A Civil War Submarine and the Moon

In the February 2013 issue, the article “The Moon and the Mystery of the Hunley” by William Stevenson describes how the tides and the phase and position of the Moon played a role in the first successful submarine attack in naval history. The assault took place during the American Civil War, when the northern states that remained part of the United States fought against the southern states that had seceded from to form the Confederate States of America. The war dragged on from 1861 to 1865, claiming the lives of roughly 750,000 people, but ending in the reconstruction of the nation and the abolition of slavery.

On February 17, 1864, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley attached a bomb to the starboard side of the USS Housatonic, which was part of a large Union fleet blockading the major port city of Charleston, South Carolina. The bomb exploded, quickly sinking the Housatonic and claiming the lives of 5 Union sailors. But for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, the Hunley itself never returned to base, and its crew of 8 vanished until the wreck of the Hunley was discovered on the seafloor in 1995 and raised to the surface in 2000. Visitors can see the Hunley on display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston.

Interview with William Stevenson

To learn more about this pivotal moment in naval history, listen to William Stevenson talk with S&T editor in chief Robert Naeye about the Hunley’s mission, its sinking, and its impact on the Civil War and future developments. The interview is divided into three parts, each about 7 minutes in length.

In Part 1, Stevenson discusses why interest in the Hunley remains strong nearly 150 years after its fateful mission, how he conducted his research, and why previous historians did not thoroughly investigate the role of the Moon and tides in the attack.

In Part 2, Stevenson points out that the Hunley’s 8-man crew consisted entirely of volunteers who were fully aware of the serious danger they were facing when they undertook the risky mission. He discusses the sense of desperation that had beset the defenders of Charleston. He offers what he thinks is the most likely explanation for the Hunley’s sinking, and he explains why the loss of life on the Housatonic was relatively low.

In Part 3, Stevenson puts the Hunley’s attack in a broader historical context. Although the sub’s attack failed to loosen the Union blockade of Charleston, meaning the Hunley was ultimately a failure from a strategic perspective, the fact that it was able to sink a formidable enemy vessel pointed the way to a new era in naval warfare, when submarines would play a pivotal role in both World Wars and the Cold War.

Resources

See recent images of the recovered Hunley released by National Geographic and read more in the references Stevenson has provided:

Tom Chaffin, The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy (NY: Hill and Wang, 2008).
A readable account of the sub's history and probable fate. This book mentions a 1958 calculation made of the tides for February 17, 1864, indicating that the evening's flood tide began at 10:30 p.m. local time, which compares with 10:05 p.m. calculated by Xtide, and about 9:45 p.m. projected from the Charleston Daily Courier's listing of the day's first high tide. All of these calculations indicate that ebb tide was waning by the time of the Hunley's attack. If we accept the Courier's prediction (which was "corrected weekly," evidently based on observations), the Hunley's attack occurred barely an hour before the tide turned. The weaker the ebb tide, the less likely the Hunley's commander would have ordered the sub to deliberately submerge to wait for the tide to change to flood.

Mark Ragan, The Hunley: Subs, Sacrifice, and Success in the Civil War (Charleston, SC: Narwhal Press, Inc., 1995)
A detailed account with many quotes from primary sources. The author conducted experiments with his own mini-sub to investigate the power of the Charleston tides.

James Kloeppel, Danger beneath the Waves: A History of the Confederate Submarine H. L. Hunley (Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing, Inc., 1987)
Another account with extensive quotes from primary sources.

Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf, Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine (NY: Ballantine Books, 2002)

COMMENT