“An unfortunate accident… with the submarine boat” at Charleston

The journal entry for the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, detailing operations at Charleston, for October 15, 1863 began:

Raining again this morning, and too hazy to get report of the fleet.

To-day was exceedingly quiet, and the enemy did not fire a single shot, although Batteries Simkins and Cheves were in slow action, the former firing 33 rounds and the latter 10 rounds.

The mortar platform No. 2 at Battery Haskell was completed today, and the work on the bomb-proof is being pushed forward.

In those fall days of 1863, there was always someone shooting off a few rounds at Charleston.  Forty-three rounds launched from the Confederate side, even with the need to husband powder.  The Federals continued to build up new batteries on the north end of Morris Island and improve outposts elsewhere on the marshes.

The next paragraph in the journal was anything but ordinary:

An unfortunate accident occurred this morning with the submarine boat, by which Capt. [H]. L. Hunley and 7 men lost their lives, in an attempt to run under the navy receiving ship. The boat left the wharf at 9.25 a.m. and disappeared at 9.35. As soon as she sunk, air bubbles were seen to rise to the surface of the water, and from this fact it is supposed the hole in the top of the boat by which the men entered was not properly closed. It was impossible at the time to make any effort to rescue the unfortunate men, as the water was some 9 fathoms deep.

This was the second sinking of the H.L. Hunley since arriving at Charleston.  Earlier on August 29rd, Lieutenant John Payne accidentally forced the submarine to dive while the hatches were open.  As result, five crewmembers drowned.  Now in October, while inventor Horace Lawson Hunley himself was supervising the trials, the submarine dove and never came back up.

Three days later, a diver located the H.L. Hunley.  The submarine had dove at too sharp an angle and struck bottom.  In the collision, the crew was unable to work the valves to bring the H.L. Hunley back to the surface.  Recovery operations brought the submarine back to the surface along with the remains of the boat’s designer and seven other crewmembers.

Costly trial and error testing on the way to perfecting a new weapon system.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 145.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

4 thoughts on ““An unfortunate accident… with the submarine boat” at Charleston

  1. It was a gruesome business, as the depth prevented recovery of the boat and the remains for three weeks. The salvage contractor was paid an additional $400 for removing the bodies and scrubbing out the boat.

    Beauregard was reluctant to employ the boat again, but William Alexander and George Dixon prevailed upon him to give the boat yet another chance. Beauregard did, at this point, order that HUNLEY’s operation be restricted to the surface. This, along with problems controlling the torpedo towed behind the boat, led to the scrapping of the original tactic (as being practiced in the October 15 sinking) of running under the target to row a torpedo into the side of the ship, in favor of an explosive charge fitted on a spar on the stem of the boat.

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