HL Hunley - "Disappearance Of The HL Hunley"

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February 7, 1864 was a dark night, lit by a waxing gibbous moon. The submarine, HL Hunley sailed forth on a mission to sink the Union blockade ship, USS Housatonic. Armed with a torpedo mounted at the end of a long spar protruding from the bow of the submarine, the 8-man crew of the HL Hunley succeeded in sinking its intended target. The boat never made it back to shore and was presumed sunk with all hands lost.

The fate of the Hunley remained an enduring Civil War mystery for 132 years until an expedition led by famed author Clive Cussler discovered the submarine buried under 4 feet of sand and silt at the bottom of the shallow waters off the coast of Charleston, SC. The vessel was recovered in 2000 and has been undergoing archeological study and preservation efforts. It is on display in North Charleston, South Carolina, at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.

The submarine was designed by Horace Lawson Hunley and built by engineer James R. McClintock in response to the Confederate government offering bounty as high as $100,000 to anyone who sank a Union warship. Powered by the efforts of 7 men working vigorously at a hand crank, the vessel had a maximum speed of 4 knots. It was 40’ long with a diameter of 4’3” so it was very cramped for a crew of 8 men.

In July of 1863, the Hunley successfully attacked a coal flatboat in Mobile Bay. Following this demonstration, the submarine was shipped by rail to Charleston, SC on August 12, 1863 and was soon seized by the Confederate military. On August 29, 1863, piloted by an all-volunteer crew, Hunley was preparing to make a test dive when the boat’s captain, Lt John A Payne inadvertently depressed the diving planes as she was running on the surface resulting in the submarine diving while one of her hatches was still open. Five crewmen drowned however, Payne and two others were able to escape.

The submarine was salvaged and HL Hunley requested to be the new captain of the boat. The second crew tested the sub and became confident in its operation making many test dives. On October 15, disaster struck a second time during another demonstration this time with HL Hunley in charge of the boat. The submarine failed to surface after a mock attack on the friendly ship “Indian Chief”. All eight crewmen perished.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and the Hunley was again salvaged and a new crew commanded by Lt. George E. Dixon began training for the mission to sink one of the blockade ships. Dixon and crew became proficient in the operation of the sub making many trips out to the Union ships undetected; getting close enough at times to hear the sailors singing on deck.

The recovery of HL Hunley has yielded a treasure trove of artifacts and information. It is now thought the crew likely perished from the percussive shock wave produced by the torpedo blast. In 2004, the 8-man crew was laid to rest next to others who lost their lives on Hunley test missions.