You may be surprised to find out that submarines were used during the Civil War. These submarines were very different from the modern nuclear powered versions we know about today. They were cramped and dangerous vehicles powered by the brave men inside using hand cranks.
What were submarines used for?
The Confederacy made more use of submarines than the Union. The goal of the Confederate subs was to sink Union ships and help break the blockade the Union had around the South. The Union mostly tried to use submarines to remove underwater obstructions.
The First Civil War Subs
One of the first submarines for the Union was the USS Alligator which was launched in 1862. It was largely unsuccessful and sank in April of 1863. The Confederacy, on the other hand, put more emphasis on submarines. They first built the David in 1862. The David operated on steam making it only a partial submarine as its smokestack needed to stick out of the water.
Hunley Submarine by R.G. Skerrett
The H.L. Hunley
The most famous of the Civil War submarines was the H.L. Hunley. It was named after its inventor Horace Hunley.
How many crew were on the Hunley?
The Hunley was around 40 feet long and carried a crew of seven soldiers and one officer. The inside of the submarine was cramped being around 4 feet high and 3 and half feet wide.
What kind of weapons did the Hunley have?
The main weapon of the Hunley was the spar torpedo. This was basically a bomb at the end of a long stick. They would use the stick to ram the bomb into the side of an enemy ship. Then they would back away and detonate the bomb.
Did they run out of air?
The submarine would have to get near the surface to get fresh air. They would use snorkel tubes that would go above the water and then a hand pump system to pump fresh air into the submarine. The only light they had when under water was a candle. They could tell if they were running out of air if the candle started to go out.
Not a Good Start
The first efforts to use the Hunley did not start out very well. The submarine sunk twice with several crewmen dying. The second time the submarine sunk, Horace Hunley was captain. He died as well as all the crew members.
First Submarine to Sink a Ship
A third crew was assembled under Captain George Dixon. They set out in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina on February 17, 1864 hunting for a Union ship. They soon discovered the USS Housatonic. They snuck up on the ship and rammed it with a spar torpedo. After detonating the bomb, the Housatonic sank within five minutes. It was the first time a submarine had sunk an enemy ship.
The Hunley Sinks
The Hunley never made it back to port that day. It likely sunk within a few hours of sinking the Housatonic. Historians and scientists have tried to figure out what caused the Hunley to sink, but it is still a mystery. One theory has it that it did not get far enough away from the torpedo that sunk the Housatonic and was damaged in the explosion.
The Hunley is Recovered
The wreck of the Hunley was raised in 2000. It is preserved in a tank of water at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Interesting Facts about the H.L. Hunley and Submarines
There was a movie made in 1999 called The Hunley that told the story of the submarine's final mission.
You can tour a replica of the Hunley at the Conservation Center in South Carolina.
The torpedo used by the Hunley contained 90 pounds of gunpowder.
After sinking twice, the Hunley earned the nickname the "iron coffin."