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This Day in History: A Confederate submarine torpedoes and sinks USS Housatonic

On this day in 1864, a Confederate submarine torpedoes and sinks the USS Housatonic. The H.L. Hunley changed naval warfare forever. It was the first submarine to successfully sink a warship!

Sketch of the Hunley by R.G. Skerrett (1902)

Americans had been trying to develop submarines for use in warfare for decades. As early as 1776, an attempt was made to use a submarine during the American Revolution. In the mid-1800s, as the Civil War began, both Union and Confederate forces were still trying to develop this technology.

Confederate forces succeeded first. In 1863, the H.L. Hunley was completed in Mobile, Alabama. The road to success was a tough one. Several men were killed during the Hunley’s first expeditions. One of these was the Hunley’s designer, Horace L. Hunley, who drowned during a training run.

In the meantime, Union forces had learned of the Hunley from Confederate deserters. Naval forces prepared for the possibility of an attack. The commander of a blockade around Charleston Harbor warned his men of a boat similar to a torpedo boat, “which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.” Crews were ordered to drop netting overboard and to leave space between boats “so as to be entirely clear of each other’s fire if opened suddenly in the dark.” They were also advised “not to anchor in the deepest part of the channel, for by not leaving much space between the bottom of the vessel and the bottom of the channel it will be impossible for the diving torpedo to operate except on the sides, and there will be less difficulty in raising a vessel if sunk.”

On the night of February 17, an officer aboard the USS Housatonic noticed “something on the water, which at first looked to me like a porpoise, coming to the surface to blow.” Another crew member also saw the “strange object” and thought it had the “appearance of a log.” The object moved quickly and, almost before anyone could react, an explosion occurred. The Hunley had torpedoed the Housatonic, which quickly begin to sink. The ship was in a shallow area, so its riggings never went under water. Most of the crew escaped in life boats or by hanging on to the rigging until help arrived.

The crew of the Hunley was less fortunate.

After the attack, the plan was for the Hunley to signal success by flashing a blue light. Those ashore would see the light, and they would light a fire to help lead the Hunley back to shore. The Hunley apparently did signal its success with a blue light, as planned. But then, strangely, the crew disappeared. Neither the submarine nor the crew ever returned to shore.

What had happened? No one knew.

Did water sweep into the open hatch as Hunley was signaling its victory? At least one large Union ship rushed immediately to the aid of the Housatonic, so perhaps its wake unknowingly swamped the Hunley’s crew. Or maybe the crew was waiting for rescue ships to clear out before returning to shore, but then waited too long? Perhaps they simply ran out of oxygen.

To this day, no one knows exactly what happened. The Hunley lay on the sea floor for well over 100 years before finally being re-discovered in 1995. Today, scientists are still piecing together clues gathered from the wreckage. Maybe one day we will know what happened during the Hunley’s final minutes and hours.

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