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First American ship ever sunk by a submarine was built in Mobile, Alabama

On February 17, 1864, the Confederate submarine Hunley sunk the Union ship, Housatonic in the harbor of Charleston. A survivor, W. A. Alexander, of one of the crew of the Hunley, told the story of the beginning and end of the Hunley in undersea warfare some years before 1917 and this story (with black and white pictures) was published February 18, 1917 in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri, Sunday edition. The published story follows:

“Shortly before the capture of New Orleans by the Federals, Capt. Hunley and two other officers were engaged in building a submarine torpedo boat in the new basin in that city. When the place fell into the hands of the Union troops before the craft was completed it was sunk and its builders went to Mobile. There the authorities ordered the construction of a similar vessel. As a member of the Twenty-first Alabama Artillery, I was detailed on the Government work at this shop and was ordered to built the craft according to the plans submitted. We had a warning from the fact that one boat which had been completed had sunk in a heavy wash off Fort Morgan while being towed out to sea.”

Finally located in 1995, Hunley was raised in 2000 and is on display in North Charleston, South Carolina, at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on the Cooper River. Examination, in 2012, of recovered Hunley artifacts suggests that the submarine was as close as 20 feet (6 meters) to her target, Housatonic, when she deployed torpedo exploded, which caused the submarine’s own  loss (Wikipedia)

“Not discouraged, however, we began work on a second boat. For the hull we took a cylinder boiler we had on hand, 48 inches in diameter and 25 feet long. A part of it was separated into two water tanks for ballast, which could be emptied and filled by valves. Heavy pieces of cast iron were also fastened to the bottom by bolts, which could be removed by the crew inside, thus allowing the castings to sink when it was desired to come to the surface.”

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

Moved entirely by hand

“Perhaps the oddest feature of the craft was an appendage which acted on the principle as the tail of a fish. It consisted of two iron blades, each five feet long and eight inches wide, joined to the shaft and projected behind the stern, one on each side of the propeller. The shaft was joined to a lever passing into the hull so that by moving this lever the “tail” could be raised and lowered, changing the depth of the boat below the surface without disturbing the water level in the ballast tanks. The rudder was operated by a wheel and levers so connected that the captain or pilot forward could steer the craft from his position.

“The boat was moved entirely by hand. It had an ordinary screw propeller, attached to a shaft, on which were eight cranks at different angles. The shaft was supported by brackets on the starboard side while the crew sat on the port side and turned the cranks. The shafts and cranks took up so much room that it was very difficult to pass fore and aft. Indeed, when the men were in their places it 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 torpedo was a copper cylinder holding 90 pounds of explosive, with percussion and primer mechanism set off by triggers. It was originally intended to float the torpedo on the surface of the water, towed by the boat, which was to dive under the vessel to be attacked. In experiments made with some flat boats, in smooth water, this plan operated successfully, but in seaway the torpedo was always coming too near our own craft. We then rigged a yellow pine boom, 22 feet long, and attached it to the bow, banded and guyed on each side. A socket on the torpedo secured it to the boom.”

No lack of volunteers

Such was the pioneer of the submarine of today: a boiler shell propelled by paddle wheels turned by hand, with no electrical or pneumatic apparatus, with none of the modern provisions for furnishing air. Yet no difficulty was found getting volunteers to man the craft.

The submersible required nine men to handle it. The first officer was stationed forward, while the second attended to the after ballast tank and pumps and air supply, all hands turning the cranks except the man in command.

After the completion of the Hunley the boat was sent to Gen. Beauregard at Charleston by rail. The Union fleet had been blockading the port since the beginning of the war. Lieut. John Payne, with eight others, volunteered to take the boat out. All was in readiness for the first attack; the crew were aboard, when a sudden wash of the sea capsized the craft, drowning eight men in her.

Two more tries

Shortly afterwards the boat was raised and Lieut. Payne, the sole survivor of the original crew volunteered to take her out again. He easily secured eight men to man her. She was about to torpedo one of the Union gunboats when the wash from the vessel caused the Hunley to turn turtle. Lieut. Payne and two of the crew escaped, the other six being drowned.

