The Mystery Of The First Successful Submarine Attack

“Would’st thou,”—so the helmsman answered, / “Learn the secret of the sea? / Only those who brave its dangers / Comprehend its mystery!” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Secret of the Sea”

In A Nutshell

On a February night in 1864, military history was made with the first sinking of a ship by a submarine. The submarine was the Hunley, and after signaling to shore that the mission was successful and they were on their way back, they never returned. The wreck of the submarine was only recently found and recovered, and divers were greeted by the eerie sight of the long-dead crew still at their posts. Still, the Hunley hasn’t given up its secrets as to what happened to it.

Note: The above image is a 1902 drawing based on a photograph of the submarine, although the drawing is clearly not to scale.

The Whole Bushel

Even today, the murky waters of the world are one of our truly final, uncharted frontiers. Long after we’ve perfected (or nearly perfected) travel by ship, there’s still something darkly terrifying about the idea of traveling by submarine. Traveling in the world’s first submarines must have been a bit mind-numbing.

On February 17, 1864, a submarine crew made the first ever successful attack on a ship. The ship was the USS Housatonic, and it was sunk off the coast of South Carolina.

The submarine that sank it was the HL Hunley, and strangely, for such a monumental moment in military history, there’s a lot we don’t know about the Hunley.

The wreck site was only discovered in 1995 (P.T. Barnum once offered a $100,000 reward for it), and even though the remains of the submarine have been recovered, secured, and preserved, there’s still an amazing amount we don’t know about what went on beneath the waters that February night.

The hull has been severely compromised by decades of ocean water and abuse from its not-quite-final resting place. That’s made it next to impossible to tell what really sank the sub; guesses include that it was perhaps a lucky shot from a soldier that punctured the hull, or that one of the problematic hatches opened and flooded the compartment.

After the submarine had successfully attacked the Housatonic, it had surfaced briefly and signaled the shoreline crew. All was well at the time, they gave the signal that they were on their way back after successfully completing their mission . . . but they never made it.

Article Continued Below

Adding to the mystery was the state of the crew. They were eerily preserved, still at their stations, when the submarine was discovered.

And what about the crew? There’s not much we know about them, either, in spite of the efforts of a team of researchers. Only one of the ill-fated crew members had children, and descendants have little to no information on the crew or its mission. Four of the eight were European-born immigrants, meaning that there’s even less information on them.

There is, however, the pretty incredible story of an urban legend given new life. According to a popular story about Hunley crew member George Dixon, before he left for the war, his beloved gave him a token that she claimed would keep him safe. A small gold coin, the token was said to have saved Dixon’s life earlier. Shot at point blank range at the Battle of Shiloh, the coin supposedly deflected the bullet and saved his life.

And the coin would later be found on the remains of the Hunley, in the possession of one of the dead crew members, George Dixon. Inscribed with the words: “Shiloh, April 6, 1862, My life Preserver, G.E.D.,” it seems as though the discovery of the coin onboard the sunken submarine gives new life to the old story.

But other remains are more elusive; facial reconstruction software has given us a look at just what the crew members’ faces looked like, but the stories behind them, and just what caused the Hunley to sink so quickly that the men never even left their posts, is still up for debate.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Friends of the Hunley: The Mission, Lt. Dixon’s Gold Coin
CNN: The Hunley: Zeroing in on what caused Civil War submarine’s sinking
CNN: Who were they? Drawing a clearer picture of doomed Hunley crew

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!