve-man crew and its screw propulsion system was powered by a unique compressed air engine that could operate for five nautical miles. It was armed with both a ram to pierce the hulls of enemy ships and an electrically-detonated spar torpedo.
Submarines were also developed by both the North and South during the War Between the States, but it was one used by the Confederacy that actually made the first successful attack on an enemy warship. The Union Navy’s first submarine, the “USS Alligator,” was launched on May 1, 1862, in Philadelphia for the purpose of attacking the Confederate ironclad “CSS Virginia” in Hampton Roads. It was a fifty foot iron, eighteen-man vessel that utilized a French design and was initially propelled by sixteen oars. When the oar system was found to be impractical, it was later altered to use a hand-cranked propeller. The following year, the unmanned craft was lost in a storm off the coast of North Caroline while being towed for blockade duty at Charleston. The Union gave up any further plans for undersea vessels during the War and the U. S. Navy, like the British, did not build submarines until 1900.
The South, on the other hand, with little or no knowledge of the French or Union efforts, had begun to develop its own undersea vessel in the fall of 1861. A submarine craft was designed and built by the operators of a New Orleans steam gauge company, James McClintock and Baxter Watson, with financial assistance from a wealthy planter and former member of the Louisiana State Legislature, Horace L. Hunley. The trio’s first submarine, the “Pioneer,” was a small, propeller-driven, three-man, cigar-shaped boat made of iron plates from steam boilers that was launched a month before its Union counterpart.
The “Pioneer” performed well in Lake Pontchartrain, sinking a schooner and several rafts by successfully attaching torpedoes while submerged. While they were planning their attack on Admiral David Farragut’s blockade squadron at mouth of the Mississippi River, Farragut and Major General Benjamin Butler made their attack on New Orleans and the “Pioneer” was scuttled in Bayou Saint John before it could fall into Union hands. Thirteen years after the War, a dredging crew in the bayou found and raised the “Pioneer.” It was first put on display at the Spanish Fort Amusement Park near New Orleans and in 1908 moved to the Camp Nicholls Confederate Home. The vessel was acquired and restored by the Louisiana State Museum in 1942 and is now on display at the Museum’s branch in Baton Rouge.
As Butler’s troops entered the city, McClintock, Watson and Hunley fled to Alabama, taking with them all of the submarine’s blueprints, diagrams and whatever equipment they could carry. After their arrival in Mobile, they went into partnership with the owners of a machine shop near the harbor, Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons, and immediately began work on a larger and more formidable vessel, the “American Diver.” The group was also aided by an Army engineer from the Twenty-First Alabama Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant William Alexander. The new boat was thirty-six feet long with a beam of three feet and had a five-man crew. It was planned to use either a small steam or electro-magnetic engine but neither produced enough power to turn the screw propeller fast enough and a more conventional hand crank was employed instead.
The “American Diver” was launched in mid-January of 1863 and after a few weeks of test runs in the Mobile River, it was ready for the first attack against one of the Union blockade ships outside Mobile Bay. Leaving Fort Morgan in mid-February, the crew laboriously propelled the submarine to the first ship they could find but could not properly attach the torpedo. They had also found that propelling the vessel to the target area was far too tiring, and in the next attack later that month, they were to be towed to the mouth of the bay. Soon after they had again departed from Fort Morgan, a violent storm arose which swamped the submarine and while the crew was able to escape, the “American Diver” sank and was never recovered.
McClintock and Watson requested funding from the Confederate government to build a third submarine but when their request was refused, the two gave up any plans for a new vessel. Hunley, however, decided to go on alone, using his own funds and additional financing from his brother-in-law, Robert Barrow, a North Carolinian who had become one of the wealthiest men in New Orleans with sixteen plantations in Louisiana and Texas and various other business interests throughout the South.
Hunley also received technical assistance from Lieutenant Alexander and using the basic design of the “American Diver,” they began work on a new and larger boat. The hull was made from an existing iron boiler twenty feet in length and four feet wide that was cut in half and elongated with iron plates to over thirty-five feet in order to accommodate an eight-man crew. Like her predecessor, the new submarine also had two small conning towers fitted with thick glass windows and a device to attach a towed torpedo to the hull of their target.
During the boat’s first trial in the Mobile River, while everything seemed to function properly, the craft suddenly sank and all aboard were drowned. After the vessel was raised and a new crew found, the next test was successful and plans were made for an attack outside Mobile Bay. The Confederate military, however, decided that the large blockading fleet outside Charleston Harbor was a better target and the vessel, now named the “H. L. Hunley,” was sent by rail to South Carolina in August to be placed under the Command of Major General P. G. T. Beauregard in Charleston.
After the “Hunley’s” arrival there on August 12th, Navy Lieutenant John Payne, the commander of the ironclad ram “CSS Chicora,” was selected to captain the submarine. Payne then picked eight sailors from both his ship and the ram “CSS Palmetto State” to man the vessel. Their first attack was to be made on the Union’s most formidable warship, the “USS New Ironsides.” Misfortune, however, followed the “Hunley” to Charleston and on the night of the mission, as the vessel was leaving the wharf, it was engulfed by the wake of the passing steamer “Etiwan” and sank. Lieutenant Payne and two members of the crew, William Robertson and Charles Hasker, were standing near the open hatches of the two conning towers and managed to swim to safety but the other five aboard were lost.
