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Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine

Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine

4.3 12
by Brian Hicks

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The history of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley is as astonishing as its disappearance. On February 17, 1864, after a legendary encounter with a Union battleship, the iron “fish boat” vanished without a trace somewhere off the coast of South Carolina. For more than a century the fate of the Hunley remained one of the great unsolved


The history of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley is as astonishing as its disappearance. On February 17, 1864, after a legendary encounter with a Union battleship, the iron “fish boat” vanished without a trace somewhere off the coast of South Carolina. For more than a century the fate of the Hunley remained one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Civil War. Then, on August 8, 2000, with thousands of spectators crowding Charleston Harbor, the Hunley was raised from the bottom of the sea and towed ashore. Now, award-winning journalists Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf offer new insights into the Hunley’s final hours and recount the amazing true story of its rescue.

The brainchild of wealthy New Orleans planter and lawyer Horace Lawson Hunley, the Hunley inspired tremendous hopes of breaking the Union’s naval blockade of Charleston, only to drown two crews on disastrous test runs. But on the night of February 17, 1864, the Hunley finally made good on its promise. Under the command of the heroic Lieutenant George E. Dixon, the sub rammed a spar torpedo into the Union sloop Housatonic and sank the ship within minutes, accomplishing a feat of stealth technology that would not be repeated for half a century.

And then, shortly after its stunning success, the Hunley vanished.

This book is an extraordinary true story peopled with a fascinating cast of characters, including Horace Hunley himself, the Union officers and crew who went down with the Housatonic, P. T. Barnum, who offered $100,000 for its recovery, and novelist Clive Cussler, who spearheaded the mission that finally succeeded in finding the Hunley. The drama of salvaging the sub is only the prelude to a page-turning account of how scientists unsealed this archaeological treasure chest and discovered the inner-workings of a submarine more technologically advanced than anyone expected, as well as numerous, priceless artifacts.

Hicks and Kropf have crafted a spellbinding adventure story that spans over a century of American history. Dramatically told, filled with historical details and contemporary color, illustrated with breathtaking original photographs, Raising the Hunley is one of the most fascinating Civil War books to appear in years.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
Forget the Titanic; this sub wreck is hot.
Publishers Weekly
Civil War Miscellany The legendary Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was the first successful underwater warship that is, the first to sink an enemy ship. As chronicled in Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine, the sub disappeared without a trace in 1864, crippled by a Union ship, and finding it became something of an obsession for many Americans until the vessel was finally brought to shore in 2000. Based on interviews with scientists and historians who studied the Hunley's remains, Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier journalists Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf reconstruct the sub's final voyage in this dramatic slice of Civil War history. ( Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This book offers two separate but interconnected stories about the first attack submarine, the Confederate H.L. Hunley. The authors first discuss the development of the primitive, hand-powered vessel, its successes in battle, and its eventual mysterious loss at sea. Their second story focuses on the raising of the Hunley at the end of the 20th century, covering the various archaeologists, historical agencies, and treasure seekers who attempted to find the "fish boat." The boat was finally recovered in 2000 by a team led by adventurer and author Clive Cussler. Hicks and Kropf, two Charleston, SC, reporters, spent considerable time covering Cussler's recovery and the historical secrets it uncovered. Unfortunately, their book lacks sufficient background research. The first half is weak in historical context, while in the second half the authors fail to address the broader issues surrounding the boat's recovery. Certainly, Cussler was the hero in this case, but it may have been useful to address whether having historical treasures recovered by such private enterprise "cowboys" as Cussler is called is best for the future of such national artifacts. Recommended, with reservations, for regional libraries and libraries with large Civil War collections. Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The Hunley was all but forgotten until its retrieval in August, 2000. Resembling a fictional adventure tale, the book takes readers back to federally blockaded Charleston, SC. Without access to goods brought in by ships to the formerly bustling harbor, the South feared certain defeat. An idea to develop a small underwater ship that could evade detection as it delivered a torpedo to a Union blockade ship was offered as a wisp of hope by New Orleans lawyer Horace Lawson Hunley. Its development, however, was fraught with danger, and the first two test runs resulted in the deaths of 13 crew members. Finally, the sub was sent for its maiden voyage on February 17, 1864, whereupon it accomplished its task: it sank the Housatonic. Shortly after signaling the shore that it was about to return, it disappeared. The struggles to locate and retrieve the ship, spearheaded by author Clive Cussler, and the efforts to preserve it as a historical treasure trove, are nearly as fascinating as the story of its construction. The description of the Hunley's reentry into Charleston Harbor on August 8, 2000, before a cheering, saluting crowd of more than 20,000, is quite an emotional moment. Photos are mostly from the salvage and raising operation, with a few portraits of the crew included. Diagrams give readers a feel for the confines of the limited space within the submarine and the frightening conditions in which these men died. This exciting, well-done slice of history should have broad appeal.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Two South Carolina journalists breathlessly narrate the story of the construction, loss, location, recovery, and restoration of the first submarine in history to carry out a successful attack on an enemy vessel. On February 17, 1864, moments after it had delivered an explosive charge that sunk the Union blockade ship Housatonic, the Hunley itself, for reasons still unknown, drifted to the bottom of Charleston Harbor. For 131 years, it lay undisturbed, but not forgotten. As Hicks and Kropf demonstrate in their brisk, breezy, and hyperbolic prose, the Hunley became for millions of people (the authors' estimate) "the Holy Grail of the Civil War." The story opens on August 8, 2000, with a salvage team raising the Hunley in view of thousands of sightseers. As it breaks through the Atlantic surface into the morning light, Hicks and Kropf whisk us back to the mid-19th century to meet the creators, investors, builders, and sailors of the craft, which was named for designer and investor Horace Lawson Hunley. We experience the tribulations and terrors of the first submariners, many of whom drowned during the R&D phase, and we witness the fierce competition among those searching for the vessel, including novelist Clive Cussler, whose team eventually did locate the Hunley. The authors have thoroughly researched the topic and display a sharp eye for engaging detail and poignant coincidence. But the subject has excited them so thoroughly that they write more like romance novelists than historical journalists: "As Dixon stood on the beach, tall and handsome, the sea breeze tussling his light-colored hair, he knew his time had come." They also sidestep racial politics. Although they allude to theConfederate-flag issue in South Carolina, it doesn't seem to occur to them that the reverence white Southerners feel for the Hunley might not be shared by folks whose ancestors' state of forced servitude it was defending. Fascinating but facile. (b&w illustrations throughout; 8 pages color photo, not seen) Author tour
From the Publisher
“Forget the Titanic; this sub wreck is hot.”
–The Wall Street Journal

