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

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Overview

On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Confederacy’s H. L. Hunley sank the Union’s formidable sloop of war the USS Housatonic and became the first submarine in world history to sink an enemy ship. But after accomplishing such a feat, the Hunley and her crew of eight also vanished beneath the cold Atlantic waters off Charleston, South Carolina. For generations, the legend of the Hunley grew as searchers prowled the harbor, looking for remains. Even after the submarine was definitively located in 1995 and ...

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Overview

On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Confederacy’s H. L. Hunley sank the Union’s formidable sloop of war the USS Housatonic and became the first submarine in world history to sink an enemy ship. But after accomplishing such a feat, the Hunley and her crew of eight also vanished beneath the cold Atlantic waters off Charleston, South Carolina. For generations, the legend of the Hunley grew as searchers prowled the harbor, looking for remains. Even after the submarine was definitively located in 1995 and recovered five years later, those legends have continued to flourish. In a tour de force of document-sleuthing and insights gleaned from the excavation of this remarkable vessel, the distinguished Civil War–era historian Tom Chaffin presents the most thorough telling of the Hunley’s story possible. Of panoramic breadth, this 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. Engaging and groundbreaking, The H. L. Hunley provides the definitive account of a fabled 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.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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.
From the Publisher
“The boldest and most powerful book yet written on the saga of the H. L. Hunley. Each detail is sharply etched and dramatically told for a compelling read. The H. L. Hunley is a classic of Civil War history.” —Clive Cussler

“Tom Chaffin’s study is the most thorough treatment of the subject . . . [This] detailed and entertaining book about early naval submersibles will inform students, scholars, and general readers.” —Joseph G. Dawson III, Journal of American History

“Combining a masterful command of his subject with a novelist’s flair for weaving a good story, Chaffin takes readers on an intriguing journey centered on one of the landmark events in maritime history . . . The preeminent volume on the subject.” —Mike Bunn, Alabama Review

“Chaffin’s skillful integration of historic documentation and the archaeological materials illuminates how vital both sources are in gaining a clearer understanding of the past . . . An authoritative text on the vessel.” —Michael Christopher Tuttle, Journal of Military History

“Dramatic, well-written and filled—perhaps overfilled—with fascinating information, Chaffin’s chronicle of the H. L. Hunley belongs on the bookshelf of every military history aficionado.” —Chris Patsilelis, St. Petersburg Times

The H. L. Hunley is a revelation.” —William McKeen, Creative Loafing

The H. L. Hunley is not only the most up-to-date book about the unusual craft, it is also the most readable and accessible. If there is a Civil War or local history buff on your Christmas list this year, you could hardly do better than to present them with a copy of this book.” —John Sledge, Mobile Press-Register (Alabama)

“The volume can stand as the best available to date.” —William H. White, Sea History

“Detailed and fascinating . . . Tom Chaffin has produced what may be considered the most exhaustive and accurate account of the submarine and the men who built her in his new book The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy. Given the iron-fisted control the Confederacy exerted over the media to preserve its military secrets and a dearth of official or personal correspondence on the matter, Chaffin faced a daunting task in piecing together his history, but his hard work pays off here in a rich and lively book about visionaries, mercenaries and a technological marvel.” —John G. Nettles, Flagpole (Athens, GA)

“[A] brisk retelling . . . Civil War historian Chaffin reconstructs the mythic, short journey of the first submarine in world history to sink an enemy ship.” —Teresa Weaver, Atlanta (A Best of the Georgia Shelf pick)

“A smoothly narrated and comprehensive story of a lost ship in a lost cause.” —Rob Hardy, U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association & Foundation

The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy is narrative history at its most readable and remarkable.” —Leonard Gill, Memphis Flyer

“[A] grand and sweeping story of the Hunley’s origins and the creative, brave men behind it.” —Mike Walker, North Florida News Daily

“A captivating history of the Civil War-era Confederate submarine.” —Myles Hutto and John Stoehr, Charleston City Paper

“Tom Chaffin tells the story of the Hunley’s design and construction, the fateful battle and loss of both [the Hunley and the USS Housatonic], and the discovery and raising of the submarine in The H. L. Hunley, composing a narrative that crackles with excitement and suspense.” —Fredric Koeppel, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)

