Charleston at War: Hunley creates history ... and a mystery
Provided by the Gibbes Museum of Art and the Museum of the Confederacy
Conrad Wise Chapmanís famous painting of the H.L. Hunley depicts the submarine undergoing repairs in early December of 1863.
A military escort led the casket deep into Magnolia Cemetery, where a sizable crowd of onlookers waited quietly at the grave.
It was Sunday, Nov. 8, 1863, and the occasion was becoming all too common in Charleston.
The deceased was Horace Lawson Hunley, who had been fished out of his boat the day before. It had taken divers three weeks to find and raise the submarine from the harbor floor, where it sank on Oct. 15.
When the boat was finally opened with P.G.T. Beauregard watching, the general was so disturbed by the blackened face of its namesake that he ordered a military funeral, even though Hunley was decidedly civilian.
The Charleston Mercury, which had not reported the details of Hunley's death, nonetheless carried the story of his funeral prominently under the headline "Last Honors To A Devoted Patriot."
"Possessed of an ample fortune, in the prime of his manhood -- for he was only thirty-six at the time of his death -- with everything before him to make life attractive, he came to Charleston, and voluntarily joined in a patriotic enterprise which promised success, but which was attended with great peril," Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., the paper's editor, wrote.
"Though feeling, as appears from the last letter which he wrote to his friends, a presentiment that he would perish in the adventure, he gave his whole heart, undeterred by the foreboding, to the undertaking, declaring that he would gladly sacrifice his life in the cause. That presentiment has been mournfully fulfilled."
Rhett could be forgiven his melancholy, for it accurately reflected the mood of Charleston in the fall of 1863.
Union troops on Morris Island and Cummings Point had become viciously efficient and relentless in their attack, shelling Sumter almost daily, which reduced the fort to further ruin. Before long, the Yankees expanded their range to Fort Moultrie, firing "with considerable severity" on Nov. 13 and 14.
The Mercury could do little but report the number of shells that fell each day and tally the Confederates killed in the bombardments. By Thanksgiving, Rhett had rallied enough to try to strike an upbeat tone in his holiday message to the city.
"While our great Cause has not prospered as we had hoped and desired, still it is strong and full of life." Although the city had again become a target of shelling, Rhett sarcastically noted that "It will please the Yankees to know that no one was hurt."
In fact, the city was dying. The lower peninsula was nearly deserted, save for Southern soldiers, and businesses in town were finally falling victim to nearly three years of war. At the end of the month, the Charleston Hotel announced it was closing. The Mercury tried to blame the death of the hotel's proprietor but was forced to report that the Mills House was considering similar action.
Every day more bad news arrived, accompanied by the sound of cannon fire. The remaining residents of Charleston had to wonder how long the city could hold out.
On Sunday, Dec. 6, troops at Fort Sumter watched the New Ironsides lower its boats in a blowing gale. They made their way toward Morris Island, quickly disappearing in the haze. The Confederates feared the worst, but there was no firing from the island all day.
More than a week would pass before they understood the purpose of the maneuver.
It had all happened suddenly. That afternoon, the ironclad Weehawken sent up its distress flag. The ship, which had been shelled heavily two months before when it ran aground off Morris Island, was in trouble again. In the rough weather, the Weehawken was foundering.
The ship was taking on water, and its bilge pumps, filled with debris, could not work fast enough to stop the rushing seawater. The crew tried to beach the boat, but it was sluggish and unresponsive. Just minutes after the crew discovered the trouble, the Passaic-class monitor's bow dipped beneath the waves, and its stern lifted into the air. It was going down.
Some of the Weehawken's crew managed to get out in time and were rescued by the New Ironsides boats. But at least 30 men rode the gunboat to the bottom. When the Confederates finally learned what had happened, they took little satisfaction from it. They had tried to sink the Weehawken for more than a year, but it seemed the weather was more formidable than Sumter's guns.
Before Charleston learned of the ironclad's fate, Sumter would suffer an equally bizarre accident.
The morning of Dec. 11 began peacefully. Both the Yankees and the weather had given Sumter a respite, and many of the fort's soldiers were lined up at the commissary to get their rations -- a rare, and much-needed, break in the action.
The explosion came out of nowhere: a loud report followed by an instant, and intense, fire. The blaze was so massive it was seen by some people on The Battery.
A small arms magazine next to the commissary had blown up, instantly killing the commissary officer, his men and the first several soldiers in line. The concussion of the blast knocked several others to the ground.
No one would ever know what caused the explosion, but the magazine kept burning and there seemed little way to extinguish the blaze. Lookouts on the blockade ships spotted the smoke belching from the fort, and the Navy took advantage of the situation, shelling Sumter mercilessly through the confusion.
Eventually, several soldiers were able to block all passageways to the magazine, suffocating the fire. But the damage had been done: at least 10 men were dead, another 80 injured. The next morning, The Mercury listed Capt. Frost, Sgt. Swanson and three members of Capt. Gaillard's company among the dead.
"The strength of the fort is by no means impaired by the accident," the paper reported. "The resistive power is still as strong as usual, and the confidence of the garrison remains unshaken."
It was a sly bit of propaganda, aimed directly at the blockading fleet's officers, who often managed to get copies of the paper. In fact, much of the fort was out of commission as a result of the blast. If the Union had launched a major assault in the day after the explosion, the Confederates at Sumter knew they would be finished.
A historic first
At 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, the Union forces opened fire on Charleston -- a shelling, The Mercury reported, that was "more severe than on any other occasion."
