The Work of Submarine Boats
William H. Alexander, CSA
From: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXX, Richmond, Va., 1902. Pages 164-174
to the Spanish Fort, says that New Orleans Picayune, may still see, half
submerged in the weeds and flowers growing on the bank of bayou St. John, a
rusty vessel of curious shape. It is built of iron, about twenty feet long, and
besides a propeller at the stern, is adorned on either side by strangely-shaped
board metal fins. This boat is, or ought to be, one of the most interesting
relics of the Civil war. It was, as stated in the accompanying narrative, built
during the war by Captain Hunley as a submarine torpedo-boat, and though never
used in battle is the prototype of the vessel which subsequently destroyed the
Federal cruiser Housatonic. Although within recent years a great deal has
been written and stated about submarine war ships, the fact remains that these
Confederate boats are the only ones which have ever successfully endured the
test of actual combat. The narrative printed herewith is the first complete
account of the building of these remarkable craft and of the experiments which
were made with them.
NARRATIVE. Having often read what purported to be a history of the Confederate
submarine torpedo-boat Hunley and its operations, the accounts in every
instance containing much of error, I have decided to write out the facts in
regard to this boat and her career.
before the capture of New Orleans by the United States troops, Captain Hunley
(not Hunley), Captain James McClintock and Baxter Watson were engaged in
building a submarine torpedo-boat in the New basin of that city. The city
falling into the hands of the Federals before it was completed, the boat was
sunk, and these gentlemen came to Mobile. They reported, with their plans, to
the Confederate authorities here, who ordered the boat to be built in the
machine shops of Parks & Lyons, Mobile, Ala.
writer was a member of Company B, State Artillery, Twenty-first Alabama
Regiment, Captain Charles Gage, and was detailed to do government work in these
Hunley, McClintock and watson were introduced to me by Parks & Lyons, who
gave me orders to carry out their plans as far as possible.
built an iron boat. The cross section was oblong, about 25 feet long, tapering
at each end, 5 feet wide, and 6 feet deep. It was towed off fort Morgan,
intending to man it there and attack the blockading fleet outside, but the
weather was rough, and with a heavy sea the boat became unmanageable and finally
sank, but no lives were lost.
decided to build another boat, and for this purpose took a cylinder boiler which
we had on hand, 48 inches in diameter and 25 feet long (all dimensions are from
cut this boiler in two, longitudinally, and inserted two 12-inch boiler-iron
strips in her sides; lengthened her by one tapering course fore and aft, to
which were attached bow and stern castings, making the boat about 30 feet long,
4 feet wide, and 5 feet deep. A longitudinal strip 12 inches wide was riveted
the full length on top. At each end a bulkhead was riveted across to form
water-ballast tanks (unfortunately these were left open on top); they were used
in raising and sinking the boat. In addition to these water tanks the boat was
ballasted by flat castings, made to fit the outside bottom of the shell and
fastened thereto by "Tee" headed bolts passing trough stuffing boxes
inside the boat, the inside end of bolt squared to fit a wrench, that the bolts
might be turned and the ballast dropped, should the necessity arise.
connection with each of the water tanks there was a sea-cock open to the sea to
supply the tank for sinking; also a force pump to eject the water from the tanks
in the sea for raising the boat to the surface. There was also a bilge
connection to the pump. A mercury gauge, open to the sea, was attached to the
shell near the forward of the end of the propeller shaft. On each end of this
shaft, outside of the boat, castings, or later fins, five feet long and eight
inches wide, were secured. This shaft was operated by a lever amidships, and by
raising or lowering the ends of these fins, operated as the fins of a fish,
changing the depth of the boat below the surface at will, without disturbing the
water level in the ballast tanks.
rudder was operated by a wheel, and levers connected to rods passing through
stuffing boxes in the stern castings, and operated by the captain or pilot
forward. An adjusted compass was placed in front of the forward tank. The boat
was operated by manual power, with an ordinary propeller. On the propeller shaft
there were formed eight cranks at different angles; the shaft was supported by
brackets on the starboard side, the men sitting on the port side turning on the
cranks. The propeller shaft and cranks took up so much room that it was very
difficult to pass fore and aft, and when the men were in their places this was
next to impossible. In operation, one half of the crew had to pass through the
fore hatch, the other through the after hatchway. The propeller revolved in a
wrought iron ring or band, to guard against a line being thrown in to foul it.