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


She was sleek, cigar-shaped, and black. When she broke the choppy surface of Lake Pontchartrain, water rippled over her pectoral fins, and her flank glistened in the warm sunlight of early Louisiana spring. She was 34 feet long and dove underwater and resurfaced gracefully, slowly, like a porpoise. She was, her builders thought, beautiful.

It was such a shame to sink her.

Pioneer had only just begun to live up to its potential. In trial runs on the lake, the little submarine had performed well, had even blown up an old wreck once in mock combat. There were a few minor annoyances: it had buoyancy problems, was slow to turn, and couldn’t be trusted to keep an even keel. But those things could be improved. Most important, it had accomplished something few boats that came before it had: it could travel underwater and surface at will.

Still, there wasn’t any choice—it had to be scuttled. It was April 25, 1862, and Farragut was closing in on New Orleans. Since Easter weekend the Union fleet had fought its way through Rebel fire-rafts and a barrage of cannon fire from the banks of the lower Mississippi. The Confederate Army had stood its ground for a week, but it couldn’t hold forever. For the South in 1862, Good Friday did not live up to its name.

New Orleans was in a panic. Rear Adm. David Glasgow Farragut was not a man to be trifled with. The feisty, sixty-year-old naval genius credited with the phrases “full steam ahead” and “damn the torpedoes” was nothing short of an American legend. He had been a sailor since he was nine, when he served aboard the USS Essex during the War of 1812. Now Farragut was leading the Union’s fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, and when he moved on New Orleans, it would only be a matter of time before it was his. A day earlier word had reached the city that the admiral’s ships had just finished off Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip 75 miles downriver. Those forts had been the city’s only defense from the open sea, and now they were gone, destroyed. If the largest and most important city in the South couldn’t be guarded against invasion, what chance did the Confederacy stand? People burned belongings they couldn’t carry and couldn’t bear to see fall into Yankee hands. Soon the wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter would resemble bones, the skeleton of the old city. Very few would stand their ground to fight. New Orleans was a lost cause.

