Thoughts on the USS Housatonic and H.L. Hunley

A couple of frequent visitors noted that I did not lead today with any notes about the H.L. Hunley and the sinking of the USS Housatonic.   Certainly this event falls into the lap of my favorite topic of late – the war around Charleston.  So I should write up a couple thousand words, right?  Honestly, I can’t offer much more than what is already offered to the public from other sources.  The Friends of the Hunley offers a substantial amount of information on the submarine.  The Navy’s History and Heritage Command has a listing of reports and correspondence from the war.  And Andy Hall has some damn fine drawings of the vessel:

Cutaway View of Confederate Submersible H. L. Hunley, February 1864

I’m always keen to ensure separation where I offer the “story” and my opinions.  That in mind, let me offer some opinions I have about the Hunley-Housatonic… with the hope that readers clearly see this as just opinions on the subject.

Earlier, in a post for the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial site, I offered an observation about the emergence of anti-submarine warfare in anticipation of the employment of the Hunley.  My point there was the level to which the Federals were aware of the threat and what measures they took to counter the Hunley and Confederate torpedo boats.  If we consider February 17 to mark the first successful submarine attack, we must also assess the event as the first failure to defend against the weapon.  It was, if I may, the initiation of anti-submarine warfare.  From that date until the end of the Cold War (at least), anti-submarine warfare grew to dominate naval warfare.  Control of the seas depended upon controlling what was under the sea (and some readers will say that stands true today).

At the tactical level, the Hunley‘s trip out demonstrated the weapon was far more versatile than the David used the previous fall against the USS Ironsides.  The Housatonic was easily three nautical miles from Breach Inlet.  To reach that far off shore, without detection, speaks to the special capabilities inherit to the submarine.

Hunley's Route

But there’s another side to that coin.  Why wasn’t the Hunley employed against the more lucrative targets closer to shore?  Perhaps one of the monitors laying off Morris Island?  To do so, the Hunley would come in close proximity to the torpedoes and obstructions at the mouth of the harbor.  But more importantly, I think, the Federals had taken sufficient countermeasures to deter such attacks on the monitors – calcium lights, boat howitzers, fenders, support from shore batteries and boat patrols.  And instructions stood to anchor those ships in shallow waters at night specifically to hinder submerged attack.

No such instructions went out to the deep water blockaders further off shore.   The Federal response to the threat of Hunleys and Davids was confined to the monitors.  Despite a wealth of information about the Hunley from deserters and other sources, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren underestimated the capabilities of the submarine.

That said, did the sinking of the Houstatonic have any great effect on the war?  I’d argue not.  The blockade remained in effect.  Though I would point out that blockade-running activity increased for Charleston through the spring and summer of 1864.  But a trickle of what traffic had been the year before.  The fall months would see a burst of traffic, mostly due to factors other than fear of another submarine attack.  That is not to say the Federals didn’t make adjustments due to the attack.  Rather those adjustments were far easier to implement than for the Confederates to repeat their success with more submarines.

Perhaps, if held back for use in conjunction with an orchestrated attack, the Federals would have felt the Hunley‘s impact even more.  But as we’ve heard, General P.G.T. Beauregard preferred to “experiment on his enemy.”  Sometimes it is hard to save the bolt for the bigger fight.  Then again, a saved bolt does not insult to the enemy.

Another point, and this is more a personal rub, is how we frame this event for interpretation.  The headlines are “Hunley-centric” as if the Housatonic was just a hulk out there on the waters.  There were men on board the Housatonic that night.  These were not nameless, faceless entities.  Rather men serving for cause and country.  Five those men did not see the next day.  And they are still out there.  Should we not mention Ensign Edward Hazeltine, Clerk Charles Muzzey, Quartermaster John Williams, Second Class Fireman John Walsh, and Landsman Theodore Parker on this day?

UPDATE:  Robert Moore does mention the names of those lost on the Housatonic… and a little more on them.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on the USS Housatonic and H.L. Hunley

  1. In my eyes, the most amazing thing about the Hunley was that it would be another 50 years, if I’m not mistaken, before another submarine would sink a ship. In military technology terms, that’s unheard of.

    1. I’d point out that during the span of those fifty years, there wasn’t a lot of call for naval blockades where the submarine might be employed for effect. Furthermore, the wars fought over that span tended to be brief and limited in scope. That… and the need to mature (really mature) the technology. Hand cranked subs were not the stuff to scare a dreadnought.

    2. Yes, you’re right, and I had considered that. For events like the Spanish-American War, it would have been pretty much a logistical impossibility to have gotten submarines to Manilla Bay or Cuba. And in a conflict such as the Russo-Japanese War the use of subs might have been more likely had the Russians had more advanced technology.

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