The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy

The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy

2.8 5
by Tom Chaffin

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On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Confederacy's H. L. Hunley sank the USS Housatonic and became the first submarine in world history to sink an enemy ship. Not until World War I—half a century later—would a submarine again accomplish such a feat. But also perishing that moonlit night, vanishing beneath the cold Atlantic waters off

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On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Confederacy's H. L. Hunley sank the USS Housatonic and became the first submarine in world history to sink an enemy ship. Not until World War I—half a century later—would a submarine again accomplish such a feat. But also perishing that moonlit night, vanishing beneath the cold Atlantic waters off Charleston, South Carolina, was the Hunley and her entire crew of eight. For generations, searchers prowled Charleston's harbor, looking for the Hunley. And as they hunted, the legends surrounding the boat and its demise continued to grow. Even after the submarine was definitively located in 1995 and recovered five years later, those legends—those barnacles of misinformation—have only multiplied.

Now, in a tour de force of document-sleuthing and insights gleaned from the excavation of this remarkable vessel, distinguished Civil War-era historian Tom Chaffin presents the most thorough telling of the Hunley's story possible. Of panoramic breadth, this Civil War saga begins long before the submarine was even assembled and follows the tale into the boat's final hours and through its recovery in 2000. Beyond his thorough survey of period documents relating to the submarine, Chaffin also conducted extensive interviews with Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist at Clemson University's Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where the Hunley is now being excavated, to complete his portrait of this technological wonder. What emerges is a narrative that casts compelling doubts on many long-held assumptions, particularly those concerning the boat's final hours. Thoroughly engaging and utterly new, The H. L. Hunley provides the definitive account of a storied craft.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

This lively account of the first submarine to sink an opposing ship is an excellent niche history. Chaffin (Sea of Gray) relates that H.L. Hunley was neither soldier nor engineer, but an adventurous New Orleans attorney turned exporter who wanted to make his fortune selling the submarine he developed with several partners to the Confederate Navy. After two unsuccessful tests, in 1863 a third submarine performed decently, but the unenthusiastic local commander extolled its virtues to General Beauregard, who agreed to commission a submarine. It was shipped to Charleston, S.C., where it sank twice during testing, drowning both crews- including Hunley himself. In February 1864, the submarine, named the H.L. Hunley, finally sank a Union blockader with its torpedo but never returned. The event assumed mythic status, culminating in great excitement when divers exhumed the wreck in 2000. Chaffin finishes with a lucid description of the impressive details of this splendid artifact of engineering. Sampling from letters, articles and memoirs, the author succeeds in separating facts from legend in this engrossing examination of a pioneering weapon of war. Maps. (Oct.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Civil War historian Chaffin (Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah, 2006, etc.) plumbs the depths surrounding the creation and ultimate fate of the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship. After sending the USS Housatonic to the bottom of Charleston (S.C.) Harbor, the Confederacy's H.L. Hunley disappeared on the night of February 17, 1864. Its wreckage was not recovered until 2000, and questions about how and why it sank remain unanswered. To clear up at least some of the enigmas surrounding this ahead-of-its-time vessel (a submarine would not sink a ship again for 50 years), the author has consulted local history sources and interviewed the senior archaeologist at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, where the sub's excavation is ongoing. Its dimensions and appearance are now known, but at the time of its construction everything about the Hunley was supposed to be secret. Facing a stifling naval blockade in 1862, the Confederacy took the unprecedented step of establishing a torpedo bureau within the army and a navy submarine battery service. Longstanding moral objections to "infernal machines" that could strike without warning, coupled with the need for wartime secrecy, ensured that tests of the Hunley went largely unreported; Chaffin found little contemporary press coverage and few firsthand accounts. Nonetheless, he managed to trace the furtive movements and contributions of the trio behind the vessel: engineer James McClintock, whom the author credits with most of the design; his partner Baxter Watson; and New Orleans attorney Horace L. Hunley, who sank with it on a trial run as captain in October 1863. Even itsmore successful 1864 outing was a Pyrrhic victory; more men died on the Hunley than on the Housatonic. Avoiding uninformed speculation, Chaffin crafts an exciting narrative of an important innovation in military technology and the political considerations that shaped its development. Insightful and intriguing, meriting a place toward the front of the squadron of Civil War, naval and aquatic archeology titles.

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In June 1861, reaching deep into the Greek revival-becolumned hotels, banks, and shops that lined Canal and the narrower streets of the American Quarter immediately upriver, a fresh energy held dominion. To be sure, it was the same élan, the same sense of self-interested purpose, that also found its way into the warehouses and factors’ offices that squatted along Levee Street’s docks and wharves. For the city’s mercantile community—that summer’s tangle of sweat-stained, white-linen-clad lawyers, bankers, newspaper publishers and editors, merchants, clerks, shipbuilders, cotton and sugar brokers, and the like—this new war, which most expected would exhaust itself in a few months, promised a wealth of fresh opportunities for private profits from the manufacture of ordnance and uniforms to gunrunning and shipbuilding.

Operating in that Canal Street spirit, Customs Collector Francis Hatch’s own by-the-bootstraps rise to prosperity gave him a keen eye for spotting both opportunities and the raw resourceful talent needed to convert those main chances into easy treasures. Officially, Hatch worked for the Confederacy’s Treasure Department. But that month, June 1861, he had penned a discreet letter to an official in Richmond who worked for another department—the War Department. In fact, almost certainly, Hatch’s interlocutor was Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker. A civilian but acting, in this case, in a secret capacity for the Confederate Military, Hatch confided that he needed one thousand dollars in cash to set in motion a “special expedition” that the two had already discussed.

Moreover, Hatch explained in his letter, he had already found just the man to carry out this scheme—and, even better, that man worked right there on Canal Street. The man was middle-aged but teemed with a youthful energy. His name was Horace Lawson Hunley, a thirty-seven-year-old attorney, and he toiled in the Custom House as an assistant customs collector.

Hatch then had no way of knowing it, but his letter to Richmond would set in motion a conspiratorial chain of events involving acts of heroism as well as greed-fueled hubris that, stretching over the next three years, eventually enmeshed scores of actors. More than a few of these men, prowling dark, briny waters inside a series of cramped and mysterious cigar-shaped submarines—or submarine boats, as that age called such craft—would be dispatched toward early and watery graves.

Indeed, by the time this conspiracy reached its twisted denouement, its tentacles would even clutch Pierre Beauregard, the U. S. Army’s original superintending engineer for the still unfinished New Orleans Custom House, and by then, a highly regarded general in the Confederate Army. Moreover, the desperate arc of the submarine boats’ story would eventually gather men from other cities and regions, and navigate the streets and waters of two other Confederate ports, Mobile and Charleston.

But in a very real sense, all of those roads and roadsteads—and all of the deals, dreams, and energies that propelled those men, their submarine boats, and their obsession to develop the first underwater craft to destroy an enemy ship—they all coiled back to a single mainspring of a thoroughfare, New Orleans’s Canal Street. For, in a fundamental sense, from beginning to end, this would remain a Crescent City tale.

Excerpted from The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope Of The Confederacy by Tom Chaffin

Copyright © 2008 by Tom Chaffin

Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher

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