February 17, 1864 (Wednesday)
The moon, not quite full, cast yet enough illumination across Charleston Harbor for the men aboard the USS Housatonic to espy what seemed to them a plank. Silently it drew closer, but slowly. The Acting Master, John Crosby, grew suspicious enough to order all hands to quarters. The chain was slipped and the engines powered. This was no mere plank, it was clear. There was determination, and she was moving, advancing, with a purpose all her own. Two minutes after she was spotted, so near had she come that the shipboard guns could not be depressed enough to fire. A smattering of muskets and sidearms fired pointlessly at the craft. For a moment there was silence. And then everything exploded.
Since September, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren had known that the Confederates were either building or even using submarines near Charleston, South Carolina. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had contacted him concerning information gathered from prisoners about a “submarine machine.” Since that time, Dahlgren’s fleet, which was blockading the Confederate port, had dealt with the semi-submersible known as torpedo boats. Fully submersible ships, however, were something new.
Rumors and sightings gave ship captains pause. Through the months of November and December, they found themselves anchoring farther off shore, lessening the chances of and attack from this fabled submarine. All the while, Confederate deserters were anything but tight-lipped about this novelty.
In early January, Admiral Dahlgren sent orders to his fleet warning them of two enemy torpedo boats, as well as a ship “of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.”
The prisoners confessed that the ship worked well enough, but it was fraught with “bad management” and had thus met with accidents, sinking several times. One deserter named George Shipp spoke volumes, detailing the obstruction in the harbor, the Rebel ironclads, the fortifications, as well as the torpedo boats. The vessel in question, which he referred to as the “American Diver,” was seen a couple of months prior. She had sunk and he witnessed the Confederates taking seven drowned men out of her. He described how this American Diver would “stay underwater ten minutes each time, and would come up 75 to 80 yards from where she went down. At last she went down and would not come up again.” The ship lay at the bottom of the harbor for nine days. More recently, he noticed that the Confederates had taken her to nearby Mount Pleasant, but didn’t know if she was diving again.
Admiral Dahlgren had little to go on, as the deserter could hardly describe the American Diver’s appearance. “When she does not dive,” relayed Dahlgren, “she only shows two heads above the water about the size of a man’s head. He [the deserter] thinks she is about 20 feet long and the manholes are about 8 feet apart. She is made of iron.”
Dahlgren cautioned that since there was “every reason to expect a visit from some or all of these torpedoes, the greatest vigilance will be needed to guard against them.” He ordered that preventative measures be taken, such as rigging the fenders, and dropping netting over the sides. The guns were to be kept loaded with canister, and the lookout ships be vigilant.
As the first month of 1864 slipped away, Dahlgren reported now and then about the “Diver,” but had little additional information to pass along. He compared it to the torpedo boats, referred to as “Davids,” but realized the two types of ships were very different. The “Diver” was “intended to submerge completely, get under the bottom, attach the torpedo [bomb], haul off, and pull trigger. So far the trials have been unlucky, having drowned three crews of 17 men in all.” He allowed the the “Diver” was still active and able to dive, but seemed more concerned about the two “Davids,” adding caution that the “Diver” could also act as a “David.”
Dalgren had assured himself that it was only in “smooth water, and when the tide is slack, that any danger is imminent.” The weather had more recently been terrible, and it was incredibly unlikely that the Rebels would launch such an attack against him in such turbulent seas. As January slid into February, there was little change, but over the past night or so, the waters calmed, but vigilance had hardly returned.
And this was exactly what Confederate Lt. George Dixon was waiting for. From his headquarters at Mount Pleasant, he had been preparing his little diver, actually named the H.L. Hunley for more trials, and perhaps even an attack against the Union blockade. He, along with his newly picked crew, boarded the submarine, and cast off around 6pm. With a lookout peering through the cold night, the rest of the men turned hand cranks powering the propeller driving the ship. They targeted the USS Housatonic, one of several ships blockading the harbor.
As they drew to within 100 yards, they were spotted, but the Federals seemed too ill-prepared and did not fire upon them, save with small arms. Their target began to lurch backwards, in an attempt to escape, but it was too late. The Hunley‘s torpedo, held by a long pole extending from the bow, struck the starboard side between the main and mizzen masts, and detonated.
Immediately, the Housatonic began to sink, much to the shock of her crew. Two satellite boats were lowered and were quickly filled. The nearest friendly ship, the USS Canandaigua, was reached about a half hour after the sinking. They were completely ignorant to the explosion, and were only alerted to it by one of the smaller boats holding the refugees. By 9:30, both boats were collected, and an hour later, all still alive following the attack were taken aboard the Canandaigua. When the Housatonic was reached, she was completely sunk. Since the harbor at this point was but twenty-seven feet deep, her masts stood out of the water. Twenty-one officers and 137 crew survived, while only five (or possibly eight) were killed.
Their mission accomplished, the Rebel ship Hunley, under the command of Lt. Dixon, surfaced and signaled back to Sullivan’s Island that all had gone well. But all had not gone as planned. The Hunley was probably about twenty feet away from the blast, and most likely received damage from its shock waves. Perhaps it was, at first, unknown to the crew when they signaled back to shore.
She never returned to port. The Hunley took on water and sunk shortly after her prey. It took two days for the Confederates to realize this. For a time, there was hope that Lt. Dixon and his crew had been captured, but over the coming weeks, it would be clear that was not the case.
The USS Housatonic had the honor of being the first ship ever sunk by a submarine. She would later be deemed too damaged to be raised. The Hunley would be found in 1970 (and then again in 1979, and yet again in 1995) and then raised in 2000. The investigation as to the actual cause of the sinking is ongoing.1
- Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 15, p327-336; The Siege of Charleston 1861-1865 by E. Milby Burton; Success Is All That Was Expected by Robert M. Browning, Jr.; “Hunley Legend Altered by New Discovery,” Chaleston Post and Courior, January 28, 2013. [↩]