Hunley sank Union ship 150 years ago today

By By Andrew Perzo / American Press

I heard that the Hunley submarine originally got its start in Louisiana and was moved up to the New England states. Is that

true? Also, I heard that there was one before it that was sunk in the Gulf of Mexico and they never could find it.

The H.L. Hunley, named for a New Orleans customs official and financier involved in the vessel’s design, was the first submarine

to successfully sink an enemy ship in combat.

Horace Hunley and partners James McClintock and Baxter Watson built two other submersible vessels — Pioneer and American Diver

— before they constructed the Hunley, which was launched in Mobile, Ala., in July 1863.

Pioneer, launched in early 1862, was built in New Orleans and underwent testing in Lake Ponchartrain. The boat, propelled

by two men and a crank system, reportedly sank a schooner and two target barges during its trials and was granted a letter

of marque, or permission to operate as a privateer vessel.

But the Union advance on New Orleans

scuttled the designers’ plans for Pioneer, and Hunley, McClintock and

Baxter, in turn,

scuttled the boat in the New Basin Canal and fled to Alabama. The

vessel was later raised and studied by the U.S. Navy, which

sold the boat for scrap in 1868.

The men launched American Diver — designed for a four-man crew — in early 1863. But it foundered in rough water in Mobile

Bay as it was being towed on an attack mission.

The Hunley, launched a few months later, performed well in trials, successfully sinking a target boat using a towed torpedo.

It was designed for an eight-man crew and, like the previous vessels, employed a crank system for propulsion.

The boat was shipped by rail that August to Charleston, S.C., which was beset by a Union blockade.

“Following its arrival in South

Carolina, the boat experienced a number of operational difficulties. The

Army became increasingly

unhappy with McClintock’s management of the boat, and as a result

seized it, replacing the civilian crew with C.S. Navy personnel,”

Rich Wills writes on the website of the Naval Heritage and History


“It was following this transition that the boat was twice accidently lost in Charleston Harbor with fatalities, being both

times subsequently salvaged.”

Five of the eight crew members died in the first incident. In the second, the entire crew, including Hunley himself, perished.

Despite the accidents and the loss of life, the Confederate military continued to view the Hunley as a viable boat, and Gen.

P.G.T. Beauregard OK’d its use against the Housatonic, a Union blockade ship.

On the night of Feb. 17, 1864, the

Hunley set out on patrol and sighted the Housatonic, which was anchored

just outside Charleston

Harbor. A Union lookout spied the sub as it approached, but the

Housatonic was unable to get underway in time to avoid an


The Hunley placed a 2-foot-long torpedo

— attached to the end of a 16-foot-long pole — beneath the stern of the

sloop of war

and detonated the 135-pound gunpowder charge. The explosion caused

the ship to burn for several minutes before it sank, killing

five Union crewmen.

The Hunley reportedly signaled its success to troops on shore via a lantern, but the sub — and its crew of eight men — sank

to the bottom for unknown reasons.

The vessel was discovered in 1995 and

was raised in 2000. It is housed at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center

in North Charleston,

S.C., where it continues to undergo analysis.


The Informer answers questions from readers each Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. It is researched and written by Andrew Perzo, an American Press staff writer. To ask a question, call 494-4098, press 5 and leave voice mail, or email