The Submarine that Killed its Inventor in the American Civil War

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A Brief History

On October 15, 1863, The H. L. Hunley, a Confederate (the South!) submarine, sank during a test, killing its inventor and namesake, Horace L. Hunley.


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Digging Deeper

The Hunley was NOT the first submarine ever invented and certainly not the first one ever used for military purposes.  The first military submersible was most likely the Turtle invented by David Bushnell in 1775 for use in the American Revolutionary War.  Robert Fulton, another American inventor, invented the leaky Nautilus in 1800 and thus tried unsuccessfully to entice First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte of France to make use of the device.  The Hunley‘s real claim to fame therefore is in being the first submarine to sink an enemy ship. Unfortunately, its bloody history actually precedes this rather infamous claim to military fame. During the American Civil War, both sides experimented with various innovative naval vessels, the most famous being the ironclads used at the battle of Hampton Roads.  The Southern States also dabbled in submarine warfare for quite a few years of the war.  To that end, Horace Hunley worked with two other inventors to design and build the submarine Pioneer in 1861, only to have to scuttle it in 1862.  Okay, strike one!  Their next effort, the American Diver or Pioneer II, was then built later on in 1862, but sank in a storm in 1863.  Two strikes! In his third effort, Hunley worked on what became his namesake vessel.  This invention seemed almost cursed.  In a test on August 29, 1863, a human error resulted in the submarine descending sooner than planned and drowned five men.  Strike three!  No?  Well, it appeared that Hunley was not out of the fight to make the Confederate States of America a formidable naval power just yet.  Tragically for him and his seven crew mates, however, this third submarine experienced a second tragedy when it failed to surface during a new test conducted on October 15, 1863.  All eight people on board, including Hunley, perished 150 years ago today. That may conclude the “this day in history” bit of this article, but it was not the end of the Hunley‘s deadly history.  Almost shockingly, an increasingly desperate Confederacy salvaged the vessel and deployed it in actual combat.  On February 17, 1864, the Hunley finally accomplished its intended military purpose when it embedded a torpedo into the hull of the USS Housatonic.  This encounter has gone done in history as the first successful attack by a submarine on an enemy vessel in wartime. No, the story does not stop there either!  The explosion possibly proved fatal for both the attacker and the attacked.  Five men went down with the Housatonic, but the Hunley also subsequently sank, killing all eight men on board once again.  Historians debate whether or not the Hunley sank as a result of the explosion of its own torpedo or if someone from the Housatonic fired a rifle round into one of the submarine’s viewing ports (obviously, submarines are not all that compatible with bullet holes…).  The debate remains alive as new evidence may have been discovered to shed further light on this mystery in 2013. In any event, how many submarines have killed most or all of THREE of its crews, including even its inventor?  No others come to mind!

Historical Evidence

As you can see over on Amazon.com, numerous books have been written on this historically significant submarine and its inventor.  With that noted, as mentioned in the “Digging Deeper” section above, new research is actively underway and so greater insights into some of the submarine’s more mysterious history may be coming to light in the near future!  As such, please keep in mind that anything published prior to this year does not necessarily reflect the latest research.

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history at multiple universities.

  • merl1

    Is Top 10 going broke or something? Does each item on a list cost money to write and they can only afford one? And not even that, it’s all links. Might as well stop reading it.

    • No, Toptenz (http://www.toptenz.net) isn’t going broke. And yes, each list costs money to pay writers, editors, hosting fees and taxes. This is our new site so we are promoting it initially. Sorry it isn’t your cup of tea, but we will be pushing CrackedHistory.com less as time goes on and this site is standing on its own two feet, so to speak. We aren’t publishing any less on TopTenz.net so you aren’t missing anything in terms of the number of lists.

      • redstick

        Pay no mind to the nay-sayers. This is a good stand-alone item that requires no justification.

        I was lucky enough to visit the “Hunley”, which is still much more a research site, rather than just a museum. The story of Lt. Dixon’s Gold Coin will raise the hair on the back of your neck….

        • merl1

          You got to see that? When I read the story years ago, I thought how terrified those men must have been.

          • redstick

            Yes. We actually saw the coin. Awesome.

            I cannot even imagine the courage it took to enter that five foot diameter hull and squeeze into place along the fore-and-aft crankshaft that operated the screw propeller. They HAD to know that there was no hope of evacuating through the two 14-inch hatches. Yet the volunteers came.

        • Thank you. It is impossible to please everyone and impossible not to displease some. I’m just glad we have a passionate following.

  • Nikki Buzalka

    WOW! I definitely think the men that boarded these subs after so many errors were very brave. However, I think that this is an inspiring story because it shows that success does not come to the faint of heart.

  • Ben Nevers

    Wow, I can not believe they retrieved it just to use it again in battle – especially with a sub that had already killed two of its crews in the past.

