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World history was made on Feb. 17, 1864,150 years ago, during the American Civil War. For the first time in naval combat, a submarine sank a ship.

A Rebel submarine was manufactured in Mobile, Ala., in the spring of 1863 by designer James McClintock, machinist Baxter Watson, and financier Horace Lawson Hunley. Its specifications were: a length of 40 feet, a beam of approximately 4 feet, and a height of 5 feet. Its advanced bow and stern caps tapered into knifelike bladed wedges. A double row of five glass windows were located on top for admitting natural light. It had two 14.5-inch-high conning towers, with glassviewing ports.

The sub could smoothly dive, as well as sleekly surface in the water. Originally, it was informally called the “Fish Boat.” Amidships, it was elliptical in appearance: its main body was bulky and rounded; and it moreover resembled a cetacean.

To cope with hull pressure when below the unforgiving sea, its skeletal steel frame was covered by heavy, curved, 3/8-inch-thick iron boilerplates, which were thoughtfully flush-bolted onto the bulkheads for greater efficiency in the water.

Access to the interior of the so-called Fish Boat was achieved with one’s arms raised while descending the tiny 16-inch by 12-inch oval hatches on top of the fore and aft conning towers. Young men of slight build were in demand to crew the sub’s cramped and claustrophobic interior. Ages ranged from 13 to the 20s.

Once inside of the submarine, seven crewmembers sat hunched over at assigned places on a 15-foot-long wooden plank along the interior portside, while the captain stooped beneath the forward conning tower. In the narrow interior, one crewman could not pass by another.

For power, the Fish Boat depended solely upon muscle strength. The seven sailors manually turned a zigzag crankshaft, connected to a differential gear box that multiplied the revolutions of an external, shrouded, three-blade spiral propeller. The Fish Boat’s top speed was four knots (1 knot equals 1.15 statute miles per hour). The crew’s endurance per outing was for about six or seven miles.

The captain steered a vertical tiller to turn the sub’s rudder. A lever controlled a pair of forward-diving planes. Hand-operated seacocks would flood the ballast tanks to dive and force pumps emptied them to surface. A lighted wax candle provided the only interior illumination in an essentially dark environment. A mercury gauge measured the sub’s depth.

The most time spent below the surface in a training exercise was two and one half hours, before the oxygen-starved crew all yelled “Up!” to resurface.

The onboard compass was imprecise because of the submarine’s iron composition. Its dual snorkels could hardly replenish an exhausted air supply.

When Confederate Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard learned of the Fish Boat’s development, he requested it to be transferred from Mobile to his base at the blockaded port of Charleston, S.C., the seedbed of the Southern rebellion. Strapped on two flatcars it was railed from Mobile to Charleston, Aug. 8-12, 1863.

At Charleston, tragedy would mar the Rebel submarine’s brief operational lifespan. On Aug. 29, 1863, it sank at dockside in Charleston Harbor when its open hatches became accidentally flooded. Three of its eight crewmen had escaped, but the other five drowned. Salvage divers in armored suits raised the sub with chains and ropes.

It was next rechristened the H.L. Hunley by its investor Horace Hunley, age 39. He now also became its captain. On Oct. 15, 1863, during a diving exercise with its namesake at the helm, the Hunley did not resurface, due to a left-open seacock. All eight of the men died, including Hunley. Alarmed at this apparent deathtrap, Beauregard banned further operations of the Hunley, now considered to be a “peripatetic coffin.”

However, 27-year-old Lt. George E. Dixon, an engineer who helped construct the Hunley at Mobile, influenced Beauregard to change his mind. (Dixon had also meritoriously served under Gen. Beauregard at the pivotal April 6-7, 1862, Battle of Shiloh, Tenn.)

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As the Hunley’s new commander, a determined Captain Dixon and a crew of seven fresh recruits set sail in the re-raised Hunley on the moonlit night of Feb. 17, 1864. Their target was a 207-foot-long, 1,240-ton Union blockade ship, the USS Housatonic, which was anchored in shallow water four miles from the Rebel submarine base at Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor.

At 8:45 p.m., the Housatonic’s watch sighted what at first appeared to be either a drifting semi-submerged log or a surfacing porpoise, heading directly for their ship. A few minutes later, an explosion caused the Housatonic to heel over sharply to port.

A spar torpedo (Civil War-era torpedoes were actually stationary mines) connected to a 20-foot iron pole, which apparently projected from the Hunley’s lower bow, penetrated the Housatonic’s hull with its barbed tip. A payload consisting of a 90-pound canister of black gunpowder had detonated on contact. The H. L. Hunley accomplished its mission.

The USS Housatonic settled in 27 feet of water at the bottom of the harbor entrance. Its extremely tall masts largely stood above water level and were a safe haven for most of the crew, of whom only five of 160 perished. The many survivors were soon rescued by another Union ship. But the Hunley never returned to its base.

On May 3, 1995, professional underwater searchers finally discovered the sediment-covered Hunley still relatively intact, enigmatically lying on the murky, shallow bottom. It was near the harbor's mouth, just 1,000 feet to seaward from the Housatonic’s own gravesite.

On Aug. 8, 2000, 136 years after it sank mysteriously, the 30-ton H. L. Hunley was delicately hoisted using a giant crane. The Hunley remains at Charleston, in the possession of the state of South Carolina. Upon completion of forensic examination, the bodies of its eight submariners were ceremonially borne in flag-draped caissons — replete with reenactors — and honorably buried on April 17, 2004, in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, S.C., where old times are still not forgotten.

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John Stephen Futini lives in Napa.


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