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Remembering the Civil War and a Confederate Submarine

The South was desperate. The North was strangling the Southern economy with an effective naval blockade of the South’s ports. Blockade runners brought scant relief and they were being hunted down by a powerful Federal Navy. The South was desperate and willing to try just about anything to break the Northern blockade. The South hoped the CSA Hunley, the world’s first functional submarine would provide the answer.

The submarine had a short career. Two test crews drowned while the craft was being tested in 1863. Finally, the Confederate powers that be ordered the submarine to Charleston, S.C. to break the blockade. One has to wonder what the third crew thought their chances were as they sailed out August 27th, 1864 to sink a Union blockade ship.

Today we are familiar with the idea that submarines in both World Wars used torpedoes with deadly effect to sink enemy ships. The submarine would get within range and launch a torpodo and the torpedo would swim toward the target and if the aim was right on, strike the ship and explode.

CSA Hunley did not have torpedoes tubes and instead was armed with a spar torpedo.  A spar torpedo was basically a charge of explosive mounted on a long spar (a pole that stuck out from the bow of the sub). The idea was to embed the spar in the hull of the target ship, back away and explode the device. If it sounds risky that’s because it was.

Hunley had a five man crew.

CSA Hunley actually pulled this off and sunk the Union Sloop-of-War the Housatonic in Charleston’s harbor. No one is quite sure what happened next but the fact is the Hunley sunk as well as the Houstatonic with the loss of all hands.

The Hunley was found a number of years ago and the brave crew was buried in 2004 with Confederate honors after the Hunley was being prepped to be brought to the surface.  Recently the Confederate submarine was brought upright and this revealed some large holes in the hull. This may provide clues as to why she sank.

Oddly, it has been determined that the Hunley’s crew did not drown. If the holes were caused by the explosion then one might expect drowning. Yet the crew was found at their stations and it was determined they died from lack of oxygen.

As a ten-year-old child I distinctly remember watching the first TV story of the world’s first submarine. A little research has determined that what I probably watched way back in 1963 was the first episode of TV series titled The Great Adventure. Jackie Cooper who died recently played Lt. Dickson, the officer who commanded the Hunley.

My research also turned up another show made in 1999 about the Hunley. This show was produced by TNT and Armand Assante played Lt. Dickson. I recall seeing this show as well but the 1963 version sticks more in my mind.

One of the more interesting human interest side bar stories to emerge from the Hunley story is Lt. Dickson. When Lt. Dickson’s body was found a battered $20.00 gold piece was found near-by. As it turns out the gold piece was given to him by his fiancee prior to the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862) where Dickson served with an Alabama Infantry Regiment. A ball struck Dickson in the hip but the gold piece absorbed most of the impact thus sparing Dickson a more serious wound. Dickson considered the gold piece to be lucky and carried it with him to his watery grave in August, 1864.

The Hunley can be seen and toured today in Charleston and some day I’d like to take the trip.


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