On February 17, 1863, an unseen enemy launched a devastating attack on the Union ship USS Housatonic, sinking the ship and killing five of her crew.
This was the beginning of a new era of battle at sea, and the little H.L. Hunley Submarine had claimed its first victim, but she was never seen again – until recently.
The forty-foot long submarine was launched by the Confederate Army just months before this deadly encounter. Being a sailor in a Civil War era submarine was risky business – the Hunley sank not once but twice during training runs, killing thirteen of its own men between the two incidents, including her creator Horace Hunley.
This deadly beast was actually Hunley’s third attempt at a submarine. Two earlier versions were built, the Pioneer and the American Diver, the first of which had to be scuttled in fear of an advancing Union Army, and the second sank during trial runs and could not be saved.
The Hunley was originally called the Fish Boat and it was designed for a crew of eight, seven of whom were devoted to the arduous task of cranking the propeller while one steered. It was armed with spar torpedoes, which featured a trigger mechanism activated by the attacking vessel pulling on a long cord still attached to the exploding end. This may help explain the Hunley’s eventual fate.
Recovered from the mud off Charleston, South Carolina in 1995 after decades of speculative spottings, the historic sub is finally being both restored and investigated as researchers try to piece together her last moments. It is currently thought that the Hunley was damaged in its own attack, and sank within just twenty feet of the Housatonic.
The submarine is currently being preserved and studied at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.