There were two hatchways - one fore and one aft -16 inches by 12, with a combing
8 inches high. These hatches had hinged covers with rubber gasket, and were
bolted from the inside. In the sides and ends of these combings glasses were
inserted to sight from. There was an opening made in the top of the boat for an
air box, a casting with a close top 12 by 18 by 4 inches, made to carry a hollow
shaft. This shaft passed through stuffing boxes. On each end was an elbow with a
4-foot length of 1 1/2 inch pipe, and keyed to the hollow shaft; on the inside
was a lever with a stop-cock to admit air.
torpedo was a copper cylinder holding a charge of ninety pounds of explosive,
with percussion and friction primer mechanism, set off by flarring triggers. It
was originally intended to float the torpedo on the surface of the water, the
boat to dive under the vessel to be attacked, towing the torpedo with a line 200
feet after her, one of the triggers to touch the vessel and explode the torpedo,
and in the experiments made in the smooth water of Mobile river on some old
flatboats these plans operated successfully, but in rough water the torpedo was
continually coming too near the rough boat. We then rigged a yellow-pine boom,
22 feet long and tapering; this was attached to the bow, banded and guyed on
each side. A socket on the torpedo secured it to the boom.
men experienced in handling the boat, and seven others composed the crew. The
first officer steered and handled the boat forward, and the second attended to
the after-tank and pumps and the air supply, all hands turning on the cranks
except the first officer. There was just sufficient room for these two to stand
in the in their places with their heads in the hatchways and take observations
through the lights of the comings.
hands aboard and ready, they would fasten the hatch covers down tight, light a
candle, then let the water in from the sea into the ballast tanks until the top
of the shell was about three inches under water. This could be seen by the water
lever showing through the glasses in the hatch combings. The seacocks were then
closed and the boat put under way. The captain would then lower the lever and
depress the forward end of the fins very slightly, noting on the mercury gauge
the depth of the boat beneath the surface; then bring the fins to a level; the
boat would remain and travel at that depth. To rise to a higher level in the
water he would raise the lever and elevate the forward end of the fins, and the
boat would rise to its original position in the water.
the boat was not under way, in order to rise to the surface, it was necessary to
start the pumps, and lighten the boat by ejecting the water from the tanks into
the sea. In making a landing, the second officer would open his hatch cover,
climb out and pass a line to shore. After the experience with the boats in
Mobile bay the authorities decided that Charleston harbor, with the monitors and
blockaders there would be a better field for this boat to operate in, and
General Maury had her sent by rail to General Beauregard at Charleston, S. C.
Lieutenant John Payne, Confederate States navy, then on duty at Charleston, S.
C., volunteered with eight others of the navy to take the boat out. The crew
were about ready to make their first attack; eight men and gotten aboard, when a
swell swamped the boat, drowning the eight men in her. The boat was raised,
Lieutenant Payne and eight others again volunteering. She was about ready to go
out, when she was swamped the second time. Lieutenant Payne and two of the crew
escaped, but six men were drowned in her.
