Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Visit to the Louisville CWRT: The H.L. Hunley Then and Now

Last evening I was privileged to attend the May meeting of the Louisville Civil War Round Table.
Speaking at the meeting was Rick Hatcher, historian for the Fort Sumter National Monument. Mr. Hatcher delivered and excellent talk on the H.L. Hunley, the first warfare submarine in history to sink an enemy vessel. I would like to share some of the notes I took during Mr. Hatcher's talk.

Horace L. Hunley was born in 1823, in Gallatin, Tennessee. His parents moved from Tennessee to New Orleans when he was young, and he graduated from the University of Louisiana (later Tulane Univ.) in 1849. Hunley practiced law in Louisiana and also became involved in sugar plantations in both Texas and Louisiana. Hunley joined two associates in 1861 to devise an underwater boat called the Pioneer. The Pioneer was tried out in Lake Pontchartrain, but had to be scuttled when Union forces captured New Orleans in April of 1862.

Hunley and his associates moved their operation to safer Mobile, Alabama and tried the Pioneer II in Mobile Bay, but it also proved unsuccessful. A third submarine, called the Fish Boat was built. This sub proved to be of better design and successfully blew up an experimental target coal boat in Mobile Bay. The Fish Boat had a crew of seven sailors and a captain. The vessel was hand-crank powered and could both dive and rise.

The sub was quickly moved from Mobile to Charleston in effort to help break the blockade that had gripped the city since early in the war. It was moved by train in seven days, and arrived in Charleston on August 12, 1863. In an experimental run, with an inexperienced crew, it sank on August 29. The crew had to dismembered in order to remove them from the hull. In September Hunley brought the original crew from Mobile and officially named the boat the H.L. Hunley. On October 15, the sub sunk again, this time with Hunley on board. The Hunley was raised yet again and command was given to George E. Dixon, who had worked on the Hunley in Mobile, but with the instructions that the sub was to operate as a surface vessel, and not to dive.

On February 17, 1864, the Hunley claimed its first and only victim; the U.S.S Housatonic. It is not sure what happened to cause the Hunley to not return to port, but Mr. Hatcher offered his opinion. He feels that the sub dove to the bottom after the blast in order for the surface situation to calm, and that the men were then were too exhausted to raise the sub back to the surface and died of lack of oxygen. We may never know what really happened, but this suggestion is as good as any I have heard.

After searching for the Hunley, fiction writer Clive Cussler and his team located it in 1995. After careful study and work it was raised on August 8, 2000. In March of 2001 the first human remains were found, and in April of 2004 the crew was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston. The crew consisted of four American born and four European born sailors. Inside the Hunley also were a number of artifacts including a gold coin that belonged to Captain Dixon and that had been deformed when it was hit by a bullet at the Battle of Shiloh when he was in the infantry. Dixon had had the coin inscribed, "My life preserver G.E.D."

More work continues on the Hunley, and with it more is learned about the vessel each year. I was fortunate enough to see it for myself in 2002. It is truly an engineering marvel for the 1860s. If you want to learn more about the Hunley Mr. Hatcher recommend the book, The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy, by Tom Chaffin.

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