Horace Hunley and the Civil War Underwater Experiment Part 1: The PIONEER submarine

Posted by Rebekah
Feb 18 2014

That line between Genius and Insanity is razor thin…just ask Horace Hunley, lawyer and submarine inventor.

The Hunley submarine, the first submarine to sink an enemy warship in war, sank 150 years ago today (within minutes of completing her claim to fame).  I will be putting together a week long blog about her development, sinking(s), crew, sisters, and finally, rediscovery.

The CSS HL HUNLEY, in her refrigerated conservation tank in Charleston, South Carolina. (only a few miles from the AMBERJACK's memorial, come to think of it.) Public Domain

It’s a fascinating story…but has several moments of, “Wait, they did What?  AGAIN?!” in it.

Most people don’t know this, but the CSS HUNLEY, who is getting all the attention this week, was the youngest of a submarine trio, and only one of MANY submarines designed and constructed for both sides of the American Civil War.  her two older sisters were the PIONEER and AMERICAN DIVER.

Despite the fact the Hunley is officially the first submarine to sink an enemy warship, it is not considered to be part of the official history of the Navy’s submarine force.  The Submarine Force’s start date is April 1, 1900, when the Navy purchased the HOLLAND (VI) from its inventor John P. Holland.

Of course, technically, the HUNLEY was invented, served, and was lost under the flag of the Confederate States of America, not the United States of America, so I suppose on some level, it makes sense.

Despite the use of submarines during war on American soil (the Turtle’s attack on the HMS EAGLE in 1776, and two more ‘submarine attacks” on British Ships during the War of 1812), and a number of other submarine developments and inventions world-wide, by the mid 19th century Navy of the USA did not have any plans to pursue submarines.   In fact when Hoosier SHOEMAKER Lodner Philips invented and successfully tested two submarines in Lake Michigan, in 1852, he offered to sell them to the US Navy.  Their response?  “No Authority is known to this Bureau to purchase a submarine boat…the boats used by this Navy go on, not under, the water.”

But of course, necessity is the mother of invention…and invention’s unspoken father? Desperation.

Just as soon as the United States split along the Mason-Dixon line, both the US Navy and the brand-spanking squeaky new Confederate Navy are willing to consider and even encourage any new technologies, no matter how cutting edge, dangerous or even foolhardy.

Leaving the Union and their “Alligator” for the moment, since this IS an article about Hunley and The Hunley, we’ll head to New Orleans.

Horace Hunley was a New Orleans lawyer, and like many men in the Americas at this time, liked to wear a few more hats, serving in the Louisiana Legislature as well as inventing.

As soon as what would become known as the American Civil War broke out, The Confederate Government authorized private citizens to operate as privateers (cause the new Confederate Navy is missing several critical items: ships!  (well, at least seaworthy ones, they didn’t have many of those).

Knowing that it would take years they didn’t have for the Confederate Navy to come close to matching the Union Navy in terms of ship numbers, the Confederacy turned to technological innovation, trying to make each ship more than a match for any on the other side.  Ironclads, torpedo boats, and even revisiting the submarine question.

Submarines became even more important as President Lincoln and the Union Navy, taking advantage of their pre-existing personnel, resources and numbers of ships, took advantage of the Confederacy’s Achillies Heel, and blockaded the new nation into its own boarders. Despite the wealth the South exported in the form of cotton to Europe, it had little infrastructure compared to the north, and required trade with the north and Europe to sustain its economy.  The blockade would end up destroying the South’s economy.

A submarine however, theoretically, could either run under the blockade itself, or attack and destroy enough Union ships that the  South could break through and trade with Europe or even gain recognition from European countries for its status and standing in the world.

Enter Horace Hunley in New Orleans. (New Orleans was one of the principal ports of the South and one of the particularly blockaded ports from the North.)

Hunley and two friends, Machinists James McClintock and Baxter Watson, began designing submarines. They quickly built one submarine, the PIONEER, and tested her in NOLA’s Lake Pontchartrain. Thirty feet long, four foot diameter, she had a hand cranked propeller, it was crewed by three men.  Two turned the propeller, and the third guy  got to do everything else.


