Today in 2000, the H.L. Hunley was recovered from the bottom of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. She was the first submarine in history to sink a warship and although her trip was one way, she proved the value of small submersibles in an age dominated by ever-larger surface ships. Her story is one of Confederate desperation, determination and ingenuity during America's Civil War.
The Hunley was a privately-built sub and, thus, was never commissioned into the Confederate Navy. Her builders were experienced in submersible craft by 1863; they had built two other submarines before Hunley, both of which met with moderate success design-wise but were of no real use in combat. Legend has it that the Hunley was made from a old steam boiler, but this is not the case. She was purpose built from the stern up, with iron plates over a tapered frame. She was 40 feet long and required a crew of eight men: 7 to turn the giant crank which powered the sub and one man to navigate. She was launched in July, 1863 in Mobile, Alabama and was shipped by rail to Charleston, SC, the next month. Once there, she was seized by the Confederate Army, even though her builders remained involved in the project. Her only armament was a spar torpedo, essentially an explosive mounted on an iron pipe 22 feet long mounted on Hunley's bow. The explosive was designed to stick to the hull of an enemy vessel and be triggered either electrically or mechanically after the submarine was a safe distance away.
Confederate Navy Lieutenant John Payne, Hunley's skipper, and a volunteer crew of seven men was assembled to operate the submarine. On August 29, 1863, Hunley's new crew was preparing to make a test dive to learn the operation of the submarine when Lieutenant Payne accidentally stepped on the lever controlling the sub's diving planes while the crew were rowing and the boat was running. This caused the Hunley to dive with hatches still open, flooding and sinking the vessel. Payne and two other men escaped; the remaining five crewmen drowned. On October 15, 1863 the Hunley failed to surface during a mock attack, killing its inventor and seven other crewmen. In both cases, the Confederate Navy salvaged the vessel and returned it to service. One final crew volunteered for duty on the sub, commanded now by Lieutenant George E. Dixon.
Hunley made her first attack against a live target on the night of February 17, 1864. The vessel was the USS Housatonic. Housatonic, an 1800-ton, steam-powered sloop-of-war with 12 large cannon, stationed at the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina harbor, about 5 miles (8 km) out to sea. In an effort to break the naval blockade of the city, Lieutenant George E. Dixon and a crew of seven volunteers attacked Housatonic, successfully embedding the barbed spar torpedo into her hull. The torpedo was detonated as the submarine backed away, sending Housatonic and five of her crew to the bottom of Charleston harbor in five minutes, although many survived in 2 lifeboats or by climbing rigging until rescued. Hunley also sank, moments after signaling shore of the successful attack, possibly from damage caused by the torpedo blast, though this is not certain.
There is much controversy surrounding who actually discovered the wreck on the Hunley on the floor of Charleston harbor; we will not delve into that argument here. Suffice it to say that on August 8, 2000 at 8:37 a.m. the sub broke the surface for the first time in over 136 years, suspended from a crane and greeted by a cheering crowd on shore and in surrounding watercraft. Once safely on her transporting barge, Hunley was shipped back to Charleston. The removal operation concluded when the submarine was secured inside the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at the former Charleston Navy Yard, in a specially designed tank of freshwater to await conservation.
On 17 April 2004 the remains of the crew of the H. L. Hunley were interred in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery with full military honors. A crowd estimated at between 35,000 and 50,000, including 10,000 period military and civilian reenactors, were present for what some called the 'Last Confederate Funeral.'
The Hunley remains at the conservation center for further study and conservation. Continued study has led to unexpected discoveries, including the complexity of the sub's ballast and pumping systems, steering and diving apparatus, and final assembly.
Another surprise occurred in 2002, when a researcher examining the area close to Lieutenant Dixon found a misshapen $20 gold piece, minted in 1860, with the inscription "My life preserver," and a forensic anthropologist found a healed injury to Lt. Dixon's hip bone. The findings matched a legend, passed down in the family, that Dixon's sweetheart had given him the coin to protect him. Dixon had the coin with him at the Battle of Shiloh, where he was wounded on April 16, 1862. A bullet struck the coin in his pocket, saving his leg and possibly his life, after which he had it engraved, and carried it as a lucky charm.