Last semester, I taught a class on the Civil War and a separate course on the History of Naval Warfare. In both classes, I included a short, mini-lecture (about 10 minutes) on the CSS Hunley.
For those of you who have never heard of it, the Hunley was the first submarine to actually sink another ship. During the Civil War, the Union Navy blockaded southern ports—allowing neither imports nor exports—in order to economically starve the Confederate States. The South, with few ships, few shipyards, and even fewer resources, was desperate to break the blockade. This desperation led them to try extraordinary methods: ironclads, torpedo vessels, and submarines.
On the night of February 17, 1864, the CSS Hunley cranked toward the 205-foot USS Housatonic, a sail and steam/screw-powered sloop. I say "cranked" because the Hunley neither steamed nor sailed. The Hunley was an iron tube 40 feet long, with 8 men inside, seven of whom turned a metal crank that powered the propeller. (And the poor bastards had to do it in the dark.) The Housatonic, on the Union side, was a handsome sloop, built to chase and battle blockade runners.
Despite being seen by the lookouts on the Housatonic, the Hunley was successful in her attack, ramming the pointed spike of a spar torpedo into the side of the Union ship, then backing away (Reverse Crank!) until a pull on a long lanyard exploded the torpedo, sinking the Housatonic—the first ship in history to be sunk by a submarine.
Unfortunately, the Hunley didn't fare much better. While the exact cause may never be determined, the sub sank on her way back to the safety of Charleston harbor. It may have been something as simple as a wave washing over the open conning tower hatch while her captain, Lieutenant Dixon, was trying to set a course to safety.
The Hunley lay on the bottom of the harbor until the novelist, Clive Cussler, led a team that discovered her in 1995. Five years later, she was raised and is currently being restored at a museum in Charleston. Nowadays, half the world has heard of her and everyone knows she was both the first submarine and the only submarine of the Civil War. Except that she was neither.
Alexander the Great supposedly went underwater in a diving bell of sorts, but I'm not sure that counts as a "sub".
In the 1620's, Cornelius Drebbel built a wood and leather submarine that could stay underwater for hours, that he successfully rowed across the Thames River. Supposedly, he built several working models and they were so successfully tested that King James I went on a test ride. Though they undoubtedly worked, no one could think of a practical use them.
During the American Revolution, David Bushnell tried to sink the British ship, HMS Eagle. Bushnell's ship (which he named The Turtle) was just barely a submarine: it looked like a barrel. On a dark night, The Turtle attempted—and failed—to attach a bomb to the bottom of the British ship. The attempt marked the first time in history that a submarine was used offensively. And while the sub's operator, Ezra Lee, survived—a good thing, so did the British warship—a bad thing.
There were occasional experiments with submarines, mostly failures, until the American Civil War. And suddenly, there were lots of experiments. And while the CSS Hunley was the only sub that actually sank an enemy ship, both sides built and experimented with them. Altogether, on both sides of the Civil War, there were roughly thirty submarines. (And that’s not even counting a number of boats that were built so low in the water that a properly-thrown snowball might sink them). I’m talking about true submarines.
My own favorite has to be the USS Intelligent Whale. First off, how can you not like the name? (Though the name does remind me of a certain colleague of mine.) Second, while the Hunley and the Turtle were interesting, technically they were dead ends. On the other hand, the Whale's descendants can be found today in the navies of every country in the world.
The Whale was built in New Jersey by the American Submarine Company, which was obviously a little ahead of its time. One of the owners of this company was a man named Cornelius Bushnell—a relative of David Bushnell. Besides being involved with the sub, Cornelius Bushnell was also one of men responsible for the design of the USS Monitor—the North's first ironclad vessel and the ship that spelled the end of wooden warships.
The sub was, indeed, somewhat whale-shaped, and could hold 13 men—half of whom were needed to turn the crank that powered the ship. And the sub could submerge or surface by means of ballast tanks that could be flooded for diving or emptied with pumps and blasts of compressed air for surfacing. The large whale shape held enough air for the men to stay underwater for up to ten hours.
This was a massive submarine. A little over 28 feet long, 9 feet tall, and constructed with half-inch iron boiler plates. For her time, she was fairly modern: She sported a compass, a depth gauge, an air pressure gauge and even one tiny little porthole in her stubby conning tower.
The war was over before the ship could be used in combat, but the Navy continued to test her capabilities. In general, the sub did prove deadly. During one test in 1866, an army officer wearing a diving suit, exited through a wooden hatch in the Whale’s hull, planted a bomb on a target boat, and successfully reentered the Whale. Then the ship moved a safe distance away, exploded the bomb by means of a lanyard, and sank the target boat.
Unfortunately, the Whale also proved equally deadly to the crews who used her. The Whale sank three times, killing her entire crew each time. Naval personnel started calling her the “Disastrous Jonah.” Eventually, the Navy decided that the project was not worth pursuing, and put her in that same vast secret warehouse where they have stashed the Ark of the Covenant. (Actually, she is on display at the Militia Museum of New Jersey—but—as far as I know—they may also have the Ark of the Covenant there, too.)
While the Intelligent Whale never did make its way into combat, the sub did inspire an Irish immigrant recuperating from a badly broken leg. Confined to a bed during his recuperation, the immigrant began to design a new sub, roughly the same size and dimensions of the Whale, but with an oil-burning engine. Eventually, his subs used electric motors to maneuver underwater and were capable of delivering self-propelled torpedoes.
After decades of experimentation, this immigrant—John Holland—designed and sold the first modern military submarines to the United States, Great Britain, and Japan. While over the last century, his company has split into two divisions and has changed names a few times, today, the former Holland Company is known as General Dynamics (the people who made the F-16 fighter) and the Electric Boat Company (the people who have made America’s submarines for the last 100 years).
And the USS Intelligent Whale still sits in New Jersey, still waiting for a little recognition.
Note. Today's historians—especially those in England—doubt the veracity of the story about Bushnell's Turtle. The event does not appear in the log of the Eagle, the design of the Turtle would make it almost impossible to achieve neutral buoyancy, and the hand-crank propeller would have been useless against the strong river current. Though the event may never have happened, Cornelius Bushnell certainly believed his ancestor had done it. And his sub, the Intelligent Whale, definitely inspired John Holland.