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.

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!

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been in a submarine?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

As you can see over on, 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.


About Author

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 in Ohio.