February 17, 1864 – One of the first submarine attacks in history occurred when a “submersible” Confederate vessel confronted a Federal warship on blockade duty at Charleston Harbor.
The C.S.S. H.L. Hunley was a forerunner to the modern submarine. It had sunk in two previous test runs, killing both crews, including inventor Horace L. Hunley himself in the second run. Both times the Confederate navy salvaged the Hunley and restored her for service. Built from a boiler cylinder, the hand-cranked, cigar-shaped craft was nicknamed “the peripatetic coffin.”
Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had received intelligence that Confederates were experimenting with submersible ships to attack the Federal blockaders. He had been aware of “semi-submersible” vessels ever since the David’s attack on the U.S.S. New Ironsides last October, and he knew that new technology was being attempted to make the vessels even harder to see on the water.
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles warned Dahlgren that Confederates were developing a type of “submarine machine.” Dahlgren passed this information to his fleet commanders, instructing them to look out for a ship “of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.”
A Confederate deserter informed the Federals that a vessel had been developed that could “stay underwater 10 minutes each time, and would come up 75 to 80 yards from where she went down.” Dahlgren reported, “When she does not dive, she only shows two heads above the water about the size of a man’s head. He (the deserter) thinks she is about 20 feet long and the manholes are about eight feet apart. She is made of iron.” Dahlgren stated that because he had “every reason to expect a visit from some or all of these torpedoes, the greatest vigilance will be needed to guard against them.”
Dahlgren put all his ship captains on high alert, but he assured them that only in “smooth water, and when the tide is slack, that any danger is imminent.” The waters had been rough in Charleston harbor since the beginning of the year, and by the time calm finally came on the night of the 17th, the Federal crews had grown complacent.
Lieutenant George E. Dixon, commanding the Hunley, targeted the U.S.S. Housatonic, a 1,240-ton wooden sloop-of-war. Dixon and his six crewmen waited for a strong ebb tide and favorable winds to help maximize the Hunley’s top speed of four knots. Moving out on a foggy night, guided by a near-full moon, the vessel covered the 12 miles to her target, on blockade duty just outside Charleston Harbor.
At 8:45 p.m., Captain Charles W. Pickering, commanding the Housatonic, sighted a strange object floating in the water toward his ship and notified Acting Master John K. Crosby, the deck officer. Crosby later stated, “It… had the appearance of a plank moving in the water.” The Hunley was already within 100 yards when Crosby saw that it was an enemy vessel. He ordered the crew to slip the anchor cables and back the ship away, but by that time, the Hunley was upon them. None of the Housatonic’s 12 guns could be depressed low enough to fire on the attacker.
The Hunley’s crew detonated a torpedo attached to a spar against the Housatonic’s side. According to Crosby, “The torpedo struck forward of the mizzen mast, on the starboard side, in line with the magazine.” The torpedo held 90 pounds of gunpowder, and the Federal ship sank within five minutes after detonation. Because the water was just 27 feet deep, the Housatonic did not sink completely, allowing all but five of her crew to escape. The remaining 158 crewmen were rescued by the nearby U.S.S. Canandaigua.
The Hunley signaled her success to Confederates on Sullivan’s Island but then disappeared, believed to have been sunk by the blast. There were no survivors, and the craft was finally found in 1970. However, this was the first sinking of a ship by a submarine in history, and it served to put the Federal blockaders on full alert. According to the Charleston Daily Courier:
“The explosion made no noise, and the affair was not known among the fleet until daybreak, when the crew were discovered and released from their uneasy positions in the rigging. They had remained there all night. Two officers and three men were reported missing and were supposed to be drowned. The loss of the Housatonic caused great consternation in the fleet. All the wooden vessels are ordered to keep up steam and to go out to sea every night, not being allowed to anchor inside. The picket boats have been doubled and the force in each boat increased.”
Dahlgren directed his captains to launch patrols and put up netting to guard against similar type vessels. He also wrote Welles proposing a Federal reward of $20,000 to $30,000 for anyone seizing or destroying any vessel like the Hunley. Distressed by this surprise attack, Dahlgren wrote, “They are worth more to us than that.”
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