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CSS H.L. Hunley

CSS H.L. Hunley
August 2016
On the night of February 17, 1864, the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley slipped out of Breach Inlet and headed for the Federal blockading fleet offshore; her target was the sloop-of-war U.S.S. Housatonic. She plunged a spar torpedo into the side of that 1,260-ton ship, making history as the first sub to sink an enemy vessel in combat. But the Hunley never returned to shore, and her whereabouts remained a mystery for 131 years—until she was finally found off the coast of Sullivan’s Island. On August 8, 2000, as cannons boomed; church bells pealed; and thousands watched from boats, beaches, bridges, and the Battery, the Hunley was raised. Here, learn more about her past—and present

FORWARD CHARGE The sub’s original design called for a spar torpedo attached to a 22-foot wooden spar mounted to the bow. The Hunley was to ram the spar into the enemy ship, then back off and detonate the torpedo. Scientific findings indicate that the spar was actually iron and more of a ”contact mine” only 17 feet long. That means the sub was less than 20 feet from the Housatonic when the torpedo exploded. One theory is that the crew was knocked unconscious—an idea supported by the fact that their remains were found at their stations.

CRAMPED QUARTERS The Hunley was only 39 feet long, 4.5 feet high, and 3.5 feet across. She carried a crew of eight—seven to turn the hand-cranked propeller and one to steer the boat. Each end of the craft was equipped with water ballast tanks that could be flooded via valves (to lower the sub) or pumped dry by hand (to raise it).

BEFORE ITS TIME The submarine was, at the time, an invention stretching the boundaries of innovation, and the Hunley’s crew members have been called the astronaut test pilots of their time. Two crews of men (including one of its inventors, Horace Hunley) perished in earlier Hunley dives, and they were buried together at Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery. On April 17, 2004, the remains of the third crew joined them, laid to rest with full military honors.

LUCKY GOLD Near the remains of Hunley commander Lieutenant George Dixon, archaeologists found a $20 gold piece with the inscription “Shiloh April 6, 1862 My life Preserver G. E. D.” This appears to be the coin described in Dixon family lore: George’s sweetheart gave it to him as a lucky charm, and tucked in his pocket, it diverted a bullet at the Battle of Shiloh, saving his leg (and maybe his life)

RAISING HISTORY The recovery of the Hunley is generally considered to be the most important underwater archaeological expedition of the century. After the ship was raised, it was carried by barge up the Cooper River to the specially designed Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston.

FISH OUT OF WATER Under the auspices of the Hunley Commission, created by the State of South Carolina, scientists and marine archaeologists have been working painstakingly since 2000 to conserve the Hunley and solve its myriad mysteries. They recently finished removing the hard layer of sand, sediment, and shell from the boat’s exterior and are now at work on the interior.


VISIT THE HUNLEY Tours are given at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, 1250 Supply Street, North Charleston, on Saturdays and Sundays ($16; $8 ages six-17; free for child under six). Visitors can view the sub in her conservation tank and get an up-close look at artifacts (like that gold coin) excavated from the sub, facial reconstructions of the crew, and more. Find details at