Civil War Submarines

Submarines played an important role during the Civil War.  It may be hard to imagine that submarines were already developed in the 1860’s; however, they actually were first created in the 1600’s.  In the North, submarines were mainly used as a tool for clearing coastal harbors from obstructions, rather than a combat machine.  In the South, submarines were created as a means to attack Union blockades.  Both forces, during the Civil War, used submarines for military purposes.

One of the most famous submarine creators in the South was from Mobile, Alabama.  His name was Horace Hunley.  In 2000, one of his most famous submarines, The H.L. Hunley, which had been located off the South Carolina shores, was raised from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.  Currently, the H.L. Hunley submarine is on display for all to visit at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, which is located in North Charleston, SC.

There are some interesting facts about the H.L. Hunley submarine.  One thing that is interesting is that the Hunley sank three times before it was finally lost.  In August of 1863, it sank during its’ initial test run.  All five crew members perished.  The Hunley was raised so that it could be reused.  In October 1863, the submarine sank again, killing eight people on board, including the creator, Horace Hunley himself.  He was not part of the Confederate military, as were other folks on board that dreadful, autumn day.  The last time the Hunley sank was on February 17, 1864 after the submarine successfully attacked and sank the USS Housatonic, which was a Union blockade vessel.  Inside the Hunley, which also sank during the attack, were eight crew members.  The H.L. Hunley was not seen again until 1970, when E. Lee Spence, an underwater archaeologist, located the H.L. Hunley.

The Union military also had several submarines.  Perhaps the most famous one was the USS Alligator.  This vessel received its name because it was green in color.  One very interesting fact about the USS Alligator is that it was the first submarine that had an airlock, which allowed a person to leave or arrive on the submarine while it was submerged underwater.  This convenience allowed Union divers the ability to leave the submarine and swim to a target where they could place an explosive, then return to the submarine before they detonated it. 

In the Spring of 1863, the USS Alligator was being towed by a steamship named the Sumpter where it would be used to help fight the battles around the Charleston, SC area.  As the steamship and the submarine ran into stormy, aggravated seas, the Sumpter had to cut the line that was attached to the USS Alligator, and the Alligator was lost forever.  It has still not been located, but is suspected to be somewhere around the Cape Hatteras, North Carolina area.

Although submarines were useful during the Civil War, the technology that was available during that time period proved to be insufficient at times.  Submarines still needed many improvements in order to be a reliable and stable means of transportation and defense for military personnel.  Lessons that both Confederate and Union armies learned during the Civil War would help lead to advancements for submarines in later years.