Civil War Submarines: The H.L. Hunley external image hunley2.jpg


The H.L. Hunley was one of the first submarines used during the American Civil War. Horace Lawson Hunley was the original creator of the submarine. The ship came to almost forty feet long and had a total crew of eight men. The ship was the first to successfully sink another warship, specifically the USS Housatonic, which was a president that would change the way the world would look at naval warfare, as well as submarines. The submarine and its inventor Hunley were lost soon after its successful sinking.

Key Figures in Development of the Submarine

Creator of the first naval submarine, Horace Lawson Hunley, changed the vision of naval warfare between the Union and Confederacy. While the war was more focused on land, having a strong naval force was vital to victory. When the Union set up the blockade in the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, the H.L. Hunley provided a threat to the union that they had never faced before.
Above: Plans and blueprints for the Hunley

Battle History of the H.L. Hunley

The H.L. Hunley is often misconceived as a confederate ship while in actuality it was a privateer financed by private investors to reap the bounty placed on sinking union ships. Previous to its famous battle the H.L. Hunley had never entered into even a minor skirmish and had gone through a series of practice incidents in which either the majority or entirety of the crew died. Most notable among those deaths was submarine inventor Horace Lawson Hunley. The CSS Hunley was stricken with these incidents and never had an opportunity to show its potential till the night of February 17, 1864 in which it famously sunk the Housatonic a Union ship blockading the town of Charleston. The Hunley, as commanded by George E. Dixon, set out that night from Breach Inlet on Sullivan Island, which is right on the coast of Carolina. From there it silently approached the Housatonic and rammed it with its torpedo and then subsequently reversed direction to escape the blast that would finish off the beleaguered Union Ship. Currently it is still under question what happened following these events but it has been noted that before their disappearance the H.L. Hunley had given their agreed upon return signal, but the following morning they did not appear, and were assumed to have died in there.

Crew Members aboard the Hunley during the Sinking of the Houstatonic

Aboard the famous H.L. Hunley submarine were eight confederate naval soldiers and all lost their lives the day they sunk the Housatonic. The crew was unknown until recent years when bones were found in mud aboard the submarine and scientist conducted DNA samples of the crew. The members aboard the Hunley were Commander George E. Dixon, Arnold Becker, James Wicks, Joseph Ridgaway, Frank Collins, C. Miller, J.F Carlsen, and Lumkin. George Dixon selected each member of the crew and had to "turn away volunteers when selecting his crew." He knew of the dangers that each man would have to face while aboard the submarine. "Men would voluntarily serve underwater in the claustrophobic confines of a clammy steel tube, illuminated by candlelight and working amid the stench of their predecessors' corpses, speaks volumes about their motivation."
Right: A depiction of the USS Housatonic

Significance and Impact since Invention

The Hunley was the first submarine to successfully sink its target in history. Even though The Hunley met an untimely end soon after completing its mission, the success of the Hunley was a clear message to the rest of the world that submarines could be powerful tools. In 1897 the United States Navy purchased the Holand VI, a revolutionary new submarine that used different electric systems when submerged and when above water. The ship was renamed the USS Holand and became the first submarine to be commissioned by the US Navy. The United States has continued their relationship with the Electric Boat Company, the company who originally built the Holand, and to this day builds submarines for the Navy, over 100 years later. Several other countries including Britain, Japan, Russia and the Netherlands would soon follow suit and purchase submarines from the same company.

In World War I the German Navy commissioned their own submarines, the infamous U-Boats, which were used in several different battles. At the time restricted submarine warfare did not exist, and the Germans seized an opportunity to sink the American ship, the Lusitania. The sinking of the Lusitania is one of the major reasons stated for the United States entering into World War I. In World War II similarly Allied submarines and German U-boats would greatly impact Naval combat, and the war as a whole. The showing of power and success of the Hunley led to expansion of research for submarine technology, which ultimately led to worldwide expansion of submarines and the use of them.

Above: The Hunley was finally brought up on August 8th, 2000.


"CSS 'HUNLEY' FOUND." American History 30, no. 4 (1995): 16. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2010).

Huntington, Tom. "BIRTHPLACE OF THE CIVIL WAR." Naval History 20, no. 5 (2006): 14-21. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2010).

Guilmartin, John F., Jr. "Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine." Journal of Southern History 69, no. 4 (2003): 932-934. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2010).

Picture of drawing of H.L.Hunley: apparently cropped from image found on Photo #: NH 999) Wikipedia Public Domain

Picture of Hunley Blueprint: U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph #: NH 58769 Wikipedia Public Domain

Picture of USS Housatonic: Originally from en.wikipedia Wikipedia PD-USGOV-MILITARY

Picture of recovered Hunley: Naval Historical Center cropped photo #: NH 97356-12-KN Wikipedia Public Domain