February 17, 1864: First “Successful” Submarine Sinks 3 Times!

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A Brief History

On February 17, 1864, the CSS H.L. Hunley became the first submarine to sink an enemy warship, even though it had itself sunk twice before!

Digging Deeper

Digging deeper, we find the Hunley again sank after its successful attack, making it a total of three times that she sank, each time drowning her crew.

About forty feet long and four feet wide, the Hunley had, not surprisingly, been designed by H.L. Hunley who also died in the second sinking.  Built in Mobile, Alabama, the Hunley was transported by railroad to Charleston, South Carolina where Confederate authorities took charge of her from her builders.

The first time the Hunley sank was because its skipper accidentally sunk his own boat (for some reason submarines are called boats instead of ships) after stepping on a diving plane control, drowning five of the seven-man crew.  As fate would have it, the skipper was one of the two survivors.  The second time the Hunley sank, its inventor sank with it, along with the other seven men aboard.

Although the Hunley did not have a motor, it was powered by a propeller that was turned by the crew, and it could reach speeds of up to four knots.  Submerging and surfacing were accomplished by the use of diving planes and ballast tanks that the crew pumped water in and out of.  Its weapon was an explosive called a spar torpedo, basically a bomb at the end of a long stick designed to be stuck to the victim ship with a barb and then detonated by means of a cord after the Hunley had backed clear of the explosion.

On the fateful day, the Hunley had set off with a crew of eight and had found its target, the Union USS Housatonic, a ship 165 times the displacement of Hunley!  The Housatonic was a modern ship by the standards of the day, having been built in 1861 and being equipped with a steam engine and a propeller as well as conventional sails.  The Hunley made her approach and indeed sank the Housatonic just outside of Charleston Harbor, but the Hunley did not make it back to port either.

Found on the ocean floor in 1995 and salvaged in 2000, it has been determined from the wreckage that the Hunley had only been about twenty feet from the Housatonic when her spar torpedo detonated, also sinking the Hunley for the third and last time and killing her crew of eight.  Union ships in the area panicked, not knowing if the Hunley or any other submarines still prowled the area.

A bizarre angle to the sinking of the Housatonic is that the Union ship only lost three crewmen and two officers, whereas the Hunley lost all eight men!  It is not often that one ship sinks another ship and loses more people and sinks itself in the process!

Question for students (and subscribers): How important were submarines to the Civil War?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Gray, John, dir.  The Hunley (Tvm).  TNT, 2011.  DVD.

Hicks, Brian and Schuyler Kropf.  Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine.  Presidio Press, 2003.

Walker, Sally M.  Secrets Of A Civil War Submarine: Solving The Mysteries Of The H. L. Hunley.  Carolrhoda Books, 2005.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.