Despite the fact that the “Hunley’s” actions were under the direct command of General Beauregard and the vessel was captained by a naval officer, it, like the “Pioneer” and “American Diver, was still technically considered to be a privateer operating under a letter of marque. Therefore, the boat’s operators and crew were eligible to share in the large rewards being offered for the sinking of Union blockade ships. The firm offering the rewards was Fraser and Company, Charleston’s largest banking house whose Liverpool branch in England acted as the depository for all the Confederate Treasury’s funds in Europe. The company was offering a hundred thousand dollars for the sinking of any major ship threatening Charleston, such as the “USS Ironsides,” and thirty thousand dollars for any lesser Union warship. Aside from patriotism and the desire to take part in a revolutionary new method of warfare, the huge rewards were an added incentive in allowing Lieutenant Payne to quickly recruit a new crew in Charleston after the boat was raised.
Tragedy, however, continued to plague the “Hunley,” and on its second mission against the “New Ironsides” the boat suddenly capsized for some unknown reason while passing Fort Sumter and quickly sank. This time Payne and three others were able to exit through the hatches in time, but the remaining four men all drowned. Payne felt that if there was another such incident he might not be so fortunate and vowed never to serve in a submarine again. The “Hunley” was once again raised, but this time Horace Hunley sent a crew from Mobile which had participated in the boat’s initial tests there. Hunley also selected a former steamboat engineer to command the boat, Army Lieutenant George Dixon, who, like Lieutenant Alexander, was a member of the Twenty-First Alabama Infantry Regiment and had become familiar with the *Hunley* while he was stationed at Fort Morgan in Mobile.
However another and even more fatal mishap took place on October 15 of 1963 during a demonstration in Charleston Harbor in which the boat would dive under the torpedo layer *CSS Indian Chief.” On that exercise, even though Hunley himself was in command of vessel rather than Lieutenant Dixon, someone mishandled the forward ballast tank controls, with the submarine plunging bow first into nine fathoms of water. The craft became partially buried in the mud bottom and Hunley, along with the other seven crew members, all perished.
The “Hunley” was again raised, but by now General Beauregard was reluctant to continue with the vessel and ordered that no further missions be attempted, saying . . . “It is more dangerous to those who use it than to the enemy.” Both Dixon and Lieutenant Alexander still had faith in the “Hunley,” however, and successfully prevailed on Beauregard to allow another attack. To complicate matters, the activities of the submarine were now well known in Charleston and the Union blockade commander, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, had also become aware of the vessel from a Confederate deserter who mistakingly called it the “American Diver.* As a precaution, Dahlgren moved most of his fleet into more shallow waters and added a number of defensive measures, including several small picket boats to patrol the area.
Therefore, it was thought that any future attacks would have to be made against ships in the deeper waters further off shore. Operations were then moved to Breach Inlet on Sullivan’s Island near to where the newly-arrived, thirteen hundred ton sloop-of-war “USS Housatonic” was anchored, and an attack on that ship was planned for the following February. After two months of intensive training, it was decided that the original towed explosive charge was impractical. A newly designed spar torpedo was then developed and placed on the bow of the “Hunley.” While all the practice runs and torpedo tests were successfully carried out, rough winter seas prevented any attack on the *Housatonic” until February 17th.
On that fateful night, the “Hunley” and its crew made up of Lieutenant Dixon, Corporal J. F. Carlson, Arnold Becker, Frank Collins, C. Lumpkin, Joseph Ridgeway, James A. Wicks and a man named Miller began their final journey that would carry them into the pages of history. The attack was successful and the “Hunley” became the first submarine to sink an enemy warship . . . a feat that would not be repeated for more than half a century. The next such sinking took place on September 5, 1914, when the German submarine “U-21” torpedoed the British cruiser “HMS Pathfinder* at the start of World War One.
Unfortunately, the “Hunley” and all its crew were also lost following the explosion, but not only was the vessel and its gallant crew recorded in the annals of American history, but two of its leading protagonists, Horace L. Hunley and Lieutenant George E. Dixon were memorialized by the United States Navy a century later when two of the Navy’s submarine tenders were named in their honor. The “USS Hunley” was commissioned in 1962 and the “USS Dixon” in 1971, with both ships in active service for more than two decades.
For weeks after the sinking of the “Housatonic,” the Union Navy dragged the area in an effort to find their underwater antagonist but it was all in vain. No one knows precisely what happened to the “Hunley” that fateful night, and its final resting place remained unknown for more that a hundred and thirty years. Then, on May 3, 1995, adventure writer Clive Cussler, the founder of the National Underwater and Marine Agency, finally located the vessel between the wreck of the “Housatonic and Sullivan’s Island, indicating that the “Hunley” was attempting to return to its base when some mishap occurred.
Following the discovery, two South Carolinians, former U. S. Senator Glen McConnell and business executive Warren Lasch, formed a group to raise and restore the “Hunley.” Aiding them in this endeavor were experts from the U. S. Navy, National Park Service, Department of Natural Resources and the private group Oceaneering International. On August 8, 2000, the “Hunley” was raised and transported to a facility created to restore it, the Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston’s old U. S. Navy Yard.
The remains of Lieutenant Dixon and the other seven crew members were carefully preserved, and on April 17, 2004, tens of thousands from around the world, including descendants of some of the final crew, gathered in Charleston for their long-delayed memorial service and burial in Magnolia Cemetery near the resting places of Horace Hunley and all the others who had perished in the “Hunley.”
Today, however, it is highly doubtful that such a national effort would be devoted to any Confederate entity or personage. Even the federal government has now decreed that the names of such outstanding Confederates as Hunley and Dixon be stripped from their rightful places of honor. Memorializing the Confederacy and the antebellum South in general has now become anathema to far too many in America who feel that such things are little more than symbols representing acts perpetrated by treasonous Southern racists in an effort to uphold slavery and should, therefore, be erased from public view and memory.