Thursday, October 19, 2023

Story of the First Submarine in History to Sink an Enemy Ship

The CSS H. L. Hunley Rises Again

By Robert A. Waters

“[The Hunley] is more dangerous to those who use it than the enemy.” Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard.

George E. Dixon and Queenie

On April 6, 1862, a year after the United States of America invaded the Confederate States of America, the two armies collided near a small village called Pittsburgh Landing, in southern Tennessee. The carnage at what was later called the Battle of Shiloh was unprecedented in the history of the Americas. In two days of fighting, tens of thousands were killed or wounded. One Alabama regiment, the 21st, lost 200 men out of 650. Sergeant George E. Dixon, a Kentuckian who had enlisted with the regiment in Mobile, was among the injured. Before the war, he had worked as a steamboat engineer in New Orleans, but resided in Mobile when the war broke out.

Dixon should have been just one more dead soldier hauled from the field and hastily interred in a mass grave. But he was lucky. Before he left for battle, his teenaged girlfriend and Mobile resident, Queenie Bennett, slipped a newly-minted twenty-dollar gold coin into his pocket as a good luck charm. In the battle, Dixon was shot point-blank. The Yankee Minnie ball struck the coin in his trouser pocket. Instead of plowing through flesh and bone and arteries, it absorbed the impact, sparing Dixon's life.

Queenie, daughter of a prosperous steamboat captain, was known around Mobile as the “the little Rebel.” Dixon, a blonde-haired, highly intelligent 22-year-old, was smitten with Queenie and, had he survived the war, they likely would have married.

Dixon’s wound was severe, a broken left femur, which caused him to walk with a limp for the rest of his short life.

When he returned from Shiloh to Mobile to recuperate, Dixon became aware of a “torpedo boat” being constructed nearby. The project was supposed to be top-secret, concocted by local pro-Southern entrepreneurs and the Confederate Secret Service. One of those loyal benefactors was Horace Lawson Hunley, a wealthy marine engineer originally from Tennessee. Dixon became friendly with Hunley as the Confederate Navy feverishly attempted to mold the submarine into a viable weapon. The Kentuckian would eventually be promoted to lieutenant and given command of the torpedo boat.

The Confederacy’s purpose in building a workable submarine was a direct result of the Union blockade of New Orleans, Mobile and other ports. The shutting down of Southern harbors had been one of the first actions taken by Abraham Lincoln and his war machine. While in New Orleans, Horace Hunley and others had begun a serious quest to build an underwater “fish” that could blow up the blockaders.

The Torpedo Boat

During 1862 and the early part of 1863, attempts to construct a workable submarine had failed miserably. As boat after boat sank or capsized during trials, resulting in the deaths of numerous crew members, the project faltered. But as the war progressed and the South continued hemorrhaging its limited manpower in battle after battle, the situation became dire. The charismatic general P. G. T. Beauregard issued a command that the new submarine, the Hunley, be moved from Mobile to the besieged city of Charleston, South Carolina. On August 12, 1863, the submarine arrived by rail.

In a test trial while still in Mobile, this underwater torpedo boat had blown up an antique coal-hauling barge, bringing a glimmer of hope to those in the know.

Constructed from iron boilerplate, the submarine was shaped like a shark, 40 feet long and just wide and high enough to carry her cramped crew. “The Hunley could dive by opening a valve and letting sea water fill the ballast tank,” wrote Gerald Teaster. “A set of crude diving planes, sticking out the side of the boat, was also provided for up and down motion. A mercury manometer, or pressure gauge, was mounted inside to show the depth. Two small hatches were installed on the top of the boat for getting in and out. Each of these had a small glass viewing port.” The propeller in the back of the submarine rotated inside a circular metal shroud that protected it from snagging on nets or other debris. Eight hand-cranks were spaced so the crew could sit along the length of the torpedo ship and drive the propeller shaft.

On its final voyage, the shark-boat held seven crew members as well as Captain Dixon. The crew, using the hand-cranks, was responsible for propelling the ship. Dixon stood in the front of the boat with his head in the forward hatch, looking out the glass window and guiding the crew. He also operated the diving planes and was responsible for setting off the explosive.

A press release from the Hunley excavation team explained that “the Hunley used an innovative lanyard system to detonate the torpedo. The idea was to ram the spar torpedo into a target and then back away, causing the torpedo to slip off the spar. A rope from the torpedo to the submarine would spool out. Once the submarine was at a safe distance, the line would tighten and detonate the warhead.” The shark-boat had to be up close and personal to work effectively.

In Charleston, the Hunley team took the boat out into the harbor numerous times to test it. However, on August 29, 1863, it sank, killing all its crew. The boat was raised and refurbished and new trial runs began. On October 15, 1863, it sank again. Four of its crew died, including Horace L. Hunley, while three survived.

After this new debacle, General Beauregard famously said, “[The CSS Hunley] is more dangerous to those who use it than the enemy.” But he reluctantly agreed to let Lieutenant Dixon have one last opportunity to prove that a submarine could sink an enemy vessel.

Engineers again raised the boat and began new tests. They renamed it CSS H. L. Hunley, for the man who had done so much to bring it to life.

The Attack

Like a shark, the gray boat knifed through the water. Just beneath the glassy sea in Charleston Harbor, the hunter had set her sights on an outsized prey.

