February 17, 1864 Hunley

A lesser-known Civil War tale this one’s got it all. History, mystery, romance and science, all set in a time and place where it was kill or be killed.

During the 1850s, the southern United States’ economy was mostly agrarian.  When civil war broke out in 1861, Confederate states depended to a greater degree on imported manufactured goods, compared with the more industrialized states to the north.  For the Union, there was strategic advantage in cutting off this flow of manufactured goods.  General Winfield Scott proposed the “Anaconda Plan”, a naval blockade aimed at choking off traffic to southern ports and harbors.

Civil War-era cartoon depicts Winfield Scott’s “Great Snake”

Few in the Confederacy understood the need to keep southern ports open as well as the planter, legislator, and southern patriot, Horace Lawson Hunley.

In 1861, Hunley joined forces with James McClintock and Baxter Watson to design and build a secret Confederate Super Weapon.  A submarine.  The trio completed construction on its first effort, the Pioneer, that same year in New Orleans.  The team went on to build two more submarines in Mobile, Alabama:  the American Diver, and the last and most successful creation, the “Fishboat“, later renamed HL Hunley.

An oil painting by Conrad Wise Chapman, “Submarine Torpedo Boat H.L. Hunley, Dec. 6, 1863”

After a short sea trial in Mobile, the Hunley was put on a train and shipped to Charleston, South Carolina, to help break the blockade.  Arriving on August 12, 1863, she was 40′ long by 4′ wide, displacing about 7½ tons.  She was designed for a crew of 8, with 7 operating a hand crank and the 8th steering the boat.

A test run on August 29 ended in disaster, when Skipper John A. Payne accidentally stepped on the lever controlling the diving planes with hatches open.  Payne and two others escaped. The other five crew members went to the bottom.


A second crew tested the submarine on October 15, this one including Horace Hunley himself.  The submarine conducted a mock attack but failed to surface afterward, this time drowning all 8 crew members.

Despite two disastrous test runs, there was no shortage of volunteers.  Once again, the Hunley was fished up from the bottom.

The original plan was to tow a floating mine called a “torpedo”, with a contact fuse.  Hunley would dive beneath her victim and surface on the other side, pulling the torpedo into the side of the target.

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Tide and current conditions in Charleston proved quite different from those in Mobile.  On several test runs, the torpedo floated out ahead of the sub.  That wouldn’t do, so a spar was fashioned and mounted to the bow.  At the end of the spar was a 137-pound waterproof cask of powder, attached to a harpoon-like device with which Hunley would ram its target.

Four miles outside of Charleston Harbor, Hunley made her first live attack run on the night of February 17, 1864. Lieutenant George Dixon and a crew of seven attacked USS Housatonic, a 1,240-ton steam powered sloop of war, embedding the spar torpedo into Housatonic’s hull.  It must have been a sight to see.  The torpedo ignited a 4,000-pound store of black powder in the hull of the ship, exploding with a deafening roar and a towering column of flame that lit up the night.

Housatonic was gone in three minutes, killing five sailors.  What happened next, is a mystery. 

February 17, 1864  My life Preserver

The first submarine in history to attack and sink an enemy warship, vanished.  The Hunley crew would not see the light of day, for 136 years.

Author and adventurer Clive Cussler found HL Hunley in 1995, buried in silt under 32-feet of water.  A painstaking, five year effort was launched to bring Hunley to the surface and on August 8, 2000, Horace Hunley’s submarine returned to the light of day.  The sub was moved to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in the Charleston Navy Yard and submerged in 55,000 gallons of chilled, fresh water, where scientists and historians worked to unlock her secrets.

And secrets there were, in plenty. Why did Hunley sink in the first place? Why were 8 men drowned at their stations and not crowded around exit portholes? And what led to an aerobic gradient forming inside the silted-in submarine, as evidenced by the remarkable state of remains at one end, and near-skeletal states at the other?

The forensic work alone which brought these faces back to the light of day, is worth the trip to Charleston.

Forensic facial reconstructions techniques bring back the faces of the last crew of HL Hunley

An old rumor was repeated over the years, that Lieutenant Dixon left a girlfriend behind in Mobile, Alabama. Her name was Queenie Bennett.  She had given Dixon a $20 gold piece as the story goes, a good luck charm and token of her affection.  In April 1862, Dixon was shot in the hip at Shiloh, a wound that should have killed him.  Had the bullet not struck the $20 gold piece in the man’s pocket.

Until excavation began inside the sub, no one knew if that story was true.  Clad in wetsuit, senior Archaeologist Maria Jacobsen carefully worked to excavate the ancient machine of war. It was she who found the coin, next to the remains of George E. Dixon. 


“Some people may think this is a stroke of luck,” she said, “but perhaps it’s something else. They tell me that Lt. Dixon was a lady’s man, perhaps he winked at us yesterday to remind us that he still is”.

Senior Archaeologist Maria Jacobsen

On reverse side of the coin displaying clearly visible signs of having been struck by a bullet, are inscribed these words:

April 6, 1862
My life Preserver

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