American Civil War: H.L. Hunley Sinks USS Housatonic

H.L. Hunley. US Naval History & Heritage Command

H.L. Hunley Sinks USS Housatonic - Conflict:

The engagement between H.L. Hunley and USS Housatonic was part of the American Civil War.

H.L. Hunley Sinks USS Housatonic - Date:

USS Housatonic was sunk on February 17, 1864.

Ships & Commanders:


  • Captain Charles Pickering
  • USS Housatonic
  • 1 x 100-pdr Parrott rifle, 3 x 30-pdr. Parrott rifles, 1 x XI-inch Dahlgren, 2 x 32-pdrs, 2 x 24-pdr howitzers, 1 x 12-pdr howitzer, 1 x 12-pdr rifle
  • 160 men


  • Lieutenant George Dixon
  • H.L. Hunley
  • 1 x spar torpedo
  • 8 men

H.L. Hunley Sinks USS Housatonic - Battle Summary:

Throughout the Civil War, the Confederacy was blockaded by the ship of the Union Navy. In an attempt to break the blockade, the Confederates experimented with a variety of new technology, including the use of crude submarines. Originally based at New Orleans, the partnership of Horace Lawson Hunley, James McClintock, and Baxter Watson began work on a submarine in 1861. Dubbed Pioneer, they were forced to abandon the project after the city fell to Union forces in April 1862. Moving to Mobile, they constructed American Diver. While initial tests were promising, the boat proved too slow to be practical.

Following the failure of American Diver, Hunley's partners began to waver. Pressing on, he oversaw the development of H.L. Hunley. A long narrow boat, Hunley was powered by a hand-cranked propeller and had ballast tanks at the bow and stern which were operated with hand pumps.

The boat was manned by a crew of eight, with seven working the propeller crank and one steering. Access to the interior was through two water tight hatches on the submarine's small conning towers. For armament, Hunley was equipped with a long spar torpedo (a long spear with an explosive charge).

In July 1863, Hunley demonstrated his new submarine for Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan.

In the test, Hunley successfully approached a coal barge, planted its torpedo, and withdrew before detonating the charge. Pleased with what he saw, Buchanan ordered that Hunley be taken to Charleston, SC for further testing and possible use against the Union blockade. Arriving at its new base, the submarine was soon claimed by the Confederate Army, though Hunley was retained for his technical knowledge. Testing continued in August, with Confederate Navy Lieutenant John A. Payne in command.

After initial positive results, Hunley was lost on August 29, after Payne accidentally stepped on the lever controlling the submarine dive planes while the boat was on the surface. This caused the boat to dive with the hatches open. While Payne and two others escaped, the remainder of the crew was killed. After the accident, Hunley was raised and repaired. A second volunteer crew was assembled and training recommenced. On October 15, 1863, Hunley sank again, this time with its inventor at the controls, killing its entire crew. The submarine was found nose down in the harbor floor by Confederate divers.

Raised again, Confederate authorities were reluctant to allow the continued use of the submarine.

Approached by army Lieutenant George Dixon, they relented and a third crew was found. Led by Dixon, they trained with the boat in late 1863, preparing for an attack on the Union blockade. After developing their skills it was decided to attempt an attack on the Union screw sloop USS Housatonic on the night of February 17, 1864. Departing their base in the harbor, Dixon guided Hunley towards the Union ship. Diving, Hunley stealthily approached through the cold waters.

Aboard Housatonic lookouts spotted something in the water, though by the time they determined that it was not a log or debris, Hunley was too close to engage with the ship's guns. As the Union sailors raised the alarm and fired muskets at the submarine, Dixon successfully attached Hunley's torpedo and began to back away. Retreating a safe distance, he detonated the torpedo's charge blowing a large hole in Housatonic's side.

As the Union ship sank, Dixon and his men began the voyage home. According to reports, the submarine signaled its base around 9:00 PM, but it failed to arrive and was believed lost at sea.

Aftermath of H.L. Hunley Sinks USS Housatonic:

The attack on Housatonic was the first time in history that a submerged submarine had successfully sunk another ship. Aboard the Union vessel, two officers and three men were killed while the crew took to the boats or climbed into the rigging to await rescue. Researchers are still unsure what led to the sinking of Hunley though it is theorized that the concussion of the torpedo explosion may have loosened the submarine's hull plating causing the boat to leak. The submarine was located on May 3, 1995, by Ralph Wilbanks, Wes Hall, and Harry Pecorelli as part of an expedition led by noted author Clive Cussler. On August 8, 2000, the wreck was raised and transported back to Charleston for archaeological study and conservation. Credit for the discovery of the wreck is disputed as E. Lee Spence claims to have located it in 1970.


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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: H.L. Hunley Sinks USS Housatonic." ThoughtCo, Mar. 16, 2016, Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, March 16). American Civil War: H.L. Hunley Sinks USS Housatonic. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: H.L. Hunley Sinks USS Housatonic." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 18, 2017).