“A first-class recounting of the Hunley, from its roots in New Orleans to the first—and failed—submarine at Mobile, Ala., to two founderings during trials and training at Charleston and finally to the submarine itself.” —Jules Wagman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“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.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Sampling from letters, articles and memoirs, the author succeeds in separating facts from legend in this engrossing examination of a pioneering weapon of war.” —Publishers Weekly

“A definitive reading of the submarine’s forensic evidence.” —Garden & Gun magazine

“This outstanding piece of scholarship and clear writing will answer most questions and lay to rest most legends about the famous Confederate submarine, the first of its kind to sink an enemy warship . . . The research that went into this book was also exhaustive (it is also unbiased), but it doesn’t make the book exhausting. Altogether, “the secret hope of the Confederacy” is now a good deal less secret, and Civil War collections can fill many gaps with a single purchase.” Roland Green, Booklist

“Fueled by obsessive scholarship and a boyish sense of wonder, Tom Chaffin takes us deep down into uncharted fathoms of the Civil War—and then surfaces with a finny, fascinating tale that’s equal parts Shelby Foote and Jules Verne.” —Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder

“There is no more compelling human or high-tech story in the annals of the Civil War than the saga of the remarkable H. L. Hunley and its brave, ill-fated crew. Drawing on a vast archive of original sources and an abundance of interpretive skill, Tom Chaffin has crafted an informed, dramatic page-turner. This is authoritative military history that reads like a novel.” —Harold Holzer, cochairman of the USS Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and coauthor of The Confederate Image

“Chronicling this multifaceted story of the Confederacy’s secret hope, Tom Chaffin has answered many of the mysteries surrounding the H. L. Hunley. With an extensive examination of primary documents, he has taken on the mythologizers, offering instead an extraordinary contribution to historical understanding.” —Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln

“The author provides a complete history of the Hunley as well as biographical sketches of the individuals involved in its financing, design, construction, and operation . . . Utilizing a variety of published and unpublished source materials, as well as interviews with the Lasch Conservation Center archaeologists tasked with the vessel’s excavation and preservation, Chaffin also dispassionately examines the many myths and mysteries surrounding the Hunley. The relative viability of competing theories, among them inquiries into the mythical ‘blue light,’ the location of the wreck, how the submarine was lost, etc., is addressed, often raising more questions than answers. With well-supported conclusions and appealing writing, The H. L. Hunley will serve as a fine introductory book for the interested general reader, as well as a handy resource for the more dedicated students of the Civil War navies.” —Andrew Wagenhoffer, Civil War Books and Authors

“An excellently written and well-documented account of a piece of Civil War history . . . Of the numerous [Hunley] books to appear in recent years, Tom Chaffin’s The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy emerges as the best.” —Steven Ramold, Civil War Book Review

“A well-written and interesting volume.” —Kenneth D. Williams, Civil War News

“A satisfying read for Civil War buffs or naval buffs, for those who know much, or nothing, about the epic tale of the H. L. Hunley.” —The Valdosta Daily Times

The H. L. Hunley is an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, History Book Club, and Military Book Club.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809095124
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/30/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Chaffin is a professor of history and the director/editor of the James K. Polk Correspondence Project at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His books include Sea of Gray and Pathfinder.

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Read an Excerpt

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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Table of Contents

Maps

Preface: Of Boats, Books, Barnacles, and Archives

Prologue: Canal Street 3

Pt. I New Orleans, Summer 1861-Spring 1862

1 A Man of Property, Intelligence and Probity 13

2 The Inventive Faculty of the Country 31

3 Men Who Would Practice Assassinations at the Bottom of the Sea 45

4 The CSS Pioneer 65

Pt. II Mobile, Spring 1862-Summer 1863

5 The American Diver 79

6 The Fish Boat 99

Pt. III Charleston, Summer 1863-Winter 1864

7 The Consequences of Faltering in the Hour of Success 121

8 In Other Hands 135

9 The H. L. Hunley 147

10 'Tis More Dangerous to Those Who Use It Than to the Enemy 153

11 A Tide Ripple on the Water 179

12 We Can't Get at the Truth 187

Pt. IV America, 1865-2004

13 Skeletons at the Wheel 197

14 Discovery, Recovery, Excavation 215

15 The Signals Agreed Upon 239

Epilogue: Legacy 257

App The Hunley's Three Crews and Deaths Aboard the USS Housatonic 263

Bibliography 291

Index 309

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