First ship sunk by submarine during Civil War

Published 9:27 am Monday, August 22, 2011

In August of 1776, Sgt. Ezra Lee took the Turtle, a primitive submarine, to attack Lord Richard Howe’s British fleet.

The torpedo would not screw into the ship’s bottom since it was copper. From 1797-1806, Robert Fulton concentrated his inventive genius on a submarine. The British Admiralty and Napoleon were interested, but nothing came of his demonstrations.

The United States would have to wait until a chilly night, Feb. 17, 1864, to witness the first submarine in naval history to sink an enemy ship.

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Although this event happened during the Civil War, a similar feat would not be repeated until World War I.

The idea for a submarine was conceived in New Orleans where a group of inventors came up with a plan of defeating the Union’s superior navy with an innovative technology: A submersible vessel that would deliver explosives below the waterlines to Union blockaders.

The group of inventors moved to Mobile, Ala., in 1863 where it completed its third submarine. It would be a 40-foot, hand-cranked iron tube named for Horace Lawson Hunley, the wealthiest of those in the group.

The C.S.S. Hunley passed its maritime test in July 1863. Union ships bombarded Charleston, S.C., with heavy artillery fire in 1863 and local Confederate officials hoped this “torpedo fish” could break the stranglehold of the Union navy on Charleston Harbor. The C.S.S. Hunley came from Mobile to Charleston by train and its crew began some secret tests with high hopes.

The C.S.S. Hunley weighed 7.5 tons. Its length was 39 feet, 5 inches, excluding the rudder assembly. Its width was 3 feet, 10 inches. The full height inside was 4 feet, 3 inches.

The Hunley’s surface speed was 4 knots or 4.6 miles per hour. It was hand-cranked by its crew. The vessel was made from locomotive boilers. The submarine had a spar, 17-22 foot long, constructed of iron. At the spar’s end was a 135-pound torpedo that would be thrust into an enemy vessel.

The Hunley would then back away 150 feet and trigger the charge of the explosives. For many decades, historians thought this submarine was manned by nine men when it sank on Feb. 17, 1864. Archaeologists have found that there were only eight men on board—seven crewmen and the captain.

On Aug. 29, 1863, the Hunley sank near Fort Johnson when the wake of a passing vessel swamped it. Five of eight crewmen drowned. One of the crew was thought to be a 13-year-old boy.

Two months later, it was raised and repaired. On another run, it sank a second time, but this time it killed all aboard, including Horace Lawson Hunley, its chief designer and the “Prophet of the Deep.”

The Hunley’s third venture brought it a new commander, 1st Lt. George E. Dixon, an infantry officer from Kentucky. In early 1864, the Union blockade officers heard about this new weapon. Hunley’s crew trained in Charleston Harbor and began to patrol from Sullivan’s Island.

Dixon pushed his crew to the limits, participating in 20 offshore missions and sometimes, as far out to sea as six or seven miles.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, in charge of Charleston’s defense, wanted nothing to do with the submarine. He would later allow the recruitment of a third crew if Dixon told the crew of the dangers the mission required.

First Lt. George Dixon left Breach Inlet on Feb. 17, 1864, and headed four miles toward the U.S.S. Housatonic, the largest ship in the U.S. Navy. At 8:45 p.m., a Housatonic crew member thought he saw a dolphin. As the Hunley came closer, the Union sailors opened fire with small arms and tried to back away.

The Hunley rammed its spar into the warship and backed up. It was supposed to retreat 150 feet before detonation, but set off the explosives only 50-80 feet away. Five Union sailors died and the Housatonic sank in three minutes.

Those Confederates on Sullivan’s Island reported they saw a “blue signal light” after the explosion, the agreed-upon sign that the Hunley had been successful. Then the Hunley vanished and we don’t know why—yet! The three times the C.S.S. Hunley sank, 22 Confederates died.

The C.S.S. Hunley was discovered in 1995 and brought from the ocean floor at 8:39 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2000. The recovery of the Hunley and the process of conserving it will probably cost around $20 million.

George Dixon has been identified because he was at the captain’s post in the “sub.” In his pocket was a dented gold coin.

Queenie Bennett, Dixon’s fiancée, gave him the $20 gold piece when he went off to war. At Shiloh, in April of 1862, a minie ball hit his leg in the pocket area. It bent the coin into a bell shape.

The coin saved his leg and his life. Dixon carried the coin always! The coin identified him.

Bob Leith is a history professor at Ohio University Southern.