The American Civil War was a time of great advances in warfare and technology — sometimes both at the same time. Most people know that the first “ironclads,” the Union’s Monitor and the Confederacy’s Merrimac, appeared during the Civil War, fought to a draw, and foretold the end of the era of wooden warships. Fewer are aware that the War also witnessed the first successful combat submarine — the H.L. Hunley. Now the Hunley can be seen, in full, for the first time in 150 years.
The Hunley was supposed to be one of the Confederacy’s secret weapons, and a way to break the strangling blockade Union warships placed around Confederate ports. It was a 42-foot-long, cast iron cylinder that was powered by a hand-cranked propeller. Built in Mobile, Alabama in 1863, it was transported to Charleston, South Carolina, where it was supposed to move underwater and attach explosive torpedos to the hulls of Union ships.
The submarine turned out to be a death trap. It sank twice in sea trials, killing 13 sailors, but was raised by the Confederacy both times. In 1864, the Hunley and a new 8-member crew left port, traveled four miles out to sea, and successfully attached a torpedo to the Union ship Housatonic, which burned and sank. The Hunley never made it back to port, however, and sank with all hands.
In 2000 the Hunley was raised from the briny deep and deposited in a fresh water tank to leach salt from its iron hull. Since then, scientists have worked on the sub. Inside they found, and then carefully removed, 10 tons of sediment, the remains of the Hunley‘s last crew, and the crew’s belongings, including a gold coin kept by the captain as a good luck piece. Now tourists will be able to see the ship in full, kept in a water tank to prevent rusting.
Although the humble Hunley had a short career, it pointed the way to the modern, nuclear-powered underwater behemoths that prowl the ocean seaways.