150 years ago the H.L. Hunley made history - WCBD-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Charleston, SC

150 years ago the H.L. Hunley made history

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Drawing of the Hunley on a pier. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph Drawing of the Hunley on a pier. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph
The Hunley as she looks today. IMAGE Friends of the Hunley The Hunley as she looks today. IMAGE Friends of the Hunley
The USS Housatonic, the first ship sunk by a submarine. The USS Housatonic, the first ship sunk by a submarine.
(WCBD) He shivered as he felt the bone-chilling air come across his face.

A lookout aboard the USS Housatonic, the Union's largest ship, was at his post overlooking the waters of South Carolina. He once heard about a secret weapon the Confederate Army had, but it was never at the front of his mind.

It was February 17, 1864, the Union was still blockading the Charleston port. Ready to stick a blow to the Union Navy, Lieutenant George E. Dixon and seven volunteers from the Confederate Army boarded the H. L. Hunley, an underwater weapon that was built to sinks ships. They closed the submarine, only having candle light to see from, and set off for the their mission: Sink the USS Housatonic.

The lookout had his coat held tight when saw a disturbance in the water. It must have been a porpoise, something he saw a daily bases. But as he watched it, he noticed it was different.

The crew inside the H. L. Hunley cranked the shaft, spinning the propeller. If they hit the ship, they would then reverse and use the detonation rope to

explode the torpedo that would lodged in the ships hull.

The alarm was sounded. Crews aboard the USS Housatonic rushed to their posts. Something was coming toward their ship and whatever it was could not be targeted by their cannons. It was too low in the water; they had to resort to small arms. Shots rang out but the bullets hit metal. The object kept its pace, heading straight for the ships hull.

Inside the Hunley, the crew of seven lurched forward as their 135 pound torpedo lodged into its target. They started their reverse, just as their mission required. 150 feet of detonation rope was spinning off its reel. It hit the end and a concussion racked the sub; the torpedo had detonated.

An explosion shot into the USS Housatonic's hull causing a fire to start. The crew aboard tried to put it out but after three minutes, the ship sank, killing five of its members.

The mission was a success. The confederate submarine had successfully sunk the Union's largest ship. The sub surfaced and launched a blue flare, the signal for a successful mission. She then went below the surface and was thought to be lost forever. It wasn't until 135 years later the Hunley would see the light of day again.

The discovery of the H.L. Hunley is not without controversy. Two men have claimed the discovery; Dr. Edward Lee Spence and author Clive Cussler.

Clive Cussler's claim is that his organization NUMA was searching the area and found the submarine in 1995 while Dr. Spences' claim is from 1970. Dr Spence said he was diving from a commercial fishing vessel and found the Hunley while looking to see what a fishing trap had been caught on.

In 1978, a National Register for Historic Places was approved to include H.L. Hunley's site. It was based of the mapped location by Dr. Spence and the Sea Research Society, whom he is president of. In 1980, Dr. Spence had an admiralty suit on the wreck site, which means that Dr. Spence was the owner of the site and the H.L. Hunley.  In the end, he donated the Hunley to the State of South Carolina per the request of the state's Attorney General.

Today, the Hunley rests at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in the former Charleston Navy Yard. It is there that researchers and scientists continue their investigation into the Hunley and her story.


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