VIENNA, Va. — On Feb. 17, 1864, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley made the first successful attack on an enemy ship, sinking the USS Housatonic.
But the submarine, dubbed the Little Fish, never returned. It would be 140 years before her crew would be laid to rest in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, S.C. [The name obviously comes from its under-water capabilities coupled with its diminutive size.]
It had been an interesting, if frustrating, time for wealthy New Orleans planter and attorney, Horace L. Hunley, who twice had put the vessel together, and twice it had sunk.
All crews on the first two attempts had been lost; Hunley himself was dead, a victim of the second sinking.
CSA Charleston Commanding General Pierre G.T. Beauregard had grounded the effort; it had already claimed the lives of 13 men and he felt the experiement should end.
In the previous attempts, a ready crew had stepped forward, and as ongoing scientific examinations of the Hunley continue in Charleston, no final definitive cause for the failed attempts has been found.
Two men stepped up—George E. Dixon and William Alexander of the metal shop used in the Hunley’s production. They wanted to recover the bodies of their friends, and of Hunley, but they also felt the usage of the diving ship should not end. DIxon, of Kentucky who had fought with Alabama troops and was wounded at Shiloh, would be one of the victims of that February 1864 attack on the Housatonic.
They wanted to save the little fish boat and prove its utility. And so work once more began on the Hunley.
The third one was, indeed, the charm. On that dark, moonless night, the little ship sailed out, let loose its missile of destruction, turned and began the trip back to shore.
It never returned, however, and it was 140 years before the ship could be brought up.
Some authorities seem to be leaning more and more to the reasoning I followed after reading the first two or three books on it.
The concussive shock from the weapon exploding into the side of the sleeping Housatonic reverberated across the waters and hit the Hunley, probably rendering the crew unconscious, and when their oxygen was used up, they died.
In the books I have read about the Hunley’s sinking, the remains of the ship showed the candles had burned completely down in their holders, and the men who died with her succumbed at their stations, as though they fell asleep there, their bodies contorted only by death.
There were no signs of struggle, no clambering toward the way out, they simply died.
The signal had been seen on shore, but no distress signal had been seen.
Death had come instantaneously, it seemed.
The best book I’ve read on the subject, “Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine” (Ballantine Books, NY, 2002), was written by two award-winning Charleston newspapermen, Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf.
Their research and ultimate conclusions are hard to refute. They found the sub’s technological advances beyond anything they had imagined, and had enough artifacts to give evidence as to the crew’s lives and talent.
(There is an earlier book on the Hunley by Mark Ragan, but the Hicks-Kropf tome is definitely the premier version.)
If you go to Charleston, S.C. visit the Friends of the Hunley exhibiti at he Warren Lasch Conservation Center (founded under the auspices of Senator Glenn McConnell of SC )where the Hunley is being maintained and stabilized after more than a century of salt water.
At the center you can also see a life-size replica of a portion of the Hunley. At my 4 feet 10 inches, I can report the quarters are darn cramped, even more so when you consider the size of the average man of that era.
And so now, 140 years later, the Hunley still remains a symbol of dedicated men’s attempts and of a trip successful for sinking the first enemy boat.
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