Five guns -- three at Battery Gregg, one at Cummings Point and another at Mortar Battery -- fired so relentlessly that sometimes three shells struck the city simultaneously. In less than 12 hours, the Yankee guns hurled 134 shells at the city, leading to at least two casualties.
"Several houses were struck," the paper reported, "but most buried themselves harmlessly in the earth."
The bombardment continued intermittently until New Year's Eve when, just after sunset, the Union fired two shots at Sumter. When the fort returned fire, the Northern troops "dipped their flag in respect."
There were few niceties between the two sides, however. As the darkest days of the war set in, The Mercury for the first time began to broach the possibility of the South losing the war.
It was a future, Rhett noted, of "subjugation."
"Try to imagine the scenes which would take place all over this country on the first day of acknowledged subjugation -- that is, the day which should witness a treaty for reconstruction upon any terms whatsoever. From that moment, the right name of this war would be rebellion; and, what is more to the purpose, as rebels its ringleaders would be punished and its soldiers disarmed. Our Confederate flag, that has blazed in front of twenty pitched battles, would be formally lowered, officially torn, trampled, and abolished forever, while the accursed Stars and Stripes would be proudly hoisted in its place, upon every fort and in every camp, with cannon thunders and Yankee cheers."
It was a future of shame, the paper opined, one that Charleston was coming to terms with quickly.
Beauregard could have scarcely felt better about the Confederacy's prospects. His forts were battered, his men exhausted and outnumbered, and still the shelling continued. Perhaps that is why he eventually agreed to let Lt. George E. Dixon, recently arrived from Mobile, to give the fish-boat one more chance.
After the sub sank for a second time, the general had declared it more dangerous to his men than the enemy and refused to let it be used again. But when Jefferson Davis visited Charleston, Beauregard -- desperate to deliver any good news to the president -- let it slip that he had other methods of defending the harbor.
So he allowed Dixon, a veteran of Shiloh, to re-fit the sub alongside an engineer from Mobile named William Alexander. They raised a crew from the Indian Chief -- a Confederate receiving ship anchored in Charleston Harbor -- and fit the boat with a spar from a David. The men trained through the winter, stopping once to allow a visiting artist named Conrad Wise Chapman to sketch the Hunley.
Dixon's crew operated the sub carefully and well. Through January of 1864, they tested the boat in the waters behind Sullivan's Island. By the end of the month, they were ready to attack the blockade -- if only the weather would cooperate.
Dixon had been in Mobile, recovering from Shiloh, while the Hunley was under construction. He had faith in the machine, and in Alexander, but felt as if he were about to buckle under the pressure from the Confederate military.
"There is one thing very evident and that is to catch the Atlantic Ocean smooth during the winter months is considerable of an undertaking, and one that I never want to undertake again," Dixon wrote to a friend in late January. "Especially when all parties interested are sitting at home and wondering and criticizing all of my actions and saying why don't he do something."
It would be more than two weeks before the weather calmed enough to give Dixon his chance. By that time, Alexander had been called back to Mobile and Dixon had to find a last-minute replacement on the crew. Finally, around 6:30 p.m. on the evening of Feb. 17, 1864, the fish-boat left the dock at Sullivan's Island and headed out to sea.
The boat ran on manpower -- seven of the eight men inside the cramped quarters turned a crank that propelled the sub's screw. It was never a fast craft. Running with the tide, which it was that night, the submarine could not quite reach 5 mph.
After little more than two hours, the Hunley was several miles off the coast and had its prey in sight. Dixon steered the Hunley toward the USS Housatonic, a relatively recent addition to the fleet. The ship was on the north end of the blockade, set off by itself.
Dixon had promised Beauregard the Hunley would not attempt to submerge, even though his crew had trained for it. So the fish-boat slipped across the surface, barely visible in the pale moonlight. As it closed on the ship, a Housatonic sailor on bow watch spotted the Hunley (the U.S. Navy had heard rumors of the fish-boat and had warned all crews to look out for it).
Luckily for Dixon, the officer of the deck chose not to listen to the warnings of the man on bow watch, a free black soldier named Robert F. Flemming.
By the time other sailors on the Housatonic recognized the danger, the Hunley was too close to turn a cannon on it. The sailors instead fired rifles at the boat, aiming for the glowing light coming from the forward conning tower port. Most of the bullets seemed to bounce off the fish-boat's iron skin.
The sub's spar made contact with the Housatonic in its rear quarter with enough force that the barbed end of the explosive canister on the bow embedded in the hull. Within seconds, the crew had reversed their cranking and the Hunley slowly started to back away, still under fire.
When the sub was some distance from the Housatonic -- some witnesses would say 80 feet, others would claim only 50 -- the entire flank of the U.S. ship dissolved in a single fiery explosion, the work of 90 pounds of gunpowder.
It took only a few minutes for the Housatonic to sink, but it came to rest on the shallow bottom with most of its rigging exposed, a bit of luck that offered most of the crew a place to await rescue. Only five men aboard the ship had died in the explosion; the rest waited to be rescued.
While Flemming clung to one yardarm, he saw the little fish-boat once more. He would later testify that as he watched the USS Canandaigua coming to rescue the Housatonic crew 45 minutes after the attack, he saw the submarine floating on the surface. There was a blue light shining on the water that had caught his attention.
Shortly after that, the Hunley vanished, taking Charleston's last hope of breaking the blockade with it.
Next: The third major bombardment of Fort Sumter