Pioneer could not be allowed to fall into Union hands. It was the South’s newest weapon, and surprise was one of its few advantages. The men knew it must be kept secret. As fires raged across the city, they watched workers open the submarine’s hatch—it had no ballast tanks—and let the murky water seep into its hull. Slowly Pioneer sank into a deep bend in the New Basin Canal between downtown New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. It had never even seen combat. Now it would never again resurface under its own power. But before Pioneer disappeared into the muck, the submarine did one very important thing for its builders: it proved they could do it—they could build a working submarine.

They would escape with that knowledge.

The strife that led to the Civil War had been building for decades, but when the fighting actually began, it felt sudden. No one was really ready. Eleven southern states had broken away from the rest of the country in the winter of 1861, as they believed was their right, ill will festering until war broke out a few months later. In many ways this was a conflict of agrarian versus industrial economies and lifestyles. For that reason the farmlands of the South may have been doomed from the start. In the world of the mid–nineteenth century, the South depended on the North to manufacture anything and everything it needed—from buggy parts and all-important farming implements right down to clothing. In some ways it was a one-sided relationship. Nowhere was that more apparent than on the water. The Confederate government had gone to war against the Union with a poor excuse for a navy. There simply wasn’t time to assemble one and no economically feasible way to catch up. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Confederacy had only one hope to break U.S. president Abraham Lincoln’s massive blockade of the entire southern coast: Confederate president Jefferson Davis called on privateer ships to do the work. Privateers were ships owned by regular, although usually wealthy, citizens with permission from the government to attack enemy vessels on its behalf. Their pay was on commission. For the Southern government, it was the only fiscally prudent way to handle things: it didn’t have to ante up until a Yankee ship fell.

It wasn’t a bad idea. Patriotism was perhaps the only thing not in short supply in the South during the War Between the States. There were thousands of men willing to take on the Union Navy in anything that would float and some things that wouldn’t. The Confederate government and rich southern planters further enticed these men by offering ridiculously handsome rewards for every Union ship destroyed. Bringing down the New Ironsides, the North’s seemingly indestructible warship, would net a little privateer $100,000—obscene money for the time. Businessmen were willing to put up a purse because the blockade had clogged the South’s shipping lanes, killing their import/export business. The war was costing them a lot of money. Soon the whole Confederacy would be broke. Something had to give.

The South needed an edge.

This 1860 photograph is the only known image of Horace Lawson Hunley. (Courtesy Louisiana State Museum)

Perhaps it was patriotism that led Horace Lawson Hunley to become a privateer. Or maybe it was the thrill, the notions of glory, that first attracted him. He certainly didn’t need the money. At thirty-seven Hunley had more than most people ever would. He was an attorney, a former state lawmaker, and the deputy chief collector at the customhouse in New Orleans. He owned a plantation outside town and, by the time the war began, had started looking west for land investments. New frontiers were very much on his mind in 1861.

Like the fish-boat that would soon be swimming around in his head, Hunley operated on many different levels. On the surface he was polite, ambitious, and fastidious. He had lifted himself out of a childhood of poverty to the top of the social ladder in antebellum Louisiana. Heavily involved in the political scene, he made bets with friends on nearly every race—from the mayor of New Orleans to the president of the United States. Among his large circle of friends, Hunley’s closest confidant and chief client was his brother-in-law, Robert Ruffin Barrow. Barrow was a sugar baron and one of the richest men in the South: he owned eighteen plantations. Barrow had married Hunley’s younger sister, Volumnia, in 1850 and gained a good friend as well as a wife. Together the two men talked politics and looked for profitable investments. Because Hunley was a bachelor, Volumnia and Barrow were his only family. He kept Volumnia supplied with new books and watched out for Barrow’s expanding business interests. He was a kind and devoted brother to the couple.

Beneath the surface, however, a somewhat different man lurked. Behind piercing dark eyes and a thick black beard, Hunley was driven by a hungry ambition to leave his mark on history. In a tiny ledger he kept in his pocket, Hunley wrote inspirational quotations meant to push him harder: “Procrastination is the thief of time” and “Attend to that which is most important and do not neglect business or duty.” In his daily ledger—a gumbo of legal briefings, political thought, and points to make in letters—Hunley kept his days planned to the hour. He would jot down just about every grandiose scheme that came to mind: “Build in New Orleans an octagonal brick tower, three hundred to six hundred feet high.” In his ledger he kept track of every bet.

Hunley also made notes to himself to read about Great Men. His preoccupation with the lives of historical figures seemed a vain exercise. What makes a Great Man? he wondered. What diseases do they get? He wanted to know everything that might help him succeed in joining their ranks: it seemed he yearned to be recognized as a Great Man. One notation, made less than a year before the war began, said simply, “Get book on the death of Great Men.”

