When they closed the hatches on the Hunley that cold February night, the end of the Civil War was over a year away. It was not certain, by any means, which side was going to win. In February, 1864, General Sherman and his armies were still in Chattanooga and had not yet started their effort to take Atlanta. Ulysses S. Grant was still about a month away from being named new General in Chief of the Federal army.
In Charleston, the Federal army and navy were still trying to capture the city but were having little success. The blockading fleet was, however, slowly strangling the South. They were preventing more and more ships from entering and leaving Charleston and other southern ports.
The sole reason that the Hunley existed was to try to break that blockade. That cold night on February 17, 1864 the little submarine and its eight man crew had its chance. After closing the hatches, the crew had slowly cranked the little ship out of Breach Inlet towards the lights of the blockading fleet that could be seen off the Isle of Palms and Sullivans Island.
The early light of dawn the next morning gave drastic testimony to the success of the Hunley’s mission. The masts and part of the super structure of the blockading ship, USS Housatonic could be seen sticking up out of the water. The boat had been quickly sunk by the Hunley’s exploding spar torpedo at its patrol station about three miles offshore from the Isle of Palms.
Five Federal sailors had met a violent death when the ship sank. Many of the survivors had climbed up into the ships rigging until they could be rescued.
The eight men of the Hunley were also victims of their own attack. The death toll on both ships was thirteen men. These were men who believed that they were serving their country and protecting their freedom. They all paid the supreme price for their part in history.
There were thirteen families that would not have a son or husband or brother or father return from the War. All of the northern families would eventually learn of about the death of their relative. This would be through contact with the War Department, newspapers or letters from fellow sailors who served with those that were killed. However, many of the Hunley crew member’s families probably never knew what happened. They only knew that at the end of the terrible War, their relatives just never came home.
The Charleston and the United States that the Hunley crew left in 1864 is unbelievably different than that of today. They had not seen automobiles, telephones, airplanes or almost everything we now take for granted. In the 136 years they have been gone the world changed probably beyond their wildest dreams.
The crew never knew it, but their little submarine had changed naval warfare forever. The descendants of the little sub would play a major role in World Wars I and II and help win the Cold War. The blockading fleet that the Hunley attacked was supported by a Federal navy base at Port Royal near Beaufort. After the War, the US moved this and built a big shipyard at Charleston itself. For 90 years, ships going to and from the Charleston Naval Shipyard passed close by where the Hunley lay on the shallow ocean bottom. There were many kinds of surface ships and bigger and bigger submarines. Some of the submarines were powered by nuclear reactors, a far cry from being hand cranked. Some carried sixteen missiles, each almost as big as the entire Hunley submarine. The Charleston Naval Shipyard eventually struck its own political torpedo and was closed in 1996 shortly after the Hunley was found.
Now the Hunley had come home. She had passed by Morris Island the site of the bloody attack on Fort Wagner. She had passed by Fort Sumter where the terrible War had started; and Fort Moultrie whose big guns had helped keep the Federal troops out of the City for almost four years. She had passed on close to the areas where two of her former crews had met tragic deaths. She had passed close to the docks she had originally used when first unloaded from the two railway cars that had brought her from Mobile, Alabama.
She had gone slowly by the USS Yorktown, a bigger ship than any Hunley crewman could ever have imagined. On decks, high above the Cooper River, nine ladies were waiting. Each was dressed in the fashion of women in mourning in the Civil War era. Each was representing a family of a Hunley crewman. As the submarine went slowly by, each lady dropped a wreath in the water in memory and honor of her adopted sailor. What the families were unable to do 136 years ago, the women, dressed in black, did on August 8th.
On up the Cooper River she had come. Slowly passing Magnolia Cemetery, the final resting place of the other two crews that had also been drowned during the War. At some time in the future, there will be a sad reunion when this final Hunley crew is buried alongside the crews now resting in Magnolia.
Finally, she had come into the former Charleston Naval Shipyard. There, the remains of her crew will be removed and the little sub preserved to tell its story for the future. Generations not yet born will learn about the submarine and its brave crews. They will learn of the bravery and sacrifice of those sailors on both sides, Blue and Grey, Confederates and Federals, Americans all.
The effort to raise, restore and display the vessel will cost an estimated $20 million, according to officials.
Click on this for an eyewitness account and photos of the recovery.
Click for Description of Differences Between the Recovered Submarine and What Was Previously Thought.
You may be interested in helping the "The Friends of the Hunley" Foundation in its efforts to raise enough money to recover and preserve the submarine. You can send any contributions to:
Friends of the Hunley
Fund To Save The Hunley
P.O. Box 12444
To Books Available on the Hunley
Columbia, SC 29111.
Return to the home page of the Hunley and Charleston's Civil War History.