Civil War historian Chaffin (Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah, 2006, etc.) plumbs the depths surrounding the creation and ultimate fate of the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship.
After sending the USS Housatonic to the bottom of Charleston (S.C.) Harbor, the Confederacy’s H.L. Hunley disappeared on the night of February 17, 1864. Its wreckage was not recovered until 2000, and questions about how and why it sank remain unanswered. To clear up at least some of the enigmas surrounding this ahead-of-its-time vessel (a submarine would not sink a ship again for 50 years), the author has consulted local history sources and interviewed the senior archaeologist at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, where the sub’s excavation is ongoing. Its dimensions and appearance are now known, but at the time of its construction everything about the Hunley was supposed to be secret. Facing a stifling naval blockade in 1862, the Confederacy took the unprecedented step of establishing a torpedo bureau within the army and a navy submarine battery service. Longstanding moral objections to “infernal machines” that could strike without warning, coupled with the need for wartime secrecy, ensured that tests of the Hunley went largely unreported; Chaffin found little contemporary press coverage and few firsthand accounts. Nonetheless, he managed to trace the furtive movements and contributions of the trio behind the vessel: engineer James McClintock, whom the author credits with most of the design; his partner Baxter Watson; and New Orleans attorney Horace L. Hunley, who sank with it on a trial run as captain in October 1863. Even its more successful 1864 outing was a Pyrrhic victory; more men died on the Hunley than on the Housatonic. Avoiding uninformed speculation, Chaffin crafts an exciting narrative of an important innovation in military technology and the political considerations that shaped its development.
Insightful and intriguing, meriting a place toward the front of the squadron of Civil War, naval and aquatic archeology titles.