On August 8, 2000, the wreck of the H.L. Hunley was raised from the bottom of the Charleston Harbor, where it had sunk in 1864 during the Civil War. The Hunley was the first “submarine” to sink an enemy ship, and Tom Chaffin tells its story with an easy-flowing narration and description of the events surrounding the Hunley and its creators, crews, demise and recovery.
Chaffin begins with the background of his research and the stories of the main characters, especially the person the “submarine” was named after: Horace Lawson Hunley. He moves on to the story of Hunley and his colleagues’ activities in Confederate New Orleans from the summer of 1861 to the spring of 1862, when New Orleans fell to the Union. In New Orleans, Hunley and friends decided they would create a “submarine” to collect an award the Confederate government was offering to anyone who could create a boat to sink Union ships and break up the Federal blockade of the South. The friends succeeded in creating the CSS Pioneer but had to destroy it due to Union occupation of the city.
Hunley, friends and others moved to Mobile, Alabama to create a new submarine. From spring 1862 until the summer of 1863, they created two - the American Diver, which sunk in the Mobile harbor, and the Fish Boat, which they eventually took to Charleston, South Carolina.
In Charleston, Hunley’s colleagues continued to improve the submarine. Surprisingly, the boat was not kept secret by the Confederates. Many people knew of it and came to see it; the Union most likely knew of its existence (it was kept under guard, though). A crew gathered from the Confederate army and navy tested the boat, and when an accident occurred, the crew was killed. The boat was raised from the bottom of the harbor and fixed up and improved upon.
The submarine project was not moving fast enough for the Confederate commander of Charleston, General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, so he confiscated the boat. H. L. Hunley offered to serve on the crew of the Fish Boat, and its name was changed to H. L. Hunley, though how the naming came about remains somewhat a mystery. The second crew, of which Hunley was a member, tested the boat again, but another accident resulted in all the crew, including Hunley, being drowned. The boat was becoming a better killer than the Union Navy was. Nonetheless, the Confederates decided to raise it up again.
The Hunley was cleaned up and fixed, and a third crew was gathered under the command of Lieutenant George E. Dixon. The tests went better, and the decision was made to attempt to sink a Federal warship. That attempt, on the night of February 17-18, 1864, was successful, sinking the USS Housatonic and killing five sailors. The Hunley later sank, too, although scholars and scientists are still looking into the how and why of it today. When the Hunley became the first craft to sink an enemy ship while submerged, it changed how naval warfare would be conducted in the future.
Chaffin presents the story of raising the Hunley and its restoration and the ongoing research of it and its crew, and he explores the question as to why it sank as well as other questions, like the agreed-upon signal and the other signals made that night. The dead crews’ bodies were removed and, fittingly, buried with the other two crews that drowned on the Hunley.
Chaffin examined information from various archives and other sources in researching this book. An appendix lists the three crews of the Hunley and those who died on the Housatonic, followed by endnotes, a bibliography and an index. The H. L. Hunley is highly recommended to those interested in the Civil War and submarines.
Tom Chaffin is the author of Sea of Gray(2006), Pathfinder (2002) and Fatal Glory (1996).