This Week in History: The Sinking of the Hunley


150 years ago, America was embroiled in one of the bloodiest wars ever fought on native soil: the American Civil War. 150 years ago, the North fought the South, brother fought brother, nation fought nation. 150 years ago, when the naval blockade of Southern ports threatened to choke the Confederacy, a little submarine defeated a Union vessel, sending it to the bottom of the sea. Almost in the same breath, however, the H.L. Hunley also sank. How and why it sank is a mystery.

For those of you unfamiliar with the American Civil War, it was a four-year war fought between the northern and southern parts of the United States over the issues of slavery and state-versus-federal rights. The South seceded from the North and formed the Confederate States of America. The North was considered “the Union” and the South was considered “the Confederacy”. The North ultimately won, and the U.S. became one nation again in 1865. The Hunley played a small role in this war.

The Hunley was built in Mobile, Alabama in 1863. Confederate commander General Pierre G.T. Beauregard realized that the submarine could aid in defeating a blockade of Union ships around Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. Initial tests were not very promising, however. A total of two crews perished after the Hunley sank during trial runs. Despite this, hope remained that the Hunley would be the saving grace of Charleston Harbor. Its final run, however, would take place on February 17, 1864.

That moonlit night, the USS Housatonic patrolled the harbor, probably rather unsuspecting. Then, the Hunley launched a 135-pound torpedo at the enemy ship’s stern, and the Housatonic sank quickly. Unfortunately for the 8-man crew of the Hunley, the submarine also sank. But how and why is still a mystery that modern-day teams are trying to solve.

The remarkably-preserved remains of the submarine and its crew were discovered in 1995 and surfaced in 2000. The Hunley has since undergone significant research, testing, and postulating.

One part of the mystery involves the reason the submarine sank. CNN succinctly sums up some possible methods:
“Was the loss of the Hunley the result of the torpedo’s detonation? An unsecured hatch? Or perhaps a lucky enemy shot that blasted a hole in the Confederate vessel’s viewing port?” (Source)

Another mystery involves the identification of the victims. Little information and no photographs exist of the crew. Only one has been officially identified. But hopefully the reconstructed faces of the men will bring to light some answers.

If you are interested in learning more about the H.L. Hunley, please check out:

Friends of the Hunley

General information from the U.S. Navy

Pictures of the Hunley from National Geographic

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