The Early Submariners: Confederate Submarines

The development of the submarine weapon was a product of many different minds, all with varying intentions. Some were patriots, seeking the ultimate counter to the naval super-weapons of first-rate powers. Others were schemers, betting their lives and fortunes on unproven vessels of their own design, seeking riches and renown beyond measure. There were, of course, those who explored the physical universe through the mind, men who could conceptualize the vastly complicated interaction of man-made materials and the physical nature of the abyss. These men oftentimes never sought to bring their drawings and writings from the confine of paper or parchment, but inspired generations of dreamers to follow. The most important group, however, was that of the journeyman inventor, men of the mind who traveled from country to country seeking patronage for their radical dreams.

Picture_cot32004When the American Civil War broke out, the Confederate forces found themselves at a substantial disadvantage in terms of naval power, a precarious position to be in for a nascent coalition of states economically dependent on exports. Essentially, they had no navy strong enough to effectively defend cotton exports, leaving huge bales of the cash crop to be captured at sea, or simply rot in port. Urgency compelled the development of a collection of raiders and blockade runners, but nothing that could effectively counterbalance the Union’s strategy of blockading ports. Consequently, Confederate naval officers became interested in the development of asymmetrical naval tactics, and took it upon themselves to design and build “Davids,” steam-powered, cigar-shaped semi-submersibles capable of breaking blockades and stealthily attacking Northern warships. These craft were typically 40 feet long, and armed with crude spar torpedoes. These were not submarines in the traditional sense, but ran with little freeboard. Though their builders were optimistic—in fact, one such “David” had successfully attacked a “Goliath” in the form of the USS New Ironsides during the besiegement of Charleston—severe disadvantages remained. These semi-submersibles could were not overly stealthy, and they could not disappear under the waves when discovered. Naval strategists recognized that the development of an effective submarine could potentially break the Union’s stranglehold of Southern ports, enabling the vital cotton shipments to finally resume.

Confederate naval officers Horace L. Hunley and James R. McLintock partnered with civilian engineer Baxter Watson, intent to develop such a submarine weapon. They first built the Pioneer, a 34-foot long tube with a 4-foot diameter. Like the Nautilus, it was designed to tow a floating bomb alongside a target ship and detonate it. The folly of Hunley’s endeavor took lives almost immediately—three different crews were lost during diving trials, and the project was abandoned as Farragut’s fleet advanced. The Union army began a parallel project, building the submarine Alligator, but lost interest when the vessel was lost under tow while being moved from Philadelphia to the Chesapeake in 1863. Hunley and McLintock relocated from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama and began the Pioneer II, but like the Alligator, she was lost while towed.

PSM_V58_D167_Confederate_submarine_which_sank_the_housatonicHunley opted to finance the third version of the submarine himself, and named it the Hunley. The final design would be 25-foot in length, built from a boiler cylinder, measuring five feet in height and four feet across. Eight men would work in concert to operate the hand-powered propeller, enabling the Captain to stand at the foremost end and observe out of a tiny glass portal. The vessel was dank, sweaty, cold and lit only by candles. After being bested in Mobile and found to work, the submarine was shipped to Charleston for action.

Thus began the service of the Hunley, of one the most infamous submarines in history—not for her prowess in the field of naval battle, but for the colossal hazard she posed to her own crew. She was first assigned a new crew and an inexperienced Lieutenant Commander. During an initial run, the Hunley ran with her hatches open, and directly into the wake of the passing paddle-steamer Etiwan. The paddle-wash ran over the low Hunley, flooding her in moments. The Lieutenant managed to escape from the hatch before the Hunley dragged him down with her, but the remaining eight men in the submarine all drowned, unable to escape in time.

hunley1Despite the tragedy, the Hunley was raised from her shallow grave, and men went about the repugnant task of removing the twisted bodies of the drowned men still aboard her. The same Lieutenant was given command again, and a new crew of volunteers. Due to the low volume of air in the Hunley’s hull, she one again ran with her hatches open—this time, a sudden storm swamped the vessel. Again, the Lieutenant escaped, this time joined by two of his men. The remaining six drowned, leaving the confederate navy once again with the gruesome task of raising her and emptying her of another slaughtered crew.