“Gen. Beauregard then turned the submersible over to a volunteer crew from Mobile known as the Hunley and Parks crew.” Capt. Hunley was in charge and his first officer was Thomas Parks, in whose shop the submarine had been built.

“Until the day the crew left Mobile,” says Alexander. “It was understood that I was to be one of them, but at the last moment, Parks persuaded me to let him take my place. When she had been made ready again Capt. Hunley trained the crew in diving and rising again until one evening, in the presence of a number of people on the wharf, she went down and remained sunk. She now had drowned all or most of three different crews – 22 men in all.”

Asked for more volunteers

“Lieut. George Dixon was a mechanical engineer and belonged to my regiment. As soon as we heard of the third disaster to the Hunley, we discussed the matter and decided to offer our services to Gen. Beauregard. Our offer was accepted and we were ordered to report to his chief of staff. We raised the boat and soon had her repaired. After many refusals Gen. Beauregard finally permitted us to go aboard the Confederate receiving ship Indian Chief and call for volunteers. We easily secured the men and after a little practice in the river we were ordered to moor the boat off Sullivan’s Island.”

“In comparatively smooth water and light current our boat could make about four miles an hour, but in rough water her speed was about half of that. We found that we had to come to the surface occasionally, lightly lifting the after hatchway and letting in a little air. Sometimes when we rose for air we could hear the men in the Federal picket boats talking and singing.”

Test how long the boat could stay down

“It was suggested while we were in safe water to see how long we could stay under the water without coming to the surface. It was agreed that if any of the crew felt that he must have air and gave the word “up” we would at once bring the boat to the surface.”

“One evening, after alternately diving and rising for awhile, we noted the time and sank for the test. Twenty-five minutes after I had closed the after manhead and excluded the outer air, the candle went out. In comparing our individual experiences afterwards we found that each man had been determined that he would not be the first to say “up.” Not a word was uttered except the occasional “How is it?” between Dixon and myself until at last, as a word from one man came the cry of “up” from all nine.”

“We started the pumps. Dixon’s worked all right, but I soon realized that mine was not throwing. From experience I guessed the failure and, removing the cap, took out seaweed that had choked the inlet. While I was doing this the boat was considerably by the stern. Thick darkness prevailed and all hands thought they had reached the limit of their endurance. Some of the crew almost lost control of themselves. But a moment later we had the boat to the surface and the manhead opened. A Confederate sentry standing on shore gazing at the spot where we had gone down told us that he had already sent a message to Gen. Beauregard that the submarine had gone to the bottom and had stayed there.”

A Sketch of Hunley by W. A. Alexander

A plan was made

“After notifying the general of the success of our experiment it was decided to make an attack the first clear night when a land breeze was blowing. Our plan was to take the bearing of the Federal ships when they took position for the night: to steer for one of them keeping about six feet under water and occasionally coming to the surface; and when nearing the vessel to make a final observation before striking her.”

“When we were in readiness I received an order which was at that time a blow to all my hopes, although by obeying it did I live to tell the story. Briefly, I was to leave Dixon in charge of the boat and return to Mobile to build a new model of a breech-loading cannon. I think that all felt as I did at the time. We had proved that the craft could be successfully operated on the surface and below the water in spite of the many deaths which she had caused and I don’t believe a man considered the danger that awaited him. The honor of being the first to engage the enemy in this novel way overshadowed all else.”

“When the boat started from her mooring that fateful afternoon in February 1864, all the crew who had toiled and risked death during these long and weary months were in their places except myself and one other man, also ordered on special duty. When the divers searched the wreck of the Housatonic after the war the world learned of the heroic stuff of which these men were made.”

The Hunley – DVD-best-selling

The plans of the Hunley were carried out to perfection. She went alongside the Housatonic and the torpedo was exploded under the counter. The rush of water caused by the detonation is believed to have caused the Hunley to capsize.

The Housatonic sank rapidly and five of the crew of 160 were drowned. The masts of the gunboat projected from the water until after the war, when the craft and the submarine which sent it to the bottom were both raised. The men of the Hunley were found in their positions, where death had overtaken them. Thirty-two men had died in the submarine in a year.

In a cemetery at Charleston, S. C., stands a great shaft of white marble as a monument to the nine men who died when the Hunley sank the Housatonic.

