CSS Hunley First Submarine to Sink A Warship in Combat, Feb. 17, 1864

The submarine is today recognized as a deadly weapon of war and the subs of today are able to travel the expanses of the oceans under the sea and deliver a multitude of weapons, to include nuclear ICBMs. But 154 years ago during the Civil War the aims of the Confederate defenders of Charleston, SC, were much simpler.

The Union had succeeded in blockading the major ports of the Confederacy and were slowly but inexorably squeezing the Confederacy’s lifeline to Europe. The Rebs were desperate to break the blockade.

The first submarine to sink a ship in combat was the CSS Hunley in Charleston Harbor when its torpedo blew up and sank the USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864. The Hunley didn’t survive the explosion and the crew was lost. The ship was discovered in 1970 and finally raised in 2000 where the crew was found still at their battle stations, 136 years later. The Hunley is on display in Charleston Harbor at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on the Cooper River.

Beginnings: The Southern leaders were experimenting with undersea craft and commissioned what was a “fish torpedo boat” constructed by Horace Hunley in Mobile, Alabama. Hunley financed three submarines for the Confederacy.

The first, Pioneer was built in New Orleans but the Union Army had advanced in Louisiana and once New Orleans was taken, the Confederates were forced to scuttle it. The other two “American Diver” and “Hunley” were produced in Mobile.

American Diver was beset by propulsion problems and later sank in a storm. It was not recovered. The “Hunley” was launched in July 1863 and then shipped by rail to Charleston, SC.

Test runs in Charleston Harbor were disastrous. The Hunley sank on August 29, 1863, killing five members of the crew. The ship was recovered and another test was run with Hunley himself at the helm on October 15, 1863. It sank again, killing all five members of the crew including Hunley.

Hunley was designed for a crew of eight. Seven of the men manned the hand-cranked propeller which was the only means of propulsion. The commander of the boat steered from the tiny conning tower, of which there were two, one at each end.

Ballast tanks were fixed to each end of the boat, that could be flooded by valves or pumped dry by hand pumps. Extra ballast was crudely added through the use of iron weights bolted to the underside of the hull. In the event of an emergency situation, the submarine could rise by unscrewing the heads of the bolts holding the iron weights from inside the vessel.

Originally captained by Confederate Navy Lieutenant John Payne, the Hunley was running on the surface with the two hatches open when the Lt. inadvertently stepped on the diving planes causing the sub to dive with the hatches open. Payne and two crewmen were able to escape but five men died.

Workers working on the Hunley remove the crew’s bench

In October, the Hunley never surfaced after a practice attack. Payne relinquished command of the sub for the exercise to Hunley himself. The sub was again raised and was put back in service.

The next commander, Lieutenant George Dixon, and seven volunteers would be the Hunley’s final crew. Dixon wasn’t a naval officer but an Army veteran of Shiloh. The Hunley’s only armament was a spar torpedo, a copper cylinder containing 135 pounds of black powder — was attached to a 22-foot long wooden spar. Mounted on the sub’s bow, spar torpedoes were designed with a barbed point: the spar torpedo would be jammed in the target’s side by ramming it with all possible speed, and then detonated by a mechanical trigger attached to the submarine by a line, so that the sub backed away from her target, the torpedo would explode.

However, the torpedo of the Hunley had no barb, it was designed to explode on impact, a fact that would doom not only the men on the Housatonic but the Hunley as well.

Hunley’s Attack on the Housatonic: Dixon and his men left Charleston Harbor on the night of February 17, 1864. Their target was the USS Housatonic, a 1,260-ton wooden-hulled steam-powered sloop with 12 large cannons, which was stationed at the entrance to Charleston, about 5 miles offshore.

Dixon and his men approached in the darkness, skimming barely above the surface. The Housatonic was unaware of her presence until it was too late. Dixon angled the Hunley into the Housatonic and the torpedo exploded with a huge explosion.

The Housatonic sank in less than five minutes, five of her crewmen went down with her. The Hunley never returned to port. The Confederate defenders of the port of Charleston knew she went down but no one was aware of the circumstances.

It later was learned, after the sub’s remains were found and recovered that the shock wave from the torpedo killed all of the crew instantly. They were all found still at their battle stations, there had been no attempted escape.

After the sub was raised in Charleston Harbor, a painstaking search was done to find out who the other men in her crew were. With the help of the Smithsonian Institute, the eight-man volunteer crew was finally identified. Lieutenant George E. Dixon (Commander) (Alabama), Frank Collins (Virginia), Joseph F. Ridgaway (Maryland), James A. Wicks (North Carolina), Arnold Becker (Germany), Corporal Johan Frederik Carlsen (Denmark), C. Lumpkin (British Isles), and Augustus Miller (Germany).

Not until April 17, 2004, were the crew laid to rest in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston.

The myth of George Dixon Proved True: After the Civil War, tales of George Dixon told the story of a $20 gold piece given to him by his sweetheart Queenie Bennett for good luck. Legend had it that the gold piece saved Dixon’s life during the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. Dixon’s relatives claimed that in a letter that Dixon claimed that he was shot in the thigh and the gold piece, deflected the bullet, saving his leg and probably his life. In 2002, this was proved true.

From Wikipedia, lead researcher Maria Jacobsen, examining the area close to Lieutenant Dixon found a misshapen $20 gold piece, minted in 1860, with the inscription “Shiloh April 6, 1862, My life Preserver G. E. D.” on a sanded-smooth area of the coin’s reverse side, and a forensic anthropologist found a healed injury to Lt. Dixon’s hip bone.

Tours are available to see the original Hunley that is preserved in a freshwater tank in Charleston Harbor as well as a replica that tourists can climb in. The museum has artifacts that were recovered from the Hunley.

Submarine warfare has advanced far beyond what anyone in Charleston during 1864 ever dreamed possible. But the men led by Lt. George Dixon proved that a warship could be sunk by a submarine. Naval warfare would be changed forever.

Illustrations and Photos: National Archives