The night of February 17, 1864 saw calm seas in the harbor. Seven miles out, the silhouettes of many Yankee ships could be seen waiting to apprehend smugglers and blockade-runners. But Dixon noticed a lone Union vessel anchored just four miles away. It was the USS Housatonic, a three-master that was 207 feet long. The sixteen-gun “sloop of war” had been instrumental in capturing several blockade runners. As she sat in the harbor, Captain Charles R. Pickering kept the boilers running and nine guards on deck.

The Confederate torpedo boat, CSS Hunley, was about to make history. Never in the history of the world had a submarine made a successful attack on an enemy ship.

Just a few hundred yards from the Housatonic, Lieutenant Dixon urged on his crew as they sped the boat forward. Besides Kentuckian Dixon, three came from the states of Alabama, Florida and Maryland. Little is known about the other four except they were of foreign descent. At least one, who was only known only as “Miller,” hailed from Germany.

One hundred fifty sailors manned the Housatonic. At 8:45 P.M., through the darkness, several men standing guard noticed a wake streaking towards their ship. At first, they thought it was a log, but soon determined it was moving too fast to be a natural phenomenon. By then, the shark-boat was closing fast. The Housatonic crew did what they could: they opened fire with rifles. Captain Dickering rushed up on deck and fired a double-barrel shotgun at the intruder. The small arms fire ricocheted off the iron skin of the submarine, and it kept coming.

Less than two minutes later, an explosi0n rocked the Housatonic. The copper keg, filled with 135 pounds of black powder, detonated just below the waterline at the stern of the ship. The explosion was muffled, but sent a cascade of sea-water billowing toward the sky. Five sailors died instantly, and two were wounded. Within five minutes, the ship had sunk to the bottom.

The Union sailors were lucky. The ship came to rest with part of its masts rising out of the shallow water. Many sailors climbed the masts, holding on for dear life until the USS Canandaigua appeared to rescue them. Other crew members boarded lifeboats and were rescued.

The Housatonic was lost.

But what happened to the Hunley? No one knew. It never returned to shore--it had just vanished.

Raising the first submarine to sink an enemy ship

Fast forward to May 3, 1995. Archeologists from the National Underwater and Marine Agency, financed in part by novelist and adventurer Clive Cussler, discovered a rusted hull at the bottom of Charleston Harbor. Four miles offshore, it lay in 30 feet of water. After lying on the ocean’s floor for 131 years, experts identified the ship as the fabled CSS Hunley.

In 2000, as millions watched on television, the ship was raised intact from the ocean. A time capsule, it contained bodies of the crew and artifacts of the soldiers. Because of the delicate condition of the ship, it was placed in a 75,000-gallon steel tank filled with fresh water to protect the boat. From there, archaeologists would spend years excavating the H. L. Hunley.

Among the interesting finds was a $20.00 Lady Liberty gold piece. The coin and a gold pocket-watch lay underneath the skeletonized remains of George Dixon. For more than a century, historians had debated whether the story of Queenie and the gold coin that saved the young Kentuckian was true. Many thought the tale, like countless war-time stories, had been fabricated. But the finding of the coin confirmed the story. Dixon had engraved the following statement into the back of the coin: “Shiloh. April 6th, 1862 My Life Preserver G. E. D.”

In addition to Dixon’s artifacts, archaeologists found artillery buttons, a pipe, a pencil, a leather wallet, and other personal items. One item stirred much interest. A Union dog tag was found beneath the body of crew member Joseph Ridgeway. At first, researchers thought he may have been a spy, but later determined that he had picked up the souvenir after one of the battles he’d fought in.

How did the Hunley sink, and how did the crew die? These questions loomed large throughout the years as archaeologists worked to uncover the mystery. There had been little damage to the boat, eliminating the possibility that it had been sunk by enemy fire or had been blown up when the dynamite exploded.

CBC News reported that “the crew were killed by massive lung and brain injuries caused indirectly by their own torpedo…The exit hatches were closed and the bilge pumps that would have been used if the sub started to take on water were not set to pump, suggesting that the crew never tried to save themselves as the sub sunk.”

Dr. Rachel Lance, who graduated from Duke University with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, said “There were some holes in the hull that were the result of time under the sea. But there was no actual damage caused by the blast itself.”

CBC News reported that “when the charge exploded, the blast would have caused the submarine’s hull to transmit a powerful, secondary shock wave into the submarine, crushing their lungs and brain (sic) and killing them instantly.”

While there are other theories about how the Hunley met its doom, this seems to be the most likely.

On April 17, 2004, the crew of the first submarine to sink an enemy ship were interred. Thousands of Americans, many of them descendants of Confederate veterans, attended the funeral. After a memorial service and a four-and-a-half mile march through Charleston, the eight-man crew was laid to rest at Magnolia Cemetery.

My friend and fellow-Southerner, Max Northcutt, made the trip from Tennessee to South Carolina to attend the services. He was kind enough to lend me his extensive archives about the Hunley, which I used for this story. 


The Confederate Submarine H. L Hunley by Gerald F. Teaster

The CSS Hunley: The Greatest Undersea Adventure of the CIVIL WAR by Richard Bak

The CSS H. L. Hunley: Confederate Submarine by R. Thomas Campbell

The Hunley website: The Friends of The Hunley – The World's First Successful Combat Submarine 

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