The CSS “Hunley” and the First Successful Submarine Attack in Naval History

17 February 1864, a Confederate submersible, later named CSS “Hunley” after her designer, sank the Union sloop USS “Housatonic” off Charleston during the first successful submarine attack in history.

“1.    Tis private: a man may thus go to any coast in the world invisibly, without discovery or prevented in his journey.
2.    Tis safe, from the uncertainty of Tides, and the violence of Tempests, which do never move the sea above five or six paces deep. From Pirates and Robbers which do so infest other voyages; from ice and great frost, which do so much endanger the passages towards the Poles.
3.    It may be of great advantages against a Navy of enemies, who by this may be undermined in the water and blown up.
4.    It may be of special use for the relief of any place besieged by water, to convey unto them invisible supplies; and so likewise for the surprisal of any place that is accessible by water.
5.    It may be of unspeakable benefit for submarine experiments (Bishop John Wilkins of Chester, ”Mathematical Magick”, 1648)

A painted snapshot of the submersible by the American artist Conrad Wise Chapman (1842 – 1910), probably around 1863

War is the father of all things, as Heraclitus once put it, and, unfortunately, many inventions originated in plans to kill each other in a more devious way – or get an edge towards a superior adversary. And while the dreams to explore the depths of the ocean is probably as old as humanity’s desire to fly, at least according to the various legends from antiquity, and several Alexander Romances tell the tale of the great king delving into the depths of the ocean as well as using a sort of diving bell for military reconnaissance missions. The step from Romance to Realisation took several centuries, though. The first working submersibles were constructed during the 18th century and usually designed for the use as a weapon. Horace Lawson Hunley, a New Orleans lawyer born in 1823, thought along the same lines when the American Civil War broke out.

"Hunley" and her bow-mounted spar torpedo *

Hunley’s first prototype of a submersible, “Pioneer”, was scuttled near New Orleans when the Union troops advanced in February 1862. The next one, “American Diver”, was lost in a storm in Mobile Bay a year later. The third prototype, the 40’ “Fish Boat”, originally built in Mobile and shipped by rail to Charleston, made her first test run there and promptly sunk, killing five members of her crew, was raised and sunk again, in October 1863, claiming the lives of 8 men this time, including Hunley’s own. Nevertheless, the situation in Charleston was desperate enough to justify the use of the submersible against the Union blockade and on February 17th the boat was put to sea on its first combat mission, propulsed by a hand-cranked propeller, crewed by 8 men under the command of the CSN lieutenant John Payne and armed with a spar torpedo, basically 90 pounds of black powder mounted on a 22’ long pole. Not quite a Virginia-class attack sub, but one had to make do.

USS "Housatonic" under attack ** 

At 8:45 pm the submersible began its approach on the 1,200 ton steam sloop USS “Housatonic”, part of 
Union Rear Admiral Dahlgren’s South Atlantic Squadron blockading Charleston. Why General Beauregard as commander of the forces defending town and harbour had chosen this particular Union sloop as target is not quite clear, but that “Housatonic” had brought the Confederate cruiser “Georgiana” to bay, carrying cargo worth over 1,000,000 (Union) Dollars out of Liverpool the year before among other blockade runners, might have played a role. The Confederate submersible was sighted as she crept up on “Housatonic” but too late and too close to the waterline for the sloop’s broadside to do any harm. Then, with an almighty bang, the spar torpedo's 90 pounds of black powder exploded, tearing a large hole in her unarmoured starboard side and the “Housatonic” sank quickly with the loss of 5 men of her crew. The explosion very probably damaged the submersible as well and the boat, later named CSS “H.L. Hunley” in honour of her designer, never returned. At least not for the next 130 years until her wreck was located and finally salvaged in 2000, the remains of her crew laid to rest with military honours in 2004.

* The Image was found on

** image found on