HL Hunley in the American Civil War: the still unsolved death of the crew of the world’s first submarine


Photo author: Wally Gobetz/Flickr|Description: Replica of the submarine CSS HL Hunley

During the American Civil War, the Confederate Navy built the world’s first submarine, the CSS HL Hunley. The vessel’s first mission against a Union ship was hailed as a huge success for the Confederacy, but the death of the crew has not been reliably explained to this day.

Towards the end of the American Civil War, the Confederate States found themselves in a strategically very disadvantageous situation. The Union Navy had full control of the great American rivers Mississippi, Tennessee, or Ohio in Confederate territory and proceeded to blockade its seaports. This tactic was devised by General Winfield Scott as early as 1861 and was intended to economically exhaust the Confederate states, which would lead to their surrender. The plan was to save as many lives as possible.

The continuous blockade was very effective, and soon the southern American states were exporting only 10% of their main export, cotton. All weapons produced in the North were embargoed and the South soon found itself in a situation of lack of armaments and funds to continue the war. Although the North anticipated the economic exhaustion of the South, but he no longer counted on the resistance of the inhabitants of the South, who refused to accept the future capitulation of the Confederacy. Some individuals therefore invested large amounts of money and time in developing new warfare technology to match the Union Army.

One of them was lawyer and businessman Horace Lawson Hunley, who contacted engineers James McClintock and Baxter Watson. Since 1861, they have been assembling the world’s first submarine, and due to the failure to use electric or steam propulsion, they resorted to technology based on the ship’s propeller. It was driven by the crew sitting inside the submarine, who manually turned the screw. After two failed attempts during 1863 in Mobile, Alabama, the three men presented their joint submarine, the CSS HL Hunley.

After a successful trial test in which the submarine sank a decommissioned freighter with a suspended charge, CSS HL Hunley was moved by rail to Charleston. Here it was to be used to launch Union ships, but immediately in preparation for its maiden voyage she was probably sunk due to a control error. Five sailors from the original crew of eight died in the tragedy. However, Hunley refused to give up and ordered the submarine to be raised to the surface.

CSS HL Hunley’s third mission took place on Thursday 15 October 1863 and the ship’s objective was to attempt to undercut the Confederate vessel CSS Indian Chief. The submarine successfully dived below the surface, but no longer floated out. In this case, however none of the members could save in time and all, including the author of the craft himself, Horace Hunley, perished. Despite the second disappointment of the submarine and the death of one of its creators, representatives of the confederation still believed in the project and decided to use it for the fourth time.

A successful mission by the CSS HL Hunley would not only break the blockade for a few days, but at the same time could mean a turning point for the entire Confederate army. She would have a technologically powerful weapon that is capable to sink large vessels and in addition would have the upper hand over the opponent. The Union Army did not have a submarine. The CSS HL Hunley was therefore again raised from the sea and her armament technology was improved. Instead of being towed, the explosive was placed on the end of a rod that was attached to the front of the submarine.

Armed in this way, the submarine embarked on its fourth and last mission on February 17, 1864, during which it attacked the Union warship USS Housatonic at 9 o’clock in the evening. Submarines, I guess one of the sailors aboard the Housatonic noticed two minutes before impact, but he didn’t pay much attention to the object in the water that looked like a board. The submarine CSS HL Hunley therefore nimbly approached the starboard side of the ship and attacked the Union ship with her explosive, consisting of 61 kg of gunpowder. She began to sink very quickly, but her entire crew was able to save themselves.

CSS HL Hunley submarine stored at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center

However, members of the Confederate submarine CSS HL Hunley did not have similar luck. Neither the vessel nor any member of her crew ever floated to the surface. The submarine was not known for decades, and only after 131 years was it discovered in 1995 approximately 300 meters from the original site of the attack. The ship was carefully brought to the surface, but the scientist was attracted by a shocking fact. The skeletal remains of all crew members were found intact, still “sitting” in their places in the ship.

That’s why it started right away speculate The mysterious death of crew members was only reported in 2017 by Dr. Rachel Lance from Duke University with a theory that she backed up with several experiments. The team of scientists around the Lance proved that the crew probably did not die as a result of suffocation, drowning or as a result of shrapnel fragments of the submarine, but on the contrary, they were killed by the pressure wave that arose after the launch. According to Lance, the submarine was too close to the charge and the pressure wave of its explosion subsequently caused the brain tissue and lungs of the submarine’s passengers to explode. The US Navy later tried to disprove this theory. The submarine is now on display in a special water tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where it is protected from damage.

The article is in Czech

Tags: Hunley American Civil War unsolved death crew worlds submarine


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