CSS H.L. Hunley

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CSS H.L. Hunley
Career Confederate States Navy Jack
Built: Spring, 1863
Fate: Sunk in battle; 17 February 1864
Length: 30 ft
Beam: 4 ft
Draft: 6 ft
Speed: 3 knots
Crew: 1 officer, 8 men
Armament: one spar torpedo

CSS H.L. Hunley was a submarine built and used during the American Civil War, gaining fame by being the first such vessel in history to sink an enemy warship in combat.


Hunley was privately built in the spring of 1863 in the machine shop of Park and Lyons, Mobile, Ala., under the direction of Confederate Army Engineers, Lt. W. A. Alexander and Lt. George E. Dixon, 21st Alabama Volunteer Regiment, from plans furnished by Horace L. Hunley, James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson.

Hunley was fashioned from a cylindrical iron steam boiler as the main center section, with tapered ends added, and expressly built for hand-power. She was designed for a crew of 9 persons, eight to turn the hand-cranked propeller and one to steer and direct the boat. A true submarine, she was equipped with ballast tanks at each tapered end which could be flooded by valves or pumped dry by hand pumps. Iron weights were bolted as extra ballast to the underside of her hull; these could be dropped off by unscrewing the heads of the bolts from inside the submarine if she needed additional buoyancy to rise in an emergency. Hunley was equipped with a mercury depth gage, was steered by a compass when submerged, and light was provided by a candle whose dying flame would also warn of dwindling air supply. When near the surface, two hollow pipes equipped with stop cocks could be raised above the surface to admit air. Glass portholes in the combings of her two manholes were used to sight from when operating near the surface with only the manholes protruding above the water. Her original armament was a floating copper cylinder torpedo with flaring triggers which was towed some 200 feet astern, the submarine to dive beneath the target ship, surface on the other side, and continue on course until the torpedo struck the ship and exploded.

After successful trials under Lieutenant Dixon in Mobile Bay, General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered railway agents on 7 August 1863 to expedite Hunley to Charleston for the defense of that city. She arrived in Charleston on two flat-cars and under the management of part-owners, B. A. Whitney, J. R. McClintock, B. Watson and others unknown. Whitney was a member of the Secret Service Corps of the Confederate States Army, his compensation to be half the value of any Union property destroyed by torpedoes or submarine devices.

Finding the intended target, Union blockader USS New Ironsides, in too shallow water for the submarine to pass beneath her keel, the torpedo-on-a-towline was abandoned in favor of a spar torpedo which was a copper cylinder holding 90 pounds of powder and equipped with a barbed spike. The submarine would drive the torpedo into the target by ramming, back away, and by a line attached to the trigger, explode the charge from a safe distance. The submarine was based at Battery Marshall, Beach Inlet, Sullivan's Island, in Charleston Harbor where smooth waters of interior channels were particularly favorable to the operations of the under-powered submarine which could at best, make only about four knots in smooth water.

Hunley was soon given to a volunteer crew of Confederate sailors commanded by Lt. J. A. Payne, CSN, of CSS Chicora.

First sinking

After several dives about the harbor on 29 August 1863, the submarine moored by lines fastened to steamer Etiwan at the dock at Fort Johnson. The steamer unexpectedly moved away from the dock, drawing Hunley on her side and she filled and went down. Five seamen of Chicora were officially reported to have drowned but Lieutenant Payne and two others escaped. The submarine was raised, and on 21 September 1863, turned over to Horace L. Hunley for fitting out and manning. He brought a crew from Mobile which had previous experience in handling the submarine and was to be headed by Lt. Dixon.

Second sinking

In the absence of Lt. Dixon, 15 October 1863, Hunley took charge of the submarine for practice dives under the receiving ship Indian Chief. After several successful dives, the submarine again went under Indian Chief but air bubbles traced the downward course of the submarine which failed to surface. Hunley and his entire crew of seven lost their lives as the water was nine fathoms deep and nothing could immediately be done to aid them.

