H.L. Hunley—the First Submarine to Successfully Sink a Ship During War

Updated on December 9, 2016
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ReadMikeNow is a freelance writer who loves to travel. He likes to find unique stories about interesting places.

Model of H.L. Hunley at Charleston Museum
Model of H.L. Hunley at Charleston Museum

During the Civil War, the Confederate States of America built a submarine called the H. L Hunley. It has the distinction of being the first submarine used in combat to sink a warship. The submarine was named after its inventor Horace Lawson Hunley. The Confederacy made two previous attempts at building submarines to sink warships. The H.L. Hunley was their only success.

Model of Pioneer submarine
Model of Pioneer submarine

The Pioneer

This was the Confederacy's first attempt at building a submarine. It was constructed in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Pioneer was tested in the Mississippi River during February of 1862. It performed well and was towed to Lake Pontchartrain to experience some additional trials. At this time, the Union Army was advancing toward New Orleans. This resulted in men on the project abandoning it. The next month, the development of the Pioneer was dropped.

Plans for American Diver Submarine
Plans for American Diver Submarine

American Diver

The second Confederate Submarine was constructed in Alabama. Experiments were conducted with steam as well as electromagnetic forms of propulsion. These didn't work well, and a simple hand-cranked propulsion system was put in place. During January of 1863, the submarine was ready to be tested. During the testing, it moved much too slow for any practical use in warfare. The American Diver submarine was used during February of 1863 for an attack on the Union blockade. It was unsuccessful. During a storm in the later part of that month, the American diver sunk and was not able to be recovered.

Blueprint of H.L. Hunley
Blueprint of H.L. Hunley

H.L. Hunley

Soon after the American Diver submarine was lost, the designing and building of the Hunley started. There are myths that the Hunley was constructed from a cast-off steam boiler. This isn't true. It was designed and built for the specific purpose being a warfare submarine. It was designed to be operated by a crew of eight. One person would direct and steer it. The other seven would turn a propeller that was cranked by hand. At each end of the Hunley were ballast tanks. These tanks were able to be flooded by certain valves, and the water could be pumped out using hand pumps. The submarine had extra ballast with iron weights bolted on the underside of its hull. If the Hunley experienced any type of an emergency and needed to quickly rise to the top of the water, the iron weights were designed to be quickly removed. The heads of the iron weights could be unscrewed from inside the submarine. The submarine had two watertight hatches located at the front and back. They were two small conning towers designed with small portholes. The hatches were approximately 17 inches wide and 22 inches long. This made getting in and out of the submarine a challenge. The height of the Hunley's hull was 4 feet and 3 inches.

Model of H.L. Hunley
Model of H.L. Hunley


During July of 1863, the designers of the H.L. Hunley felt their submarine was ready for a demonstration. Under the supervision of Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan, the H.L. Hunley was in Mobile Bay in Alabama. It was able to successfully attack a coal flatboat. It was then placed on a train and sent to Charleston, South Carolina. It arrived there during August of 1863.

Model of H.L. Hunley with torpedo
Model of H.L. Hunley with torpedo

Attack Plans

The H.L. Hunley was initially going to attack ships by towing a floating explosive charge with a contact fuse at the end of a rope. The idea for the submarine to approach an enemy vessel while on the surface. It would then submerge, go under the vessel and then surface on the other side once past the enemy ship. The floating explosive charge would be drawn against the enemy vessel and detonated. This idea was eventually dropped. It was believed the danger of the tow line getting mixed up with the submarine's propeller was too great. The next idea was to have a copper cylinder containing 90 pounds black powder known as a spar torpedo attached to a wooden spar approximately 22 feet long. This would be used when the submarine was over six feet below the surface. The spar torpedo would be inserted it into the enemy vessel by ramming it. It had a mechanical trigger with a cord going to the Hunley. This was designed for when the submarine moved away from the enemy vessel; it could ignite the torpedo. An iron pipe was attached to the front of the submarine so the spar torpedo could be used under water.

One And Only Attack Mission

The H.L. Hunley was able to make it's one and only successful attack mission on February 17, 1864. The enemy vessel attacked was the Union ship USS Housatonic. It was a steam powered sloop-of-war. The ship was over 1,200 feet long and was equipped with 12 large cannons. It was located approximately 5 miles offshore at the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina. The H.L. Hunley contained Confederate Lieutenant George E. Dixon and a crew of seven for the attack. The crew of the H.L. Hunley was able to embed the spar torpedo into the ship's hull. As the submarine backed away, the torpedo was detonated. The USS Housatonic sunk within a few minutes.

Never Returned

After the successful attack on the USS Housatonic, the H.L. Hunley never returned to its base. According to archaeological evidence, the submarine could have lasted as long as an hour after the attack. The mission's commander reported he'd received signals from the H.L. Hunley that it was on its way back to the base. According to a postwar correspondent, two blue lights were used as the prearranged signal from the H.L. Hunley. Reports from the USS Housatonic listed a lookout as seeing blue lights on the water after his ship was attacked. After giving its signal, the submarine was to go underwater and then return to Sullivan's Island. What actually happened to the H.L. Hunley is not known. The archaeological team that found the remains of the Hunley believe it's possible it was accidentally rammed by the USS Canandaigua. This was a Union warship on its way to rescue the crew of the USS Housatonic

H.L. Hunley recoverd
H.L. Hunley recoverd
Inside H.L. Hunley
Inside H.L. Hunley


The remains of the H.L. Hunley were located in 1995 by a group headed by author Clive Cussler. It was located in several feet deep of silt. This was able to protect it from strong currents that could have caused it to experience the corrosive effects of saltwater. This environment was mostly free of oxygen. The skeletal remains of the H.L. Hunley and the artifacts contained within it were in impressive condition. Five years later, it was brought to the surface and placed at Lasch laboratory. It is now considered the property of the U.S. Navy and is on display for public viewing. Approximately 40,000 people visit the Lasch Conservation Center each year to see the remains of the H.L. Hunley as well as view exhibits, recreations and more.

Contact Information




Warren Lasch Conservation Center
1250 Supply Street

North Charleston, South Carolina 29405


843-743-4865 ext. 10




Saturday from 10 am - 5 pm

Sunday Noon - 5 pm

The last tour always begins at 4:40 pm

Location to visit H.L. Hunley

Questions & Answers


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      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


        20 months ago

        Thanks for sharing that information.

      • tsadjatko profile image

        20 months ago from now on

        Mike, nice article, I remember reading tgere was a sub called Hunley in Jr high school but I’ve heard nothing since.

        If you google “the hunley visit records” the first link says

        Hunley Submarine:

        Charleston SC #1 tourist attraction - so they must be doing very well.

      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


        20 months ago

        Sorry, I don't have an answer for that question.

      • profile image

        Jonathan Steadman 

        20 months ago

        I was wondering why more people don't visit the Hunley? Is it location or other reasons? Thanks

      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


        3 years ago

        Salauddin thanks for stopping by...I agree with you.

      • profile image

        salauddin parvez 

        3 years ago

        submarines are very cool.

      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR


        3 years ago

        Larry, thanks. I can't imagine having the courage and determination to attempt what they did with early submarines.

      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 

        3 years ago from Oklahoma

        These early submarines are really cool.

        Great article!


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