Beauregard, then turned the boat over to a volunteer crew from Mobile, known as
the "Hunley and Parks crew." Captain Hunley and Thomas Parks (one of
the best of men), of the firm of Parks & Lyons, in whose shop the boat had
been built, were in charge, with Messrs. Brockbank, Patterson, McHugh, Marshall,
White, Beard, and another, as the crew, and until the day this crew left Mobile
it was understood that the writer of this was to be one of them, but on the eye
of that day Mr. Parks prevailed on the writer to let him take his place. Nearly
all the men had some experience in the boat before leaving Mobile, and were well
qualified to operate her.
the boat had been made ready again Captain Hunley practiced the crew diving and
rising again on many occasions, until one evening, in the presence of a number
of people on the wharf, she sank and remained sunk for some days, thus drowning
her crew of nine men, or a total up to this time of three different crews, or
George E. Dixon, like myself, was a mechanical engineer, and belonged to the
same regiment, the Twenty-first Alabama. He had taken great interest in the
boats while building, and during their operations in Mobile river, and would
have been one of the "Hunley and Parks" crew had there been a vacancy.
As soon as the news that the boat had been lost again was verified, we discussed
the matter together and decided to offer our services to General Beauregard, to
raise and operate the boat for the defence of Charleston harbor.
offer was accepted and we were ordered to report to General Jordan, chief of
staff. The boat was raised, and the bodies were buried in the cemetery at
Charleston. A monument with suitable inscription marks the spot. There had been
much speculation as to the cause of the loss of the boat, for there could have
been no swamping as in the other two cases, but the position in which the boat
was found on the bottom of the river, the condition of the apparatus discovered
after it was raised and pumped out, and the position of the bodies in the boat,
furnished a full explanation for her loss. The boat, when found, was lying on
the bottom at an angle of about 35 degrees, the bow deep in the mud. The
holding-down bolts of each cover had been removed. When the hatch covers were
lifted considerable air and gas escaped. Captain Hunley's body was forward, with
his head in the forward hatchway, his right hand on top of his head (he had been
trying, it would seem, to raise the hatch cover). In his left hand was a candle
that had never been lighted, the sea cock on the forward end, or Hunley's
ballast tank, was wide open, the cock-wrench not on the plug, but lying on the
bottom of the boat. Mr. Parks' body was found with his head in the after
hatchway, his right hand above his head. He also had been trying to raise his
hatch cover, but the pressure was too great. The sea cock to his tank was nearly
empty. The other bodies were floating in the water. Hunley and Parks were
undoubtedly asphyxiated, the others drowned. The bolts that held the iron keel
ballast had been partially turned, but not sufficient to release it.
light of these conditions, we can easily depict before our minds, and almost as
readily explain, what took place in the boat during the moments immediately
following its submergence. Captain Hunley's practice with the boat had made him
quite familiar and expert in handling her, and this familiarity produced at this
time forgetfulness. It was found in practice to be easier on the crew to come to
the surface by giving the pumps a few strokes and ejecting some of the water
ballast, than by the momentum of the boat operating on the elevated fins. At
this time the boat was under way, lighted through the dead-lights in the
hatch-ways. He partly turned the fins to go down, but thought, no doubt, that he
needed more ballast and opened his sea cock. Immediately the boat was in total
darkness. he then undertook to light the candle. While trying to do this the
tank quickly flooded, and under great pressure the boat sank very fast and soon
overflowed, and the first intimation they would have of anything being wrong was
the water rising fast, but noiselessly, about their feet in the bottom on the
boat. They tried to release the iron keel ballast, but did not turn the keys
quite far enough, therefore failed.
water soon forced the air to the top of the boat and into the hatchways, where
Captains Hunley and Parks were found. Parks had pumped his ballast tank dry, and
no doubt Captain Hunley had exhausted himself on his pump, but the had forgotten
that he had not closed his sea-cock.
soon had the boat refitted and in good shape, reported to General Jordan, chief
of staff, that the boat was ready again for service, and asked for a crew. After
many refusals and much dissuasion General Beauregard finally assented to our
going aboard the Confederate States navy receiving ship Indian Chief,
then lying in the river, and secure volunteers for a crew, strictly enjoining
upon us, however, that a full history of the boat in the past, of its having
been lost three times and drowning twenty-three men in Charleston, and full
explanation of the hazardous nature of the service required of them, was to be
given to each man. This was done, a crew shipped, and after a little practice in
the river we were ordered to moor the boat off Battery Marshall, on Sullivan's
Island. Quarters were given us at Mount Pleasant, seven miles from Battery
Marshall. On account of chain booms having been put around the ironsides and
monitors in Charleston harbor to keep us off these vessels, we had to turn our
attention to the fleet outside. The nearest vessel, which we understood to be
the United States frigate Wabash, was about twelve miles off, and she was out
objective point from this time on.
