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The Work of Submarine Boats

By Lieutenant William H. Alexander, CSA
From: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXX, Richmond, Va., 1902.  Pages 164-174

Visitors 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.

THE 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.

Shortly 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.

The 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 shops.

Messrs. Hunley, McClintock and watson were introduced to me by Parks & Lyons, who gave me orders to carry out their plans as far as possible.

We 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.

We 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 memory).

We 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Two 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.


All 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.

If 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.

General 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.

After 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 twenty-three men.

Lieutenant 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.

Our 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.


In the 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.

The 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.

We 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.

In 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;

Leave 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.


During 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.

It 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.

It 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.

During 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.

The 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.

We 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.

After 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.

On 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!


Soon 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.

The 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 being struck."

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.


Mobile, Ala., June, 1902.

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