Monday, January 23, 2012

The Hunt for Red H.L. Hunley

Every once in a while there is a great historical finding. The H.L. Hunley is one of those rare discoveries. The H.L. Hunley was a Confederate submarine, which pretty much changed the future of naval warfare. The Civil War saw the birth of submarine warfare and its benefits. However, submarine warfare in the mid 19th century was pretty much a suicide mission, as the crew of the H.L. Hunley would find out. The H.L. Hunley was found in the 1970s, raised in 2009 and become available for viewing in Charleston, South Carolina. So what is her story, who are her crew and why was she resting at the bottom of the Atlantic? They question will all be answered here and from there we will see how the H.L. Hunley paved the way for the use of the modern submarine in navies around the world.
The H.L. Hunley was launched in July of 1863 in Charleston, South Carolina. It was sent to Charleston from Mobile, Alabama to combat the Union blockade of the south. However, the H.L. Hunley was not the answer to the Confederate Navy's prayers. She sank on both of her test runs and killed thirteen men. It wouldn't be until February of 1864 that she would earn her stripes and prove her usefulness to the Rebel cause. That night would then change the course of navel warfare as the world had known it. No longer would there be only battleships attacking each other on the high seas, but the world would now see the importance of the stealth attack abilities of the submarine.
Raise the periscope and ready torpedo tube number one! That is what would have been happened as the H.L. Hunley approached the USS Housatonic as she sat outside Charleston Harbor. As the H.L. Hunley and her eight man crew sank under the waves, their target sat there, unsuspecting of what fate awaited them. The H.L. Hunley came up next the the Housatonic and stuck a spar torpedo right into her hull. As the crew of the Housatonic saw the H.L. Hunley they opened fire with guns and rifles. As the H.L. Hunley turned away from the ship, the Housatonic exploded and began to sank. The H.L. Hunley's mission was a success, sinking her target ship and taking five Union sailors and the ship to the bottom of Charleston Harbor. However, the victory celebration would be short lived as the H.L. Hunley was soon to be doomed. But before the H.L. Hunley would sink she would have unknowingly changed history and the course of naval warfare.
How the H.L. Hunley ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic was a mystery for a very long time. There were two theories on how and why the H. L. Hunley never resurfaced after the attack on the Housatonic. The first idea was that the H.L. Hunley had a torpedo accidentally explode while it made it's return to the Confederate Naval Base on Sullivan's Island. The second theory is that she took in water and sank. In 2008, the mystery was solved when the wreck was examined and showed no damaged from an explosion. It did however reveal that the crew never set a pump which would have removed water from the cabin, yet that may not be the main reason. Scientist think that because of the amount of water that flooded the submarine forced oxygen out of the ship. It forced enough oxygen out that the crew may have actually suffocated to death. The cause most historians agree on is that the ship took on water and the crew was unable to pump the water out. The submarine would then come to rest on seabed and become the final resting place for the eight Confederate sailors. The men who perished in this submarine were led by Lieutenant George E. Dixon. The crew was made up of Corporal C. F. Carlsen, Frank Collins, Joseph F. Ridgaway, James A. Wicks, Arnold Becker, C. Lumpkin and Augustus Miller, all of them volunteers for the mission.
Now why would I bother writing about the H. L. Hunley? How important can a submarine from 1864 be to today's navy? Well it proved the value of the submarine. The H.L. Hunley was the first successful submarine attack. It went in undetected and came right up on the Housatonic, planted a bomb and sank the ship. Some of you might be saying that the submarine had been around way before the Civil War and your right. The submarine was born in the 1580s and developed all through the 16th, 17th, and 18th century. The Bushnell "Turtle" was the first submarine used during wartime and from then on, the idea of using a submarine had always been kicked around by world naval departments. But it was the H. L. Hunley that showed the importance of the submarine as an offensive weapon. It was after the attack that both the Union and Confederacy kicked their submarine development into high gear, after the Civil War navies throughout Europe also saw the value of this new technology. The technology however was still in it's infancy and it wouldn't be another fifty years until a submarine took down a ship. This happened when German U Boat U-5 sank the British cruiser Pathfinder with one torpedo. There was no stopping it now, the submarine would now be a staple part of any major naval power and the effects can be seen in every war after and up until today.
What was to become of the H. L. Hunley? The Hunley is now on display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, SC. It is currently in the conservation stage and can be viewed on weekends. Along with the sub, the conservation center has many of the artifacts that were found in the sub and the surrounding area. As for the photo above, the crew members of the H.L. Hunley were given a Confederate burial. On December 5, 2007, 143 years later, the eight crew men when buried with full military honors burial. The funeral was attended by thousands of Civil War re-enactors, both gray and blue. The funeral procession was a mile and a half long which had the remains of the sailors in coffins draped with the Confederate flag. The men where buried in Magnolia Cemetery in a common grave and laid to rest in the same order in which they stationed on the sub. Many might say "why honor some damn Rebels? They ripped our nation apart!" To some extent they are right but not these men. These men did something so great, it overshadows the Civil War. These men changed the world. They did something that was never thought possible by military leaders of their time and even after. Rebecca Farence, the great-grandniece of Frank Collins said "These are just extraordinary men- brave and strong who did a marvelous thing." And that is exactly what they did, at the time they might not have realized it, but these men changed the course of history under the waves outside of Charleston Harbor.


  1. "Some of you might be saying that the submarine had been around way before the Civil War and your right." ... should be: Some of you might be saying that the submarine had been around way before the Civil War and you're right.