On this day in 1863, the C.S.S. Hunley, the world’s firstsuccessful combat submarine, sinks during a test run, killing its inventor and seven crewmembers.
Horace Lawson Hunley developed the 40-foot submarine from a cylinder boiler. It was operated by a crew of eight—one person steered while the other seven turned a crank that drove the ship’s propeller. The Hunley could dive, but it required calm seas for safe operations. It was tested successfully in Alabama’s Mobile Bay in the summer of 1863, and Confederate commander General Pierre G.T. Beauregard recognized that the vessel might be useful to ram Union ships and break the blockade of Charleston Harbor. The Hunley was placed on a railcar and shipped to South Carolina.
The submarine experienced problems upon its arrival. During a test run, a crewmember became tangled in part of the craft’s machinery and the craft dove with its hatch open; only two men survived the accident. The ship was raised and repaired, but it was difficult to find another crew that was willing to assume the risk of operating the submarine. Its inventor and namesake stepped forward to restore confidence in his creation. On October 15, he took the submarine into Charleston Harbor for another test. In front of a crowd of spectators, the Hunley slipped below the surface and did not reappear. Horace Hunley and his entire crew perished.
Another willing crew was assembled and the Hunley went back into the water. On February 17, 1864, the ship headed out of Charleston Harbor and approached the U.S.S. Housatanic. The Hunley struck a torpedo into the Yankee ship and then backed away before the explosion. The Housatanic sank in shallow water, and the Hunley became the first submarine to sink a ship in battle. However, its first successful mission was also its last—the Hunley sank before it returned to Charleston, taking yet another crew down with it. The vessel was raised in 2000, and is now on exhibit in Charleston.