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The First Successful Submarine Attack In History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 23, 2023 3:01 am

The First Successful Submarine Attack In History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 23, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the CSS Hunley's sinking of the Housatonic was only a partial success, but represents the first time a submarine managed to sink an enemy vessel... and it happened in Charleston Harbor during the Civil War.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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To search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeart Radio app or wherever you get your podcast. Up next, a story from the South Carolina Military Museum in Columbia, the state capital. The first successful submarine attack on February 17, 1864 was only a partial success. When it was all said and done, the USS Housatonic laid on the bottom of Charleston Harbor, but so did the sub, the CSS Hunley.

Here's John Freeman with the story. The Hunley wasn't built here. It wasn't even the first submersible type craft used by the Confederacy, so they had something else called the David, which was called a semi-submersible. It was a boat that erode really low in the water and because of it, they thought it would be difficult to detect, difficult to hit, but they would call it a torpedo boat because it was supposed to be doing what the Hunley similarly did, which is take a torpedo, which torpedoes at that time were more mines, and run it at the side of enemy ships. Well, the Hunley was built elsewhere.

It was brought to Charleston and it was brought here for testing, actually. I was hopeful that after testing, it could break the blockade that was going off the harbor by the Union Fleet, and so when they initially built it, there was actually a rope and a floating mine behind them, and what they thought they would do is they would paddle a row, neither of those were properly, so it was person-powered. The Hunley was, it was like a crankshaft. They were all sitting there hunched over in this little tin can and they're working with their arms just getting this thing to go, so it was manpower. So what they're supposed to do is go out of the harbor, head out towards the fleet, which wasn't in the harbor, it was actually outside the harbor, so the fleet was, you wouldn't call it offshore, but it was a decent ways out, you had to get there by hand. And then when they got close, they would actually submerge and then they would drag this mine, which was floating, into the side of the ship to destroy the ship. Well, during training they realized it wouldn't work, because at one point during training due to the tides, they came to a stop and they turned around and looked behind the boat while they were still on the surface and the mine was coming up on them pretty fast, and they said, well hang on, this might be a bad idea, we need to, we need to figure something else out so we don't just blow ourselves out of the water. So what they did is actually went to a spar system off the front of the Hunley, and for the longest time, I remember as a kid, I grew up in Charleston, there was a reproduction of the Hunley in front of the Charleston Museum, and it had the spar mounted to the top of the Hunley, and you can still find tons of publications and photos and paintings of the spar mounted to the top of the front of the Hunley, the bow, and just sticking out straight. That's what everyone thought happened, until they actually went and they recovered the Hunley, in the harbor, and they realized the bar was mounted to the bottom and stuck upwards at more of an angle so it could hit into the bottom of the boat better. So they went to a bar mounted on the bottom, unfortunately there were some, there were some accidents during training, I think they lost multiple crews where something would happen, the billows would leak or a hatch would somehow be left open, if I recall, and they would just flood and they would lose crews, and they'd always go out, and it was too vital, they couldn't leave it, they'd always go out, they'd always recover it, they'd always manage to recruit a new crew for it. So the night, the night of the attack, they got the crew in there, and I want to say one of the members is Dixon, is the name of the commander of the boat. Anyways, so Dixon, he's seen in combat before, you know, he's been on the battlefield, he's actually got a gold coin in his pocket, because on the battlefield he received, he got shot, and the gold coin actually caught the bullet and prevented it from him losing, him losing appendage or something like that, and actually may have saved his life due to the medicine at the time.

So he keeps it as a good luck charm, this gold coin that's cupped out, looking like the top of a mushroom. So they go out and they have signals they give to the shore of when they're leaving, when they're successful, just so they have some form of communication between shore and the Hunley. So it's night time, they're rowing out to the fleet, and out at the fleet is the Housatonic, which is a fairly large boat with pretty big guns. So the Hunley won't actually approach completely underwater, otherwise they'd have no idea where they were going.

However, they have these little conning towers with these little glass viewports on them, so they can sort of see where they're going. So they start approaching the Housatonic, one of the lookouts sees it and raises the alarm, and they never get any heavy fire, like cannons onto the Hunley, but there are some small arms fire, but then the whole boat is just shuttered by a blast and actually goes down in a decently short amount of time. Well, the Hunley's never seen again after this. However, lookouts on the coast claim that they see the lights from the Hunley, signaling that they're going to return, which is part of the mystery of it never shows up, it never returns. How did it sink? Some people believe that maybe small arms fire penetrated one of those lookout portholes and actually took on water and sunk. Some think that when the blast went off, because what was supposed to happen is the mine hits the side of the boat, and then the Hunley actually kicks it in reverse. I guess they row their arms the other way, and they start backing away from the Housatonic, and there's actually a rope that comes out.

And as that rope hits a certain point, they're a safe distance away, it's supposed to go off on the side of the boat. So they're thinking, well, maybe it went off on impact, maybe it went off before it was supposed to, and it actually, because the effects of an acoustic blast like that underwater are just devastating the human body, maybe that caused it, maybe it sunk due to small arms fire. No one knows, but it doesn't explain the supposed lights that the lookout saw on shore, because that was after the Housatonic would have sunk, they received the light saying we're coming in.

So it's always been a bit of a mystery. And where it sunk as well, and the finding of it is also an interesting story in itself. There's two claims to the find of the Hunley. Ely Spence claims to have found a magnetic anomaly in the location where the Hunley was found, and therefore he found the Hunley. Another one is by big money bookseller Clive Cussler, also claims he's the one who found it. He's actually the one who funded a lot of it through Numa, pulling the thing up, everything like that. So he tends to get the lion's share of it, but Spence still claims he's the one who found the Hunley to this day.

Anyways, get to the end of it. I believe the Hunley is now done with conservation. I think they're actually looking to get it on permanent display sometime in the next couple years. But in the process of going through, you know, they have to be delicate because there's remains. It's become a tomb for over a hundred years. But when going through the remains and going through and cleaning out the inside, they find a gold coin.

And it's the gold coin that actually has the bullet and the dimple of it, because it never knew if that was actually truthful or not. There was always a, is that a myth? Is it a legend?

Is it a rumor? Did he even take it with him when he went on the boat? But they ended up finding the coin in the boat and it's sort of an awesome little story that he took it with him to the very end. And it's still some debate of how it sunk exactly, but the debate or not, it does stand as the first submarine in history to sink an enemy vessel. And a terrific job on the storytelling and the production by our own Monty Montgomery.

The first successful submarine attack. More interesting things you learn right here on Our American Story. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture, and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-23 12:36:31 / 2023-06-23 12:42:00 / 5

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