Once again, volunteers were requested, all of whom boarded the now-raised Hunley while at dock. Despite the loss of nearly two entire crews, the same Lieutenant was once allowed to retain command. Still, the Hunley’s tragic record was far from over. Another nearby vessel accidentally seesawed against her moorings with the changing tide, and impacted the side of the unlucky submarine. Given that the smaller vessel had approximately the same horizontal stability as an overloaded canoe, the Hunley immediately heeled over, filled, and sank. The commanding Lieutenant once again narrowly escaped death, this time accompanied by three men. The five who remained on board all drowned, bringing the total death toll of the Hunley to a stunning 19.

finalmissionpaintingHaving lost three crews and narrowly escaping death himself three times, the commanding Lieutenant was, at long last, relieved of this appalling duty. Hunley himself took command, determined to justify the merit of his creation. To further guarantee safe operation, he also brought in the original crew, experienced men who had trained with the Hunley, and knew the machine inside and out. On the morning of October 15th, 1863, the submarine was ordered out for test dives. It took just ten minutes for an improperly closed sea-cock to flood the submarine, killing Hunley himself and all hands.

Despite the shocking death toll, now at 28, additional volunteers were recruited just as soon as the twisted bodies of drowned men aboard the raised Hunley were cleared. The several men from the crew of the Indian Chief volunteered, and were hurried into training. As part of this training, they were ordered to simulate an attack against the Indian Chief herself. The men readied the submarine, battened her hatches and sea-cocks, and engaged in a simulated run at the warship. She dove, as ordered—but then never surfaced. Her entire crew of seven men had suffocated when the Hunley became tangled in an underwater hawser, probably originated from the Indian Chief herself. With the seven additional lives lost, the death toll was now at a staggering 35, astounding for a submarine never once in battle.

Confederate SubsStill, the Hunley had one final act to play. A new crew was recruited and sent to strike the Union squadron besieging Charleston. The crew of the Hunley maneuvered her close to the Union corvette Housatonic, and stuck her with a spar torpedo. It detonated, instantly killing five men aboard the corvette, and sinking the shattered hull in just moments. Unfortunately, the seven-man crew of the Hunley never lived to celebrate their victory. Some say that she was dragged to the bottom in the wreckage of her victim; others believe the USS Candaigua unintentionally rammed her, or that a buildup of carbon dioxide in the crew compartment had rendered the sailors and their captain unconscious. Despite her loss, she is forever enshrined in the history of the American Civil War for two reasons. The first was for being the first submarine weapon to successfully attack and sink an enemy vessel. The second was for claiming a dumbfounding 42 men, despite being only able to carry a maximum complement of nine at one time.

After being discovered more than a century later, she was eventually raised in the year 2000 by a team of archaeologists and engineers. No men were killed in the course of her recovery.

Interest in submarine warfare continued in the United States with the creation of the submarine Intelligent Whale, a speculative project inspired by French advances and the success of the Hunley against the Housatonic, despite the loss of both vessels in the engagement. Like Bauer’s work with Imperial Russia, the Intelligent Whale featured a diver lockout chamber, enabling a free diver to attach a mine to a scow during testing for the Navy. The government seriously considered the vessel, and eventually even took ownership. Though the inventor of the Intelligent Whale was not claimed by his creation, he was, however, murdered by debt collectors, and his submarine put to pasture in greens of Washington Navy Yard.

The need for an asymmetrical naval weapon such as the combat-ready submarine would become more apparent as a war between second-rate powers of America and Spain broke out just before the turn of the century. As the victor, America suddenly found herself to be an unexpected colonial power with vast holdings to defend across an ocean, and far from friendly ports. Just one nation would need to commit to the development of a practical submarine vessel, one that could take on the centuries-long domination of big-gun, big-crew battleships and the bureaucratic bias that accompanied it. Once that happened, it would begin a submarine arms race that would redefine naval warfare forever.

Let's hear what you have to say...