The Peripatic Coffin

CSS Hunley

Confederate States Navy

Hunley was the first submarine in history to sink an enemy combatant  – the USS Housatonic and the fourth attempt to build a vessel to break the blockade strangling the Confederate States.

Hunley was preceded by CSS Pioneer built in New Orleans and tested in Lake Ponchartrain: was scuttled before the city fell to the Union. Another, the Bayou St. John Submarine, had a more modern appearance; was scuttled and recovered near to or in the Bayou St. John. She rests today at the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge along with the Pioneer. American Diver used hand cranking for propulsion after steam had been considered -never used in combat due to slow speed, she sank in Mobile Bay in February 1863 and remains unrecovered.

Launched in July 1863 in Mobile, Alabama, the 40 ft long Hunley was not built of boiler plate according to legend, but  purpose designed and constructed. Ballast tanks were placed in bow and stern flooded by valve and hand pumped to empty. The ship had stubby fore and aft conning towers with glass ports and hatches. Shipped by train to Charleston SC in hopes of breaking or at least weakening the debilitating blockade so a few runners could break through, Hunley was seized by the Confederate Army on arrival – it was owned privately, and pressed into service under command of the Confederate States Army. Propulsion: a man powered crank running the length of the ship connected to the propeller. Hunley was maneuvered by the Captain using a joystick – ahead of its time. Volunteers to man her came from CSS Chicora and CSS Palmetto State. During a test run on August 29, 1863 the little sub sank drowning the crew of five. Examination revealed the commander accidentally stepped on the control lever causing Hunley to dive with both hatches open. Ex owner H.L. Hunley and crew were killed in a mock attack exercise on October 15,1863. 

During her short career, Hunley sank three times taking 21 crewmen with her.

29 August 1863

15 October 1863

17 February 1864

The spar torpedo carried waste be rammed into the target’s hull and detonated by trigger as the sub backed away. “archaeologists working on Hunley discovered evidence, including a spool of copper wire and components of a battery, that it may actually have been electrically detonated.” 

The Hunley carried out her only combat operation on February 27, 1864 attacking the screw sloop Housatonic of 1240 tons and twelve cannon. Hunley’s torpedo worked. The Union Sloop sank with the loss of five crewmen in five minutes.  Best guess – the crew of the Hunley were knocked, unconscious by the blast then suffocated. When Housatonic was discovered years later, Hunley was next to her. 

Hunley was raised in the morning of August 8, 2000 from silt that protected the frame from rusting away. On April 17, 2004, crew remains were laid to rest at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston. Thousands attended – many in Confederate uniform. 

Crew: 5-8

Displacement : 7.5 Tons 

Length: 39.5 ft

Beam: 3.83 ft

Height: 4 ft 3”

Propulsion: hand cranked propellor

Speed: 4 knots

Armament: 1 x spar torpedo


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