comparatively smooth water and light current the Hunley could make four
miles an hour, but in rough water the speed was much slower. It was winter,
therefore necessary that we go out with the ebb and come in the with the flood
tide, a fair wind, and dark moon. This latter was essential to our success, as
our experience had fully demonstrated the necessity of occasionally coming to
the surface, slightly lifting the hatch-cover, and letting in a little air. On
several occasions we came to the surface for air, opened the cover, and heard
the men in the Federal picket boats talking and singing. Our daily routine,
whenever possible, was about as follows;
Mount Pleasant about 1 P. M., walk seven miles to Battery Marshall on the beach
(this exposed us to fire, but it was the best walking), take the boat our and
practice the crew for two hours in the Back bay. Dixon and myself would then
stretch out on the beach with the compass between us and get the bearings of the
nearest vessel as she took her position for the night; ship up the torpedo on
the boom, and, when dark, go out, steering for the vessel, proceed until the
condition of the men, sea, tide, wind, moon, and daylight compelled out return
to the dock; unship the torpedo, put it under guard at Battery Marshall, walk
back to quarters at Mount Pleasant, and cook breakfast.
the months of November and December, 1863, through January and the early part of
February, 1864, the wind held contrary, making it difficult, with our limited
power, to make much headway. During this time we went out on an average of four
nights a week, but on account of the weather, and considering the physical
condition of the men to propel the boat back again, often, after going out six
or seven miles, we would have to return. This we always found a task, and many
times it taxed our utmost exertions to keep from drifting out to sea, daylight
often breaking while we wee yet in range. This experience, also our desire to
know, in case we struck a vessel (circumstances required our keeping below the
surface), suggested that while in safe water we make the experiment to find out
how long it was possible to stay under water without coming to the surface for
air and not injure the crew.
was agreed by all hands, to sink and let the boat rest on the bottom, in the
Back bay, off Battery Marshall, each man to make equal physical exertion in
turning the propeller. It was also agreed that if any one in the boat felt that
he must come to the surface for air, and he gave the word "up," we
would at once bring the boat to the surface.
was usual, when practicing in the bay, that the banks would be lined with
soldiers. One evening, after alternately diving and rising many times, Dixon and
myself and several of the crew compared watches, noted the time and sank for the
test. In twenty-five minutes after I had closed the after manhead and excluded
the outer air the candle would not burn. Dixon forward and myself aft, turned on
the propeller cranks as hard as we could. In comparing our individual experience
afterwards, the experience of one was found to have been the experience of all.
Each man had determined that he would not be the first to say "Up."
Not a word was said, except the occasional, "How is it," between Dixon
and myself, until it was as the voice of one man, the word "up" came
from all nine. We started the pumps, but I soon realized that my pump was not
throwing. From experience I guessed the cause of the failure, took off the cap
of the pump, lifted the valve, and drew out some seaweed that had choked it.
the time it took to do this the boat was considerably by the stern. Thick
darkness prevailed. All hands had already endured what they thought was the
utmost limit. Some of the crew almost lost control of themselves. It was a
terrible few minutes, "better imagined than described." We soon had
the boat to the surface and the manhead opened. Fresh air! What an experience!