Hunley was raised and reconditioned by Lt. Dixon and Lt. W. A. Alexander but General Beauregard refused to permit her to dive again. She was fitted with a "Lee spar-torpedo" and adjusted to float on the surface, being ballasted down so that only her manholes showed above the water. For more than 3 months the submarine went out an average of 4 nights a week from Battery Marshall, Beach Inlet, Sullivan's Island. Steering compass bearings taken from the beach on Federal ships taking anchor for the night, she failed time and time again because of circumstances: the distance of the closest blockader often 6 to 7 miles away, the conditions of tide, wind and sea, or physical exhaustion of her crew who sometimes found themselves in danger of being swept out to sea in the underpowered craft.


Then on the night of 17 February 1864 she found her destiny in the Federal steam sloop-of-war USS Housatonic anchored in about 27 feet of water some 2 miles from Battery Marshall in the north channel entrance to Charleston Harbor. Approaching silently through calm waters, Hunley made a daring attack in bright moonlight and approached within a hundred yards of the blockader before Housatonic's lookouts spied the Confederate craft. By the time observers determined she was not a log or other harmless object, she was so close that the heavy guns of Housatonic could not be depressed sufficiently to come to bear. She approached the keel of her victim at right angles and came under small arms fire from the watch officers and men of the Housatonic.

Housatonic slipped her cable in great haste to try to back away. Her maneuver proved vain as Hunley's torpedo struck home under water just abaft the mizzenmast. There was a stunning crash of timbers and a muffled explosion like the report of a 12-pound howitzer and a severe shock. Some of Housatonic's crew reported pieces of timber hurtling to the top of the mizzenmast itself while a dark column of smoke rose high in the sky. Housatonic, in shallow water, settled rapidly to the bottom as all her crew, save five who were killed by drowning or explosion, scrambled to the safety of the rigging which remained above the water's surface.


H. L. Hunley failed to return from her mission; the last that was seen of her from the shore was the waving of a blue lantern, the agreed-upon signal indicating success. The exact cause of her loss is not known; she may have gone down beneath Housatonic; or in backing away, been swamped by waves caused by her sinking victim; or she may have been swept out to sea. In giving their lives the heroic crew wrote a new page in history — the first submarine to sink a warship in combat — and cast a shadow far ahead to the enormous new power of sea-power in undersea war.


The raising of Hunley, 8 August 2000.

The search for Hunley ended 131 years later when best-selling author Clive Cussler and his team from the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) discovered the submarine after a 14-year search. At the time of discovery, Cussler and NUMA were conducting this research in partnership with the South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology (SCIAA). The team realized that they had found Hunley after exposing the forward hatch and the ventilator box (the air box for the attachment of a snorkel). The submarine rested on its starboard side at about a 45-degree angle and is covered in a 1/4 to 3/4-inch encrustation of ferrous oxide bonded with sand and shell particles. Archaeologists exposed a little more on the port side and found the bow dive plane on that side. More probing revealed an approximate length of 34 feet with most, if not all, of the vessel preserved under the sediment.

In August 2000 archaeological investigation and excavation culminated with the resurrection of Hunley from its watery grave. A large team of professionals from the Naval Historical Center's Underwater Archaeology Branch, National Park Service, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology and various other individuals investigated the vessel, measuring and documenting it prior to preparing it for removal. Once the on-site investigation was complete, harnesses were slipped underneath the sub one by one and attached to a truss designed by Oceaneering, International, Inc. Then after the last harness had been secured, the crane from Karlissa B began hoisting the submarine from the mire of the harbor. On August 8 at 8:37 AM the sub broke the surface for the first time in over 136 years where it was greeted by a cheering crowd in hundreds of nearby watercraft. Once safely on its transporting barge, Hunley finally completed its last voyage back to Charleston, passing by hundreds of spectators on Charleston's shores and bridges. The removal operation reached its successful conclusion when the submarine was secured inside the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in a specially designed tank of freshwater to await conservation.

