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Secret Weapon of the Confederacy
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The Hunley

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By Glenn OelandPhotographs by Ira Block

In 1864 eight sailors slipped out of Charleston Harbor in an ingenious submarine, sank a Union ship, and disappeared—until now.

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It was a hungry time in Charleston, South Carolina, those early months of 1864. Bombarded by land and blockaded by sea, the city that cheered the opening shots of the American Civil War remained proudly defiant, but its Rebel defenders were looking mighty pinched. Salt pork, corn, boots, blankets, lead for musket balls, and most everything else the army needed was in critically short supply. The Union Navy's chokehold on the city's harbor would have to be broken soon, and the best hope for doing that lay with a strange and secret new weapon—a "diving torpedo-boat" christened the H. L. Hunley.

Shortly after sunset on the night of February 17, at a dock on nearby Sullivans Island, eight audacious Confederates squeezed inside the claustrophobic iron vessel and set out on a quixotic mission. Affixed to the boat's bow was a spar tipped with a deadly charge of black powder. At the helm was Lt. George Dixon, a bold-hearted, battle-scarred army officer. Behind him, wedged shoulder to shoulder on a wooden bench, sat seven crewmen whose muscles powered the sub's hand-cranked propeller. As the crew began turning the heavy iron crankshaft, Dixon consulted a compass and set course for a daunting target—the steam sloop U.S.S. Housatonic, stationed four miles (six kilometers) offshore. The Rebels' plan was to run about six feet (two meters) below the surface until they neared the blockader. But in order for Dixon to take final aim, he would have to resurface just enough to peer through the sub's tiny forward viewport.

At 8:45 p.m. John Crosby, acting master aboard the Housatonic, spotted something off the starboard beam that looked at first like a "porpoise, coming to the surface to blow." There had been warnings of a possible attack by a Confederate "infernal machine," and Crosby was swift to sound the alarm. Sailors rushed to quarters and let loose a barrage of small arms fire at the alien object barely breaking the surface, but the attacker was unstoppable.

Two minutes later the Hunley rammed her spar into the Housatonic's starboard side, well below the waterline. As the sub backed away, a trigger cord detonated the torpedo, blowing off the entire aft quarter of the ship. It was an epic moment.

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Get the latest from the Hunley forensic team.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
"Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" When Union Rear Adm. David Farragut gave one of history's most famous military orders, he was talking about the kind of torpedo that the Hunley used to sink the U.S.S. Housatonic. Not torpedoes as we now think of them—sleek underwater missiles—but rather mines of black powder.

While the Hunley was attempting to break the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor in February 1864, the Confederacy was still shipping and receiving vital supplies through the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay, Alabama. To capture the forts that guarded the bay, Farragut's fleet of 18 ships closed in on August 5, 1864.

The Confederates had mined the bay's narrow channel with torpedoes that floated just below the surface. The lead Union ship, an ironclad monitor, struck one and instantly sank. The lead wooden ship, a steam sloop, halted, throwing the column of warships into confusion. Farragut ordered his flagship, the Hartford, to steam to the head of the fleet—the torpedoes, and the consequences, be damned.

Within three hours the Union Navy held Mobile Bay, and the Confederacy's last hold on he Gulf of Mexico was broken.

—Jane Vessels

Did You Know?

Related Links
Ira Block Photography
Learn more about National Geographic photographer Ira Block and browse through his online photo library.

Friends of the Hunley
The Hunley's official site offers information on the history, recovery, and conservation of the sub as well as updates on the excavation. Register for tours through this site.

Naval Historical Center
This authoritative site also links to extensive background information on the sub and recovery, including legal agreements.

Virtual Reconstruction
Here you will find realistic reconstructions of the Hunley, inside and out. Accompanying text explains what is known and what is speculation.

Charleston Post and Courier
This is an archive of news stories from the recovery period to date. Includes graphics.


Burton, Milby E. The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865. University of South Carolina Press, 1970.

Flanagan, Joseph. "Raising the Hunley." Common Ground (Summer/Fall 2001), 13-23.

Friends of the Hunley. The Blue Light (various volumes).

Murphy, Larry E., ed. H. L. Hunley Site Assessment. National Park Service, Naval Historical Center, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1998.

Ragan, Mark K. The Hunley: Submarines, Sacrifices, & Success in the Civil War, revised edition. Narwahl Press Inc., 1999.


NGS Resources
Ballard, Robert D., and Malcolm McConnell. Adventures in Ocean Exploration: From the Discovery of the Titanic to the Search for Noah's Flood. National Geographic Books, 2001.

Vesilind, Priit J. "The Last Dive," National Geographic (October 1999), 114-135.

Bankson, Ross. "Sub Story," National Geographic World (July 1992), 8-11.

Sagalevitch, Anatoly. "Allies in the Deep," National Geographic ( February 1991), 38-47.

Keach, Donald L. "Down to [Thresher] by Bathyscaph," National Geographic (June 1964), 764-777.

Wakelin, James H., Jr. "Lesson and Challenge," National Geographic (June 1964), 759-763.


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