It was not surprising he was drawn to war; he had it in his blood. Hunley was descended from veterans of both the Revolution and the War of 1812. He was born in 1823 in Sumner County, a patch of rolling Tennessee farmland just north of Nashville. Horace was one of four children to come from the marriage of John and Louisa Lawson Hunley, and one of just two to survive childhood. In 1830 only Horace, seven, and his sister Volumnia, two years younger, would make the trip to the Crescent City with their parents. It was an odd move for the family: there was no real reason to go. Most people assumed John Hunley was drawn back to the city of his greatest glory, where he had fought alongside Andrew Jackson in the legendary Battle of New Orleans.

It was exciting for the Hunleys, moving from the rural countryside of Tennessee to a huge, beautiful—and decidedly European—city. But whatever joy they experienced was short-lived. Just a few years after the move, in 1834, John Hunley died following a long, lingering illness, leaving his family stranded in a town where they had no close friends or relatives. But they were too poor to attempt a trip back to Tennessee, so they stayed.

A few hard years later, Louisa remarried, this time to a wealthy planter from New Jersey. That set young Horace on a comfortable course. His stepfather provided Hunley’s entrée into society. As soon as he was old enough, Hunley earned a law degree from the University of Louisiana (now Tulane) and served a session in the legislature as a representative from Orleans Parish. He set up a law practice a short distance from the French Quarter and took on additional work at the customhouse. It was a good, busy life. But until 1860 Hunley had yet to find the destiny for which he so longed. And then talk of war began. It seemed that Hunley, a fierce Southern patriot, had found his calling. That December, just one month before the Union would be dissolved, Hunley began to list in his little notebook the states he thought would secede. The gambling man was right about every state except Delaware.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Brian Hicks is a senior writer with the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and the co-author of Into the Wind. The recipient of a number of journalism awards, including the South Carolina Press Association Journalist of the Year, Hicks has covered the Hunley since 1999.

Schuyler Kropf is a senior political reporter with the Post and Courier and the recipient of numerous reporting awards. He has followed the Hunley story since 1995.

Both authors live in Charleston.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this in about 3 or 4 days while on vacation. Enjoyed every bit of it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well researched. The authors tell the whole story, from the beginning of the CSA submarine program up to the present day. Background stories that explain why things happened the way they did are included where possible. If you're interesed in submarines or history or both, you need to read this book. A great example of the way that history should be done.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent history. The care and respect the group gave to this recovery was truly wonderful to read. This also showed the great minds that were at work in our country long before our time. May the crew rest in peace.
MFowler More than 1 year ago
In Raising the Hunley, authors Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf take readers on a 145-year journey back in time to the last years of the American Civil War. The South, desperate for anything to break the North's stranglehold naval blockade on its vital ports, embraced a variety of inventive (rational minds might say bizarre or even suicidal) methods to try and get the vital supplies in. One solution was the Hunley, the first purpose-built submarine that actually succeeded in sinking an enemy ship. That the Hunley itself then sank was another in a string of unfortunate accidents that followed along as the sub's inventors and crews learned about this new technology as they went along. Hicks and Kropf do a very good job of describing the personalities involved in building the Hunley (mostly private businessmen, spearheaded by the ambitious Horace Hunley) and the very steep learning curve that comes with testing completely new technology - make one small mistake, overlook one tiny step or procedure, and you die. The Hunley killed two crews before it succeeded in sinking a Union ship, and then that crew, for reasons that are still unknown today, perished on the way back to their base. The last part of the book deals with the discovery of the intact Hunley in 1995, the resultant bureaucratic and egotistical infighting over who would control this "Holy Grail" of maritime history, and the ultimate recovery and conservation of the Hunley, removal of the crew and their proper burial with the other two crews in Charleston, SC. A good read for anyone interested in history or the evolution of military technology. A few minor concerns - the authors tend to oversell the Hunley, calling it "stealth" technology (not really, it made its attacks on the surface); and what U-boats and all submarines since have been based on (only to the point that they submerge and surface). Still, the Hunley was a marvel for its day and far more sophisticated than historians had suspected based on the scanty written records (the Confederacy considered it a state secret).
Valeriejean More than 1 year ago
I bought this a present for my brother-in-law, who is interested in history. He enjoyed it so much he stayed up late to finish reading it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gasped. A bullet suddenly hit her. Sh coughed once, then collapsed.
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