Extracting the remains

The sub was partially-dismantled to grant better access to the crew compartment, revealing much of their remains to be encased in marine concretion. Each crewman was given a dual-letter identification based upon their position from fore to aft: the individual found forward was labeled “AA”; the man at the first crankshaft handle was labeled “BB” and so on; this was done to aid in removal of the remains to the lab and proper identification later. When blocks of concretion were removed and excavated, it was revealed that each crewman had died at their stations; there was no jumbling of any remains as would have been expected from one or two men fighting to get out of the flooding sub. Unusually, the portion of the compartment facing up (the sub was found lying at an angle) contained small stalactites, indicating that the compartment had air inside for a number of years after her sinking, and leading investigators to conclude that it was asphyxiation - and not drowning - that killed the crew; they surmised that Dixon may have quietly placed Hunley on the bottom to await the ebb tide as well as to avoid Union vessels coming to the aid of Housatonic, and lost his life when his air ran out.

In addition to Dixon, six men have been identified by name as being onboard:

  • Arnold Becker (crewman BB), possibly a former U.S. Navy seaman based on uniform remains; operated the 1st crankhandle and the snorkel bellows system.
  • C. Simkins (crewman CC), Confederate Navy quartermaster, operated the 2nd crankhandle.
  • Frank G. Collins (crewman DD), seaman, operated the 3rd crank handle.
  • J.F. Carlsen (crewman EE), Confederate artillerist, operated 4th crank handle.
  • “Miller” (crewman FF), a name possibly bestowed on him later by William Alexander, a former Confederate soldier and a survivor of Hunley's first sinking.
  • James A. Wicks (crewman GG), boatswain and former U.S. Navy crewman who deserted south, operated the 6th crank handle.
  • Joseph F. Ridgeway (crewman HH), H.L. Hunley’s second-in-command, and operator of the aft ballast tanks.

Four of these men (BB, CC, EE, FF) were European by birth; the remainder were Americans. Three men had recoverable DNA, and of these, two were positively identified via comparison with living descendents.

Since Dixon's relatives are unknown and he left no living descendents, DNA was out of the question despite being collected; Dixon could only have been identified from analysis of his remains, artifacts found within or near his remains, and the position of his remains onboard Hunley. He was given the identification label of “AA”; as commander of the submarine he would have been expected to navigate the vessel - the sub's compass was located there, as well as glass view-slits at the forward hatch; in addition he would have operated the dive planes and adjusted the trim of the sub via the forward ballast tank.

Dixon’s left femur was recovered and examined; it was found to have a healed fracture near the ball joint, confirming the injury sustained at Shiloh. What was needed was the coin rumored to have been carried by him since his injury; until the recovery of H.L. Hunley from the bottom of the Charleston Harbor in 2000 it remained a rumor until Dixon’s remains were removed to the lab so archaeologist Maria Jacobsen could excavate the concretion in his operating station.

In 2001 Jacobsen succeeded in recovering a United States twenty-dollar gold piece. Minted in 1860, the coin bore the profile of Lady Liberty on the observe and the U.S. eagle and shield on the reverse; it was also bent out of shape, the clear path of a bullet mark on the observe side of the coin. But it was the reverse side of the coin which revealed something previously unknown. After his recovery from the Shiloh battlefield, Dixon had the coin taken to a jeweler, who sanded a portion of it flat and placed an inscription:

April 6, 1862
My Life Preserver

After identification and study was completed, the remains of the crew were interred in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston on April 17, 2004, alongside the graves of the previous crews in what has been billed as the “last Confederate funeral.” Artifacts recovered, as well as Hunley herself, can be viewed at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.


  • Longmore, Thomas. A Treatise on Gunshot Wounds; Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1862.
  • Chisholm, Julian J. A Manual of Military Surgery; Richmond, VA, Wets & Johnson, 1861.
  • Kloeppel, James. Danger Beneath the Waves: A History of the Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley. Sandlapper Publishing, Inc, Orangeburg, South Carolina, 1992.
  • Ragan, Mark. Submarines, Sacrifice, & Success in the Civil War. Charleston: Narwhal Press Inc., 1995.
  • Moody, William H. (ed.) Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 15. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1902.
  • Jacobsen, Maria. H.L. Hunley Project: 2004 Archaeological Findings and Progress Report. Department of Defense Legacy Resource Management Program, February 2005.
  • Hicks, Brian, and Kroft, Schuyler. Raising the Hunley. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002.

Copyright Details
License: This work is in the Public Domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the U.S. Code
Source: File available from the United States Federal Government [1][2].