Additional Notes from transcriber: Other newspaper accounts report that the Hunley was not found immediately afterwards. This narrative by W. A. Alexander above was made when he was an old man recalling the event from memory. The Hunley was found almost intact and with crew members at their stations in 1995 by best-selling author and shipwreck hunter, clive Cusler after four failed attempts. It took five more years to plan how to raise her.

Other accounts share a few more facts and additional names of men connected to the mission.

  • The Hunley was actually the 4th Confederate submarine built by the team of Horace L. Hunley, James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson, One, the Pioneer is today on display in a New Orleans museum.
  • First crew was assembled under Lt. John Payne
  • Lt. George E. Dixon, was an Alabamian who had left an Army engineering post to command the crew. A gold coin from his sweetheart Queenie Bennett and a diamond ring and brooch were found with remains.
  • On the final test with W. A. Alexander and his crew, they stayed down two hours and 35 minutes.
  • Master J. F. Crosby was the acting master of the Housatonic
  • Aboard the Hunley on Feb.17 were
  • The crew appears to have died of oxygen deprivation and the low-oxygen environment maintained the high level of preservation
  1. Lt. George E. Dixon, the commander was either from Alabama or Ohio who left an Army engineering post to command the crew. (A legend states that the gold coin from his sweetheart Queenie Bennett of Mobile, Alabama to protect him- he had been wounded in the thigh on April 6, 1862, at Battle of Shiloh) and a diamond ring and brooch were found with remains. The gold piece was minted in 1860 with the inscription Shiloh April 6, 1862 My life Preserver G. E. D
  2. Arnold Becker, Navy; of Germany
  3. James A. Wicks, Navy; of North Carolina lived in Florida married and had children. Served on a Union vessel before jumping ship and serving the Confederacy.
  4. Corporal Johan Frederik. Carlsen, (Capt. Wagener’s co.) Artillery; of Denmark –  born in Ærøskøbing April 9, 1841. The last year he is registered in the census of Ærøskøbing is 1860, where he is registered as “sailor”. The teeth of his remains in the Hunley still bear significant marks of a cobbler, which was the profession of his father. In 1861 J.F. Carlsen entered the freight ship Grethe of Dragør, which landed in Charleston in February 1861, where J.F. Carlsen left the ship. In June 1861 he entered the Jefferson Davis (the Confederate privateer brig originally named Putnam) as mate
  5. Frank Collins, Navy; of Virginia
  6. Joseph F. Ridgaway, Confederate Navy, of Maryland from Indian Chief operated crank, had an ID tag of a Union Soldier Ezra Chamberlin around his neck when he died. Chamberlin of Connecticut died in 1863 at the Battle of Morris Island near Charleston. Researchers say it’s likelyRidgaway picked up tag as battlefield souvenir.
  7. C. Lumpkin, Probably British Isles age 40, one of oldest aboard – born in Europe (originally thought to be named C. Simpkins at first
  8. Augustus Miller (probably a former member of the German Artillery)

The remains of the crew were laid to rest at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina on April 17, 2004.

  • Lt. W. L. Churchhill, U. S. N. dragged the bottom for a radius of 500 yards and found no trace of the submarine


  1. Feb. 16, 1964 by The Greenville News (Greenville, South Carolina)
  2. October 5, 1913, Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia)
  3. June 10, 2001, The Post and Courier (South Carolina)
  4. April 14, 2004 The Greenville News (Greenville, South Carolina)
  5. Wikipedia

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

The Hunley – DVD-best-selling


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  1. I saw the Hunley in Charleston. I had just been retrieved and had to be kept under water. This story and Das Boot make me reflexively gasp for air.

  2. Donna R Causey, thank you for your blog post.Really thank you! Awesome.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Interesting article as most of your posts are. I would like to have permission to re-print or use portions of this story with citation to you, in the monthly newsletter of Finley’s Brigade, Camp 1614, Sons Of Confederate Veterans. This newsletter is only sent electronically to our email list and can be found on our facebook page.
    Thanks in advance for your consideration.

    1. You have my permission to re-print or use portions with citation back to me. Thank you for asking and your comment.

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