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The H. L. Hunley, a National Treasure

Photo courtesy of NationalGeographic.com.

Last week marked the 150th anniversary of the first sinking of an enemy warship by a submarine. The hand-cranked submarine, the H.L Hunley, sailed under the flag of the Confederacy and sank the Union ship Housatonic in an attempt to damage the blockade that was strangling Charleston, South Carolina. According to the history.com website "The undersea vessel had been privately constructed in Mobile, Alabama, based on the plans of marine engineer Horace Lawson Hunley. The submarine more closely resembled a whale. It was constructed out of a 40-foot-long cylindrical iron steam boiler with a tapered bow and stern. After successful tests on the Mobile River, the submarine was transported to Charleston in August 1863 amid hopes by the Confederate navy that it could be a secret weapon in breaking the Union blockade."

After the sub was brought to Charleston Harbor, five of the first nine crewmembers were killed when the sub was accidently put into a dive while the hatches were still open. The next brave eight men, including, Hunley himself, were killed in a second training accident. The sub was once again salvaged and a Confederate "Lieutenant George Dixon agreed to take command of the vessel in November 1863 and raised a crew of courageous volunteers. As Dixon led his men on the daring attack on Housatonic, he carried with him his good luck charm, a bent gold coin that had saved his life by slowing a bullet that wounded him two years before at the Battle of Shiloh."

Cutaway sketch of H.L. Hunley after sketches by W. A. Alexander (1863).

On a still evening on the night of February 17, 1864, "most of the submarine still remained below the water line as it moved so close to Housatonic that the warship's 12 cannons were useless. The captain and crew fired their rifles and shotguns in a futile attempt to halt the approaching vessel, but the bullets merely bounced off Hunley's armor as a spar torpedo mounted at the end of a 16-foot rod that protruded from the submarine's bow struck the warship. The spar tore into Housatonic's starboard quarter near its powder magazine, and the rebel torpedo laden with 135 pounds of gunpowder exploded. Housatonic took on water immediately, and within minutes it was a loss, the first warship to have ever been sunk by a submarine." See history.com for more details.

Unfortunately, the submarine once again never made it to shore until the remains were discovered off the coast of Charleston in 1995. The remains were brought to a conservation lab in North Charleston where restoration work continues. The submarine can be seen during the weekends at the Warren Lasch Conservation Lab. This conservation lab is one of those gems that you should seek to visit if you are in the Charleston area. Be sure and call ahead for hours. The lab is located at 1250 Supply Street (on the old Charleston Navy Base) in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Friends of the Hunley

A treasure trove of information on the Hunley and its history can be found at Hunley.org. This website is official website of the Friends of the Hunley, which is a non-profit that along with a South Carolina agency has been responsible for the raising and restoration of the Hunley. The website has information on the marine engineer who drew the plans for the sub, details about the different crews and so many stories about the restoration. The structure of the submarine is discussed in detail and it is amazing the advanced work that was done 150 years ago.

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