  • Tom Kubrak

    It is quite unfortunate to find that the Hunley seemed to do more damage to the users than the actual attackers. I just do not understand why they would use it for war if it did not work out the first two times.

  • Mike Rinicella

    This is a historical figure for sure! I can’t believe it is still intact in detail.

  • Patrick Roder

    Not the smartest thing to reuse the same sub that already was defective.

  • Alex Guthrie

    If I were the crewmates that died with Hunley I probably would have taken a rain check due to the defects of the sub. Not worth risking your life over (Even though I’m sure Hunley guaranteed them it was safe).

  • Harvey Tolley

    I’ve been on a few submarines and how the crew does it for a living I will never know.

  • Anthony Jasany

    Obviously everyone is familiar with the German U-boats, but I had no idea the south was trying to master this technology as well

  • Jake Woolf

    Should’ve invented SCUBA gear first. Nice going, Hunley.

  • BB

    It’s crazy how war can make people act. The fact that the submarine killed a whole crew and then was salvaged and used in actual combat was basically sentencing that crew to death. It was intriguing to hear about the first offensive submarine and the history behind it’s curse.

  • Stephen Ciocca

    It seems to me that this submarine was doomed from the beginning, it is not everyday that you hear of a submarine sinking twice. You would think that this may have slowed the progression of technological advances in submarines, but it seemed to only expedite the process. If only Hunley could have been around to see his namesake submarine destroy an enemy ship..

    • Kathryn Meyer

      It is crazy how much bad lick Hunley and his submarine accumulated. I would also think that the first time the submarine sank, Hunley and the crew would revisit problem areas and then reassess for the next submarine, but it seems like they were on a fast track to get the submarine working. Although, Hunley’s story was relatively sad, it ended on a good note, as his submarine made history in sinking an enemy ship!

  • Alexandra Bull

    I have never been on a submarine, but I think that would be a neat experience. The fact they re-salvaged the submarine after it sunk once and reused it is unnerving. I, personally, would not have gotten on in the first place.

  • Holly Damron

    Clearly, the affect that war has on people can be disastrous to all involved. I cannot believe that they salvaged the submarine and reused it.

  • Alexandria McDole

    That is scary and the fact they kept using it.

    AM

  • Tessa Baker

    It’s crazy first military submersible was invented in 1775- that makes submarines 240 years in the making!

  • Nathan

    You’d think that after the first crew died he would have some sort of emergency plan in place. This thing was very deadly, but not in the way it was intended. It only kills the people inside it, not outside.

    N.W.

  • G Wise

    Even with the death of Hunley, I can’t believe they salvaged the sub and used it in combat! GW

  • Parker Stricklen

    The technology back then allowed for a submarine to be made. That’s so crazy for me. Also it’s pretty sad that the inventor never got to see the true potential of his creation.

  • Kyle Puhl

    It is crazy how far that technology has come. We went from barely being able to go underwater to what we can do today. Go miles and miles underwater and be okay

  • Erica wheaton

    The fact that after three unsuccessful attempts at making a working submarine I would have given up I give huge credit to Horace Hunley

  • lukas Biglin

    He made so Many attempts to try to perfect his invention lead to his
    death

  • Anna Ingles

    It’s crazy to me that submarines were used as early as the American Revolutionary War. The technology advances made have been remarkable.

  • Derek Reynolds

    its crazy to think something like this was possible even back then. its crazy how fast technology advances

  • Colin Williams

    It’s kind of ironic that Hunley was killed by his own
    invention and crazy to think they had submarines back then.

  • ryan C

    Well his invention had to have something wrong with it. If he was killed by his own invention. He tried to make this to help people and ended his own life.

  • BV

    Technology has advanced so much since the war but it’s very saddening to see that he died from his own invention.

  • kk

    Well that would really suck to be the inventor of something. Trying it out and it killing your self. I just hope he told someone else about how to make and control it so they don’t have to start from scratch. but they would stink to die trying out your own invention.

  • Isaac Talley

    There are a lot of inventors who die form their invention. It is just sad they died testing it. I wonder if he actually lived what else he might if invented or improved during that time.

  • Kamarin R

    I never knew that they had submarines back then. Interesting how they still used it in combat even after a failed test that resulted in the inventors death.

  • Andy frick

    Tough way to die – testing an invention that turned out to be so useful.

  • DW

    Its cool that it made a comeback and redeemed itself in battle.

  • Matt Smail

    at least he did not die for nothing. the submarine is a huge invention even though he was not alive to see it prosper.

  • Dakota A rinier

    You can see here people will stick with there ideas

  • Alex Hewitt

    Lets just leave the submarine making up to the Russians since they mastered it already

  • Loren deck

    Good thing modern submarines arent so sketchy

  • ac

    That would suck to die after inventing somethings still used.