Civil War Submarines – How North and South Fought to Win History’s First Undersea Arms Race

At the outbreak of the Civil War, submarines captured the public's imagination as this drawing from Harper's Weekly shows.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, submarines captured the public’s imagination as this drawing from Harper’s Weekly shows.

“The ill-fated Hunley was just one of a number of submarines and semi-submersibles to see service in the war between North and South. Here are some others.”

ON THE NIGHT of Feb. 17, 1864, the 40-foot-long, seven-ton, hand-cranked Confederate submersible H.L. Hunley rammed a spar torpedo into the hull of the Yankee warship USS Housatonic as the vessel rode at anchor near the mouth of Charleston Harbor. The subsequent explosion sent the Union vessel to the bottom. Five crewmen went down with the ship. It was the world’s first successful attack by a submarine.

The Hunley was lost with all hands before she could return to port. Historians agree that the craft was fatally damaged by the blast from its own torpedo.

The H.L. Hunley launched the world's first successful submarine attack in history 150 years ago this week wasn't the only submersible fighting vessel of the Civil War.

The H.L. Hunley launched the world’s first successful submarine attack in history. It wasn’t the only submersible fighting vessel of the Civil War.

The incident marked the third and final time Hunley had sunk – the other two mishaps had taken place during the vessel’s sea trials. In both instances, the ship was recovered, repaired and pressed back into service. In total, 21 sailors went down with the ill-fated ship in all three sinkings. But if there was any consolation for the rebellion, the innovative vessel had succeeded in destroying a 1,240-ton enemy warship before being lost for good.

And while the celebrated Rebel submarine was ultimately a washout, it stands as the most famous example of a Civil War-era submersible warship. Yet, the ill-fated Hunley, or “fish boat” as some called it, was just one of a number of submarines and semi-submersibles to see service in the war between North and South. Here are some others:

A sketch of the first Southern submarine, Pioneer.

A sketch of the first Southern submarine, Pioneer.

Early Demonstrators

Before completing their more famous boat, inventor Horace Lawson Hunley (namesake of legendary reb sub) along with shipbuilders James McClintock and Baxter Watson devised a small experimental submersible vessel that they dubbed The Pioneer. Built in New Orleans during the second year of the war, this early demonstrator was followed by a 20-foot-long, iron-hulled trial submarine known as Bayou St. John. Both boats were deliberately scuttled by the designers along the Mississippi River when the Big Easy fell to the Yankees in the spring of 1862.

A sketch of the American Diver.

A sketch of the American Diver.

American Diver

Following the loss of New Orleans, Hunley and McClintock took what they had learned about submarines and relocated to Alabama where they began work on a more ambitious, electric-powered, five-man underwater craft dubbed the American Diver or Pioneer II. While the entire project was a private venture, the Confederate army (not the navy), took a keen interest in the contraption and assigned an infantry officer named William Alexander to supervise the work. The 36-foot-long boat, which was woefully underpowered, mounted a trial attack on enemy ships off Mobile in February of 1863, but the vessel’s slow speed prevented it from reaching a target. Days later during a follow-up mission, the American Diver was swamped in high seas somewhere near the mouth of Mobile Bay and lost. Its final resting place remains a mystery to this day. It was only later that Hunley and McClintock began work on their better-known submarine. The rest is history.

A drawing of the CSS David.

A drawing of the CSS David.

CSS David – Almost a Submarine

Interestingly enough, Hunley and McClintock weren’t the only ones to build submersibles for the Confederacy. In fact, a Charleston physician named St. Julien Ravenel devised an entire class of underwater fighting vessels, the first of which was dubbed CSS David in reference to the biblical story of David and Goliath. Eventually, up to 20 of these irregular, stealthy torpedo boats were completed. While the 50-foot-long, five-man, steam-powered vessel was designed to approach targets from below the water line, it wasn’t a submarine in the purest sense – the vessel’s smoke stack protruded several feet above the waves making it visible even while submerged. The prototype first put to sea in 1863 and on the night of Oct. 5, it steamed to within a stone’s throw of the Yankee ironclad USS New Ironsides moored off Charleston before being spotted by a lookout.

