Poor Fellows, They are Five to One Coffin – The Hunley’s First Sinking

August 29, 1863 (Saturday)

Apart from the assaults upon Battery Wagner, and even separate from the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the Federal blockade of Charleston Harbor was yet another hardship weathered by the Confederates in South Carolina. To break through the blockade, the Rebels had used many different privateers. None, however, were as different as Horace Lawson Hunley.

Horace Lawson Hunley
Horace Lawson Hunley

In the early days of the Confederacy, Hunley was discovered by a customs collector in New Orleans. Being a former state represenative and lawyer, he wasn’t exactly an unknown, to be brought up by the bootstraps, but his skill in what would become one of the strangest undertakings of the war was, in 1861, not quite pronounced.

While others were thinking boats, Hunley was thinking submarines. His first attempt, the Pioneer, was built in early 1862, and tested in Lake Pontchartrain. All seemed more or less on the right track, as far as the vessel was concerned, though the same could not be said for the Confederate military situation in the Crescent City. With the coming of Yankees, the Pioneer was sank in a canal, and Hunley’s operation was moved to Mobile, Alabama.

There, he and his team began construction on the Pioneer II, which also became known at the American Diver. The submarine went through several different incarnations of power – including electric, steam, and hand-turned. They finally settled on the latter, and actually got the Pioneer II under the water in January of 1863. They attempted to launch an attack upon a Union blockade boat, but the poor submarine was found to be woefully slow. She was also found to be susceptible to choppy water and sank in a storm a month or so later, leaving Mr. Hunley two ships down and perhaps without employment.

Hunley wasn’t the first to dream up a submarine for use in warfare, of course. One was built by Colonial forces during the Revolutionary War. Appropriately, dubbed the Turtle, it didn’t work, but it was a start. The War of 1812 also featured such a contraption, but that too failed. And though Hunley may have been the first to give it another go during the Civil War, the Federals were on top of it (or under it?) as well.

"Don't mind me! I'm just an Alligator!"
“Don’t mind me! I’m just an Alligator!”

The USS Alligator was the first submarine officially christened by the United States Navy. It was tested in Philadelphia and, though slow to be built, it seemed promising at first. She was finally selected to help take Charleston Harbor, and was due to arrive in April, 1863. As she was being towed down the coast, however, a storm kicked up and she sank off Cape Hatteras.

Hunley, of course, didn’t know much, if anything, about the Alligator, but if he did, her fate probably wouldn’t have ushered him away from his own. While still in Alabama, Hunley began work on another submarine, which would soon bear his own name. Through the spring and early summer, he and his crew constructed the finest vessel they could imagine. Like the American Diver and Alligator before her, she was powered by a modified hand crank and boasted four knots.

By July, Hunley was ready to test his new creation, successfully attacking a Federal coal barge in Mobile Bay. Impressed with his new design, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the defenses of Charleston, asked the Confederate government to snatch up the new submarine, and ship her by rail to his headquarters. There, she arrived on August 12th with B.A. Whitney, one of her co-owners. Mr. Hunley would follow himself a bit later. In his stead, they sent James McClintock, one of the ship’s designers.

Hunley and his submarine torpedo boat.
Hunley and his submarine torpedo boat.

On the 15th, General Beauregard offered Whitney “the sum of $100,000 […] if he could “destroy the U.S. steam iron-clad Ironsides.” Whitney apparently took him up on the offer, making ready his “submarine torpedo boat.”

Meanwhile, another Confederate craft, dubbed the David was making an attempt upon the Ironsides. Though not technically a submarine, she was odd and sat very low to the water, convincing many who saw her (or almost saw her) to confuse her make. An ensign aboard the Federal vessel first took notice. “I saw a strange vessel, sitting very low in the water and having the appearance of being a large boat, coming up astern very fast,” he reported. “I hailed the stranger twice, receiving for an answer to the first hail, ‘Aye, aye,” and to the second, ‘I am the “Live Yankee,” from Port Royal.'”

One of several "David" class boats used by the Confederates.
One of several “David” class boats used by the Confederates.

The Ironside‘s captain, S.C. Rowan added that this mysterious Rebel ship “passed rapidly under our bow, with the intention, we presume, of applying a torpedo.” In five minutes, and after the Ironside fired several shots, she was gone. According to Confederate reports, “the current and other causes prevented a direct collection [with the Ironsides], and, having been discovered, the attempt was for the time abandoned.” Though the David wasn’t exactly successful, her attempt was lauded. The same could not be said for Hunley’s torpedo boat.

On August 23rd, as the Federal Swamp Angel was lobbing her last shells into the streets of Charleston, Whitney launched the vessel at sunset once more, but it did not go as well. Soon after setting off, they returned, telling the Confederate officer, General T.L. Clingman, on Sullivan’s Island that there had been some kind of accident. “Whitney says that though McClintock is timid, yet it shall go tonight unless the weather is bad,” reported Clingman.

McClintock looking fairly uncertain about things.
McClintock looking fairly uncertain about things.

On three separate occasions, Hunley’s little submarine did its best, but somehow or another failed. The Confederate officially began to think something wasn’t quire right with the project. They offered to put a naval captain in among the crew, but Whitney, the co-owner, declined. Finally, it was no longer a suggestion. The Confederate Navy officially seized the submarine and Whitney, McClintock and their crew were dismissed.

At her helm, the Confederates placed Lt. John Payne, who, along with nine other crewmen taken from the CSS Chicora, were to board the vessel and figure out how to make her work. This was apparently far too much to ask, for on this date, things went fairly wrong.

According to a daily report from Fort Johnson, “an unfortunate accident occurred at the wharf… by which five seamen of the Chicora were drowned. The submarine torpedo-boat became entangled in some way with ropes, was drawn on its side, filled, and went down. The bodies have not been recovered.”

This was more ill fortune than lack of experience. The submarine was tied up at the dock near Fort Johnson. Her hatches were open to air out the cramped vessel. Next to her was the steamer Etiwan, which started off without notice. When the Etiwan‘s ropes became entangled with the torpedo boat, the latter was capsized, trapping the five men inside.

Now you can build your own Hunley!
Now you can build your own Hunley!

Theodore Honour, a soldier in the 25th North Carolina, described the accident in a letter to his wife: “Just as they were learning the wharf at Fort Johnson, where I was myself a few minutes before – an accident happened which caused the boat to go under the water before they were prepared for such a thing, and five out of the nine went down in her and were drowned, the other four made their escape. They had not up to last night [the 29th] recovered either the boat or the bodies – poor fellows they are five in one coffin.”

Before long, Lt. Payne would be sacked, the submarine torpedo boat raised, and another officer placed in charge. A single sinking could not possibly doom Horace Lawson Hunley’s finest creation yet.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 1, p670-671; Part 2, p462, 551; Official Naval Records, Vol. 14, p497-498, 761; Letter, 30 Aug. 1863, from Theodore A. Honour, James Island, S.C., to Rebecca Honour, as found here; Encyclopedia of the American Civil War edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (for biographical info); The Siege of Charleston by E. Milby Burton. []
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Poor Fellows, They are Five to One Coffin – The Hunley’s First Sinking by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “Poor Fellows, They are Five to One Coffin – The Hunley’s First Sinking

  1. We saw the Hunley last year when we visited Charleston. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow photographs, unlike the Monitor project in Newport News, Virginia.

    As a submariner, the Hunley story is of particular interest to me, though I have not looked at it in much detail for quite a while.

    Good article. It refreshed my memory on a number of things.

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