Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley
sinks Federal corvette Housatonic near Charleston, SC
February 17, 1864

From the onset of the Civil War a strategy of the industrial North was to isolate the agricultural South. Union Army commanders initiated campaigns to gain control of the Mississippi River all the way to New Orleans. Naval vessels blockaded the Gulf coast and the Atlantic seaboard. By late 1863 the Confederacy was in desperate need of supplies, especially munitions, which could only be obtained by sea from such countries as France and Britian.

The South had two excellent ports (Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia) for landing ships from Europe but both were blockaded by Union war ships anchored in the harbors. The Federal ships not only blocked entry of foreign vessels, but the ships' guns had the range to prevent the Confederates from constructing surface craft large enough to challenge the blockades.

By 1863 the Confederate Navy knew that the only way to beat the blockades was with submarines. The idea for submersible bodies goes back to the third century B.C., when Archimedes discovered the laws of floating bodies. From then on, various people realized that by increasing the weight, or by decreasing the displacement of a floating body, it could be made to submerge, and by reversing the process, it could be surfaced again. However, significant progress beyond this point had to await two developments of the latter part of the 19th century. These were the internal combustion engine for surface propulsion, and the electric storage battery and motor for submerged propulsion. A significant date is January 17, 1955, when the signal "Underway on nuclear power," from U.S.S. Nautilus marked the advent of the true submarine, capable of submergence for unlimited periods.

Not until 1578 does any record appear of a craft designed to be navigated under water. In that year William Bourne, a British mathematician and gunner, published Inventions and Devises, in which the "18th Devise" was the design of a completely enclosed boat which could be submerged and rowed under the surface. It consisted of a wooden framework covered with waterproofed leather. It was to be submerged by reducing its volume by contracting the sides through the use of hand vises. although Bourne never built this boat, a similar construction, sponsored by Magnus Pegelius, was launched in 1605. It is to Cornelis Drebbel, a Dutch inventor, that credit is usually given for building the first submarine. To him is conceded the honor of successfully maneuvering his craft during repeated trials in the Thames, at depths of 12 to 15 feet beneath the surface.

Drebbel's craft resembled those of Bourne and Pegelius in that its outer hull consisted of greased leather over a wooden framework. Oars, extending through the sides and sealed with tight-fitting leather flaps, provided propulsion either on the surface or when submerged. Drebbel built his first boat in 1620 and followed it later with two others, both larger but embodying the same principles.

Submarine boats seem to have been numerous in the early years of the 18th century. By 1727 no fewer than 14 types had been patented in England alone. An unidentified inventor, whose work is described in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1747, introduced an ingenious method of submerging and surfacing his submarine. His craft was to have had a number of goatskins built into the hull, each of which was to be connected to an aperture in the bottom. He planned to submerge the vessel by filling the skins with water and to bring it to the surface again by forcing the water out of the skins with a twisting rod. This was the first approach to the ballast tanks used in modern submarines.

In the American Revolutionary War, (1775-1783) a submarine was first used as an offensive weapon in naval warfare. The Turtle, a one-man submersible invented by David Bushnell and hand-operated by a screw propeller, attempted to sink a British man-of-war in New York harbor. The plan was to attach a charge of gunpowder to the ship's bottom with a screw and explode it with a time fuse. After repeated failures to force the screws through the copper sheathing on the hull of H.M.S. Eagle, the submarine gave up, released the charge and withdrew. The powder exploded without result, except that the Eagle at once decided to shift to a berth farther out to sea.

Although his name is most often associated with the invention of the steamboat, Robert Fulton experimented with submarines at least a decade before he sailed the Clermont up the Hudson River. Fulton's Nautilus was built of steel, in the shape of an elongated oval. It was somewhat similar in structure to the modern submarine. A sail was employed for surface propulsion and a hand-driven screw propeller drove the boat when submerged. A modified form of conning tower was equiped with a porthole for underwater observation since the periscope had not yet been invented. In 1801 Fulton tried to interest France, Britain and the United States in his idea, but no nation ventured to sponsor the development of the craft, even though his model was superior to any submarine designed up to that time.

H.L. Hunley

Development of the submarine boat was held back during all of this period by lack of any adequate means of propulsion. Nevertheless, inventors continued resolutely with experiments upon small, hand-propelled submersibles, carrying a crew of not more than six or eight. On February 17, 1864, a Confederate vessel of this type, the Hunley, sank the Housatonic, a Federal corvette that was blockading Charleston harbor in South Carolina. This is the first recorded instance of a submarine sinking a war ship. The Hunley accomplished the feat by using a torpedo suspended ahead of her bow which was rammed into the corvette. Mysteriously, the Hunley also sank and her crew perished. Interest in improvement of submarines was active during the period of the American Civil War, but the problem of a suitable means of propulsion continued to limit progress. Steam was tried and finally in 1880 an English clergyman, the Reverend George William Garrett, successfully operated a submarine with steam from a coal-fired boiler which featured a retractable smokestack. In 1884, two Englishmen, Campbell and Ash, invented an all-electric boat and it was built in 1886 by Wolseley and Lyon.

The Hunley was constructed using a large boiler tank with rounded ends to produce an overall cigar shape. A cutout on top was covered with a bubble of steel to provide a conning tower which had a smaller cutout on the front side to serve as a porthole for navigation. It is believed that the porthole was covered with a piece of glass, possibly the bottom of a glass jar. The submarine was hand-propelled by a screw propeller shaft extending through the rear of the craft. On that fateful night observers on shore witnessed the explosion of the Housatonic and knew that the Hunley had not exploded, but they also knew that she never surfaced or returned to shore.

In 1995 divers found the Hunley nearly intact lying 30 feet down on the bottom of Charleston harbor. The submarine was filled with silt and the porthole in the front of the conning tower was open. Early speculation is that perhaps a lantern inside the vessel may have lit up the porthole providing a good nighttime target for riflemen aboard the Housatonic. The vessel was under water and breaking the porthole window almost certainly would have doomed her. Another possibility is that the explosion blew out the window.

Engineers spent the next five years planning to raise the submarine. They built concrete pillars out beyond each end of the craft to support a large portable steel trestle. Inflatable slings were maneuvered beneath the craft and the ends attached to the sides of the trestle. When the slings were inflated with foam, the submarine was gently lifted up to the underside of the trestle and on August 8, 2000, large cranes lifted the trestle and vessel, as a unit, out of the water. The Hunley was rushed to a labratory 20 miles away and quickly re-immersed in water to retard deterioration. There it will be studied and restored; a process expected to last seven years. After restoration, the craft will be on public display at the Charleston History Museum.

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