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Gustav Yegorov
Gustav Yegorov

How the H.L. Hunley Sank a Warship and Then Vanished in the Sea of Darkness

Sea of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley

The H.L. Hunley was a submarine of the Confederate States of America that played a small part in the American Civil War. It was the first combat submarine to sink a warship, but it also sank three times with great loss of life, including its inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley. The submarine was lost for over a century until it was found and raised in 1995 and 2000, respectively. Since then, it has been undergoing extensive preservation work and research, revealing new insights into its design, operation, and fate. The H.L. Hunley was a remarkable feat of engineering and courage, but also a tragic mystery that has puzzled historians and scientists for decades.

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The Design and Construction of the H.L. Hunley

The H.L. Hunley was designed and built at Mobile, Alabama, in 1863, as part of an effort to break the Union blockade of Southern ports during the Civil War. The blockade was crippling the Confederate economy and preventing supplies and reinforcements from reaching its armies. The submarine project was initiated by James McClintock, a mechanic and inventor, who had previously built two smaller submarines, Pioneer and American Diver, with limited success. He partnered with Horace Lawson Hunley, a lawyer and businessman, who provided most of the funding for the project.

The H.L. Hunley was made out of 40 feet of bulletproof iron, shaped like a cigar with tapered ends. It had a hand-cranked propeller that could propel it at a speed of about 4 knots on the surface or underwater. It had a crew of eight men, seven to operate the crank and one to steer and control depth. It had a single hatch on top for entry and exit, two small conning towers with portholes for observation, and ballast tanks for submerging and surfacing. It had no engine or ventilation system, relying on air trapped inside or supplied by snorkels when near the surface. It had a spar torpedo attached to a long pole at its bow, which could be detonated by pulling a rope from inside.

The design and construction of the H.L. Hunley faced many challenges and difficulties. The iron used for its hull was scarce and expensive due to wartime shortages. The submarine was too large to be transported by rail or road, so it had to be shipped by sea from Mobile to Charleston, South Carolina, where it was intended to operate. The submarine also attracted suspicion and hostility from some Confederate authorities, who doubted its feasibility or usefulness.

The Operational History and Fate of the H.L. Hunley

The H.L. Hunley arrived in Charleston in August 1863, where it was taken over by the Confederate Army and placed under the command of Lieutenant George E. Dixon, a veteran of the Battle of Shiloh. The submarine underwent several test runs and training exercises in the harbor, but also suffered three sinkings and recoveries, resulting in the death of 21 crewmen, including Hunley himself.

The first sinking occurred on August 29, 1863, when the submarine was being towed by a steamboat and accidentally submerged with its hatch open, drowning five men. The second sinking occurred on October 15, 1863, when the submarine was practicing a mock attack on a target ship and failed to resurface, killing all eight men on board, including Hunley, who had joined the crew as an observer. The third sinking occurred on February 17, 1864, after the submarine had successfully attacked and sunk the USS Housatonic, a 1,240-ton Union sloop-of-war that was part of the blockade fleet. The H.L. Hunley became the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship, but it also disappeared shortly after the attack, taking with it all eight men of its third and final crew.

The cause of the third sinking and the fate of the H.L. Hunley have been the subject of much speculation and debate. Some possible explanations include: damage or leakage from the explosion of the torpedo; collision with another ship or obstacle; mechanical failure or human error; lack of oxygen or carbon dioxide poisoning; enemy fire or capture; or intentional scuttling by the crew. None of these theories have been conclusively proven or disproven by the available evidence.

The Discovery and Preservation of the H.L. Hunley

The H.L. Hunley lay in about 30 feet of water some four miles offshore from Charleston for over a century, until it was found by a team of preservationists led by novelist Clive Cussler in 1995. The team used historical records, eyewitness accounts, and sonar technology to locate the submarine, which was buried under several feet of silt and sand. The discovery was announced to the public in 1997, after legal and logistical issues were resolved.

The H.L. Hunley was raised intact in 2000 and transported to a specially built conservation center in North Charleston, where it has been undergoing extensive preservation work and research ever since. The submarine was filled with a solution of sodium hydroxide to prevent corrosion and stabilize its metal structure. The submarine was also carefully excavated and cleaned, revealing many artifacts and clues about its design, operation, and crew. Some of the most notable findings include: a gold coin that belonged to Dixon and may have saved his life at Shiloh; a pocket watch that stopped at 8:23 p.m., possibly indicating the time of the sinking; personal items such as buttons, pipes, knives, and combs; and the remains of the eight crewmen, who were identified by their physical features, clothing, and DNA analysis.

The ongoing research and analysis of the H.L. Hunley and its artifacts have provided new insights into its history and mysteries. Some of the most recent findings include: evidence that the submarine was closer to its target than previously thought, possibly exposing it to a lethal shock wave from the torpedo blast; evidence that the submarine had a complex system of pumps, valves, and gauges to control its depth and buoyancy; evidence that the submarine had a blue light signal device that may have been used to communicate with its support vessel after the attack; and evidence that the crew died at their posts without any signs of panic or escape attempts.


The H.L. Hunley was a remarkable feat of engineering and courage that changed the course of naval warfare and history. It was also a tragic mystery that has fascinated generations of historians and scientists. The discovery and preservation of the submarine have shed new light on its design, operation, and fate, but also raised new questions and challenges. The H.L. Hunley remains a source of inspiration and intrigue for anyone interested in exploring the sea of darkness.


  • Q: Who invented the H.L. Hunley?

  • A: The H.L. Hunley was invented by James McClintock, a mechanic and inventor from Mobile, Alabama.

  • Q: How did the H.L. Hunley sink the USS Housatonic?

  • A: The H.L. Hunley sank the USS Housatonic by ramming a spar torpedo into its hull and detonating it by pulling a rope from inside.

  • Q: How many times did the H.L. Hunley sink?

  • A: The H.L. Hunley sank three times during its short career: once during a test run, once during a training exercise, and once I have already written the article. Here is the rest of it: A: The H.L. Hunley sank three times during its short career: once during a test run, once during a training exercise, and once after its successful attack on the USS Housatonic.

  • Q: Where is the H.L. Hunley now?

  • A: The H.L. Hunley is now on display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina.

  • Q: Why is the H.L. Hunley important?

  • A: The H.L. Hunley is important because it was the first submarine to sink a warship, demonstrating the potential and the peril of undersea warfare.



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