Well, the sun was shining when we went down, the beach lines with soldiers. It
was now quite dark, with one solitary soldier gazing on the spot where he had
seen the boat until he saw me standing on the hatch coming, calling to him to
stand by to take the line. A light was struck and the time taken. We had been on
the bottom two hours and thirty-five minutes. The candles ceased to burn in
twenty-five minutes after we went down, showing that we had remained under water
two hours and ten minutes after the candle went out.
soldier informed us that we had been given up for lost, that a message had been
sent to General Beauregard at Charleston that the torpedo boat had been lost
that evening off Battery Marshall with all hands.
got back to the quarters at Mount Pleasant that night, went over early next
morning to the city (Charleston) and reported to General Beauregard the facts of
the affair. They were all glad to see us.
making a full report of our experience, General Rains, of General Beauregard's
staff, who was present, expressed some doubt of our having stayed under water
two hours and ten minutes after the candle went out. Not that any of us wanted
to go through the same experience again, but we did our best to get him to come
over to Sulli van's Island and witness a demonstration of the fact, but without
avail. We continued to go out as often as the weather permitted, hoping against
hope, each time taking greater risks of getting back. On the last of January we
interviewed the Charleston pilots again, and they gave it as their opinion that
the wind would hold in the same quarter for several weeks.
February 5, 1864, I received orders to report in Charleston to General Jordan,
chief of staff, who gave me transportation and orders to report at Mobile, to
build a breechloading repeating gun. This was a terrible blow, both to Dixon and
myself, after we had gone through so much together. General Jordan told Dixon he
would get two men to take my place from the German artillery, but that I was
wanted in Mobile. It was thought best not to tell the crew that I was to leave
them. I left Charleston that night and reached Mobile in due course. I received
from Dixon two notes shortly after reaching Mobile, one stating that the wind
still held in the same quarter, etc., the other telling the regrets of the crew
at my leaving and their feelings towards me; also that he expected to get men
from the artillery to make my place. These notes, together with my passes, etc.,
are before me as I write. What mingled reminiscences they bring!
after this I received a note from Captain Dixon, saying that he had succeeded in
getting two volunteers from the German artillery, that for two days the wind had
changed to fair, and he intended to try and get out that night. Next came the
news that on February 17 the submarine torpedo boat Hunley had sunk the
United States sloop-of-war Housatonic outside the bar off Charleston, S.
C. As I read I cried out with disappointment that I was not there. Soon I noted
that there was no mention of the whereabouts of the torpedo boat. I wired
General Jordan daily for several days, but each time came the answer, "No
news of the torpedo boat." After much thought, I concluded that Dixon had
been unable to work his way back against wind and tide, and had been carried out
to sea. I held this opinion until I read the account of the sinking of the Housatonic,
by an officer of that vessel, published in the Army and Navy Journal, and
afterwards the finding of the torpedo boat on the bottom with the wreck of the Housatonic.
The plan was to take the bearings of the ships as they took position for the
night, steer for one of them, keeping about six feet under water, coming
occasionally to the surface for air and observation, and when nearing the
vessel, come to the surface for final observation before striking her, which was
to be done under her counter, if possible.
account of the sinking of the Housatonic by the submarine torpedo boat,
as given in the Army and Navy Journal, by one of the officers of that vessel,
says: "It occurred February 17, 1864, at 8:45 P. M., about two and a half
miles off Charleston bar. It was moonlight, with little wind, or sea. The
lookout observed something moving in the water, the chain was slipped, and the
engines backed when the crash came, the ship sinking in three minutes after
the close of the war, the government divers working on the wreck of the Housatonic,
discovered the torpedo boat with the wreck. With this data the explanation of
her loss is easy. The Housatonic was a new vessel on the station, and
anchored closer in than the Wabash and others. On this night the wind had
lulled, with but little sea on, and although it was moonlight, Dixon, who had
been waiting so long for a change of wind, took the risk of the moonlight and
went out. The lookout on the ship saw him when he came to the surface for his
final observation before striking her. He, of course, not knowing that the ship
had slipped her chain and was backing down upon him, then sank the boat a few
feet, steered for the stern of the ship and struck. The momentum of the two
vessels brought them together unexpectedly. The stern of the ship was blown off
entirely. The momentum carried the torpedo boat into the wreck. Dixon and his
men, unable to extricate themselves, sinking with it.
Ala., June, 1902.
Return to table of contents