In 2014 the 150th anniversary of a daring raid was marked. On a moonlit evening off the coast of South Carolina a submarine and its eight-member crew slipped to the bottom of the sea after a military success that changed naval warfare.
The American Civil War (1861-65) was fought after seven Southern states challenged Abraham Lincoln’s attempts to abolish slavery by forming the Confederate States of America (the “Confederacy” or the “South”).
The H. L. Hunley was a Confederate submarine that played a small part in the American Civil War, becoming the first combat submarine to sink a warship. The submarine was named for its inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley, shortly after being commissioned into service at Charleston, South Carolina.
Englishman William Bourne designed one of the first prototype submarines in 1578, but his idea never got beyond the drawing-board. The first successful submarine was built in 1620 by Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebbel, a Dutchman in the service of James I of England. It was propelled by oars and is thought to have used floats with tubes to allow the rowers to breathe.
After being rediscovered in 1995, the Hunley yielded its own secrets slowly and sparingly, even to researchers armed with the latest technology. The 40-foot vessel, described as “curious” looking and resembling a whale, had watertight hatches, two short conning towers, sea cocks, pumps and ballast tanks. But there were shortcomings. The vessel was difficulty to manoeuvre and depended on the crew hand-turning a crank to power the single propeller. And there was constant concern about sufficient oxygen supply for the crew, which limited its dive time.
On 17 February 1864, the Confederate submarine made a daring late night attack on a 16-gun Union sloop-of-war blockading Charleston Harbour. Hunley rammed the ship with a torpedo packed with explosive powder and attached to a long pole on its bow. As Hunley backed away, the torpedo embedded in the sloop’s wooden side was detonated by means of a rope. The explosion sent the sloop and five men to the bottom of the sea, but it also sank Hunley with its crew of eight.
Legend had it that to keep her sweetheart safe from harm during the Civil War, Queenie Bennett gave Lt. George Dixon, later the Hunley’s skipper, a gold coin as a good luck charm. In 1862 during the Battle of Shiloh, a bullet ripped into the pocket of his trousers and struck the centre of the gold coin. The impact was said to have left the gold piece bent, with the bullet embedded in it. Queenie’s good luck gift had saved his life. In 2001, that shiny talisman was found along with Dixon’s presumed remains.
Hunley was recovered in 2000 and is now on display in Charleston. In 2004 its eight-member crew were interred in Charleston’s historic Magnolia Cemetery, in what many called the last Confederate burial. They lie not far from the submarine’s inventor, H. L Hunley, buried there in 1863.