Saturday, February 17, 2007

H. L. Hunley

On February 17, 1864, during the American Civil War, a.k.a. The War for Southern Independence, or, The War of Northern Aggression, the Union ship U.S.S. Housatonic was rammed and sunk in Charleston Harbor, S.C., by the Confederate hand-cranked submarine H.L. Hunley, which also sank.

H. L. Hunley was a submarine of the Confederate States Navy that demonstrated both the advantages and the dangers of undersea warfare. Hunley was the first submarine to sink a warship, though the sub was also lost following the engagement. Though some know the submarine by the name CSS H. L. Hunley, she was not commissioned and therefore does not warrant the "CSS" prefix.

The H. L. Hunley, almost 40-feet (12-m) long, was built at Mobile, Alabama, launched in July 1863, and shipped by rail to Charleston, SC on August 12, 1863. On February 17, 1864, Hunley attacked and sank the 1800-ton, steam-powered sloop-of-war USS Housatonic in Charleston harbor, but soon after, the Hunley also sank, drowning all 8 crewmen. Over 136 years later, on August 8, 2000, the wreck was recovered, and on April 17, 2004, the DNA-identified remains of the 8 Hunley crewmen were interred in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery, with full military honors.

Hunley made her first attack against a live target on the night of February 17, 1864. The ship was USS Housatonic. Housatonic, an 1800-ton, steam-powered sloop-of-war with 12 large cannon, stationed at the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina harbor, about 5 miles (8 km) out to sea. In an effort to break the naval blockade of the city, Lieutenant George E. Dixon and a crew of seven volunteers attacked Housatonic, successfully embedding the barbed spar torpedo into her hull. The torpedo was detonated as the submarine backed away, sending Housatonic and five of her crew to the bottom of Charleston harbor in five minutes, although many survived in 2 lifeboats or by climbing rigging until rescued. Hunley also sank, moments after signaling shore of the successful attack, possibly from damage caused by the torpedo blast, though this is not certain. (NOTE: The possibility must be considered that the torpedo was not detonated on command, but rather malfunctioned due to damage incurred during the attack. In previous tests and actual attacks, it was intended that the torpedo should be detonated approximately 150 to 175 feet away from the target, so as to minimize any damage to the sub. However, witnesses aboard the Housatonic uniformly stated that the torpedo detonated at no more than about one hundred feet, and possibly as close as seventy-five.)

There is convincing evidence that Hunley actually survived as long as an hour after the attack (which took place at approximately 8:45 PM). Authors Mark Ragan and Clive Cussler both provide convincing evidence that George E. Dixon flashed a blue signal lantern to the sub's base at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island as late as 9:30 PM, but the indications were that no one ever saw it except crew members of the Housatonic, who were in the ship's rigging awaiting rescue. At that point, George E. Dixon took the sub under to try and make it back to Sullivan's Island. However, shock damage from the torpedo and magazine explosion had probably opened the sub's seams, and she was slowly filling with water. Her crew, likely suffering from malnutrition, respiratory problems, cold, and exhaustion, would have failed to realize that the submarine was slowly going under. Submerging again would have put enough water aboard that her crew would likely have driven her directly into the shallow bottom, blocking the ballast intakes and maing it impossible to pump her back out. Cold and immersion would have killed the crew relatively quickly.

Her crew perished, but H.L. Hunley had earned a place in the history of undersea warfare as the first submarine to sink a ship in wartime.