Civil War – CSS Hunley submarine sinks

Submitted by C.J. Johnson


On October 15, 1863 the first combat submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship sank. All eight crewmen on board the Hunley died during a practice run, while spectators watched.

Historic Navy Ships Association provides Hunley’s background. “H.L. Hunley…was built in spring 1862 in Mobile, Alabama at the Park & Lyons Machine Shop by a coalition of machinists and businessmen including engineers James McClintock and Baxter Watson, lawyer Horace L. Hunley, and four members of an organization of underwater “torpedo” (contact-mine) manufacturers called the Singer Submarine Corps. Eight crewmen operated the submersible.

Seven individuals sat side-by-side on a wooden bench affixed along the port side of the vessel and turned a hand-cranked propeller featuring an innovative reduction gear system, while the commander was responsible for steering the submarine and deploying the weapons system.

Following successful testing in Mobile, the submarine was shipped to Charleston, South Carolina by flatcar in August 1863 at the request of Charleston’s military commander General P.G.T. Beauregard. Beauregard hoped the submarine could help break the naval blockade that was then preventing access to the city’s harbor.

Hunley sank twice during her development. Once while tied to her moorings, the hatches were left open and the submarine was swamped, killing five. She sank a second time during a practice dive, killing all eight of her crew, including her namesake, Horace L. Hunley.”

Charleston Illustrated details the two sinkings. “Hunley arrived in Charleston on August 12, 1863. She was commanded by McClintock with Gus Whitney as the first officer and the civilian crew from Mobile. Base of operations was the cove, a small inlet behind Sullivan’s Island. McClintock took Hunley out daily but had no luck engaging the enemy.”

In late August 1863, “… the confederate military…seized the sub and turned it over to Lt. John Payne… The new crew trained for several days until August 29, when disaster struck.

Hunley was being towed away from Fort Johnson…with the full crew of 9… Lt. Payne, standing in the open forward hatch, was struggling with the tow line when he accidentally kicked the diving plane tiller into the down position …Hunley dove fast – with both hatches open. Payne and 3 others got out, though one – Charles Hasker was caught…and carried to the bottom, 42 feet down.

By September 1st, efforts to raise the boat were underway- the process would take 10 days…Horace Hunley wrote the military on the 19th, requesting that he and the original civilian crew (who demonstrated the boat in Mobile) be given the project.

The military agreed and put Lt. George Dixon in command. In the first days of October, the civilian crew was reassembled and training resumed…Soon after, Hunley resumed nightly sorties outside the mouth of the harbor.

On the 15th, Horace Hunley insists on commanding the sub for a morning demonstration dive under the CSS Indian Chief… The sub dove and never surfaced.

Three days later, divers locate the sub in 56 feet of water. The sub was at a severe angle and had plowed into the bottom. She was raised in several days and after the salvage, it was deduced that:

The forward sea cock was open, allowing the forward ballast tank to fill and overflow. The rear tank was closed and full of air. The hatches were unbolted but remained shut through the sinking due to the pressure of the water. While trying to push open the hatches, Hunley and the first officer both asphyxiated standing in the conning towers where trapped air remained, the rest of the crew drowned.”