The Spar Torpedo
What gave the Hunley and other Rebel submarines their lethal punch, wasn’t a torpedo in the modern sense at all, but rather a contact mine attached to a long boom that extended from the front of a boat. Invented by one E.C. Singer of the same family that pioneered the sewing machine, the bomb was designed to attach to the hull of an enemy vessel by way of a sharpened barb. Once affixed to the target, the attacking craft would pull back to a safe distance and then detonate the charge by way of a length of unspooling cable attached to a trigger. In addition to sinking the USS Housatonic, the weapon would be used later in 1863 by the Rebel sub David against the USS New Ironsides.

Amid a hail of gunfire, the David’s skipper rammed his boat’s spar torpedo into the side of the Union warship causing a giant explosion. While the blast failed to do serious damage to the Northern ship, the plume of water created by the detonation rained down on the David, seeped into its smoke stack and doused its coal fire. With its engine idled, the Rebel vessel was suddenly a sitting duck. Thinking his craft doomed, the David’s skipper, William T. Glassell, threw open a hatch and swam for safety along with another crewmen. One of the remaining sailors quickly sealed the opening, relit the coal fire and got the vessel back underway. Both the Glassell and his companion were yanked from the sea by Union sailors and taken prisoner, but the David lived to fight another day. On March 6, 1864, the boat would once more chug out of Charleston to attack the USS Memphis and then the USS Wabash on April 18. Neither attack succeeded. While Southern shipbuilders cranked out copies of the David in the subsequent months, these other boats’ service records remain unclear. It’s believed that all were either captured or lost by the end of the war.

The Union submarine Alligator.

The Union submarine Alligator.

The Yankee Alligator

Although the Hunley scored the first submarine kill in history, the first operational military submarine of the Civil War was actually part of the Union navy. In the conflict’s opening months, Northern naval commanders had learned that the Confederacy was converting the captured frigate USS Merrimack into a powerful ironclad. Rather than face the fearsome warship in open battle, the Union hoped that a small submersible craft might be able to approach the armoured hulk un-noticed and land a fatal blow.

In the fall of 1861, the U.S. Navy ordered shipbuilders Neafie, Levy & Co to have a submarine ready before winter. Unsure of how to build such a craft, company executives turned to submarine pioneer and self-described “natural genius” Brutus de Villeroi for help. The 67-year-old Frenchman had been building submersibles in his homeland since the 1830s and had recently moved to the United States where he had tested one of his designs in the Great Lakes.

The USS Alligator.

De Villeroi set about building a craft in Philadelphia, but despite the urgency of the government’s request, his creation wasn’t ready until May of 1862. The final product was a curious-looking, 30-foot-long steel and wood tube adorned with eight hand-cranked, rotating paddle that ran the length of the hull on both sides. The 275-ton vessel, which was operated by a crew of 12, was much heavier than Confederate subs, but could still dive no deeper than six-feet. It was armed with two detachable magnetic mines.

By June, the navy commissioned the submarine, which it named the Alligator. Although the dreaded Merrimack, which the Confederates had rechristened the CSS Virginia, had already been lost in action, the Union still tried to find work for its new submersible.

She was first towed into the Chesapeake and then ordered into the James River to destroy a bridge that blocked Yankee gunboats from sailing upstream to support the Union army. Nervous commanders feared the sub’s capture though and withdrew her from operations. The Alligator was towed to Washington Navy Yard where she would spend the next nine months undergoing tests and performing demonstrations for dignitaries, including President Lincoln himself. In early 1863, the Alligator shed her side paddles and was refitted with a stern-mounted screw. The improvement doubled her speed to a paint stripping four knots.

In March, the Alligator was ordered into action off Charleston, but while en route, she foundered in a storm off North Carolina. It was the end of the Union navy’s silent service.

(Originally published on Feb 20, 2014)


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