Sketches of the PIONEER showing the exterior, and interior plan. You can see the hand-cranked propeller on the right, towards the stern. The "periscope" in a way, is object "C". navsource.org

PIONEER proved she was seaworthy (after some modifications to stop small leaks), including being able to stay safely underwater up to two hours. Some accounts state that she sank a schooner and a couple of target barges using towed Torpedoes in Lake Pontchartrain.  (A Torpedo at this time was what we’d consider a “sea mine” today, an explosive device that blows on contact).  According to Donald Cartmell’s The Civil War Up Close: Thousands of Curious, Obscure and Fascinating Facts, two men died in the course of dive tests, though there does not appear to be evidence that the PIONEER herself sank.


This shows the eventual HUNLEY, but you can clearly see how a submarine could easily sink something while dragging a buoyant "torpedo". The submarine, being underwater and several feet ahead and below the explosion (and presumably on the opposite side of the affected target) would probably have been well-shielded from the blast and sinking. from hunley.org

As with most inventions, once you have one, you start going, “Oh, next time we should do this, and this, move this here, that over there…”  As PIONEER continued her trials, Hunley, McClintock and Watson began designing a sister on paper.  But in the meantime, they received a letter of marque from the Confederate government, turning the PIONEER and any of her potential crews into legal pirates, allowed to attack ships and capture booty–so long as they limited themselves to Union ships and booty.

But New Orleans was too important to the Union Troops.  A year after the war began, Union troops landed in massive numbers, overwhelming NOLA’s defenses.  The  inventors had to evacuate to Mobile, Alabama with as many blueprints, designs and drawings they could carry, but there was no way to move PIONEER in time, and no way to reliably take her by sea to a safer port.  She had to be scuttled, better lost to all now than show the incoming Union troops what Hunley and his team had already accomplished.

Sadly, the attempt didn’t work.  The PIONEER was found and raised by Union troops.  U.S. Navy Lieutenants Alfred Colin and George W. Baird of the USS Pensacola‘s engineering department thoroughly studied this strange ship and forwarded their drawing to their fleet engineer.  These documents were lost until around 1994, when historian March Ragan found them in the National Archives.  The drawing below was included in that report (note the “Rebel” in the “Rebel Submarine Ram” title.)


The Union Troops drawing of the PIONEER. This was the drawing that finally proved the submarine on display for years in New Orleans wasn't the PIONEER. (see below). From navsource.org


The PIONEER remained high and dry until 15 February 1868, when she was sold at auction for $43 worth of iron scrap.  And so ended one of the great experiments in marine technology.

Strangely though, PIONEER apparently had some competition.  In 1878, while dredging the St. John Bayou channel, another iron submarine was discovered. Incorrectly identified as the “Pioneer” for years, (because no one seems to have made the connection between the weird vessel sold ten years earlier for scrapping and this thing) it’s now known that this was a different boat altogether.  But that’s about all that’s known.  To date, no one has been able to conclusively find any records, documentation or any indication of what she was called, who designed or built her, or anything else.  As mysterious an artifact as you’ll ever find from the Civil War, it underwent conservation in 1999 (to remove the cement “conservators” filled her with in 1908!) and is now on display in the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge.

(Apparently, there is a current theory regarding this strange boat.  Historian Francis Chandler Furman theorizes that this vessel might have been a scale model working prototype of what should have been a much larger vessel to be constructed in Confederate shipyards.  If true, it would have been made at Tredegar Iron Works of Richmond Virginia (makers of steam engines, rifles, cannons and  iron cladding for CSS VIRGINIA, among other things) and may have been sent to New Orleans through Edward M. Ivens, Tredegar’s New Orleans agent, possibly for testing, or even to be the pattern for the New Orleans shipyards.)



The unknown submarine, at its outdoor display site, where it remained until 1999. It's now housed inside the Louisiana State Museum. wikipedia.org

Based on the blueprints left behind, a life-size PIONEER has been re-created and is now on display at the Lake Pontchartrain Museum in Louisiana.

Meanwhile, back in 1862, on their way to Mobile, Alabama, with as many designs as they could salvage, the Hunley trio already had a new name in mind: AMERICAN DIVER.  And unlike her now-lost older sister, she’d have a new innovation: engine power.


More Information:

The HL Hunley in Historical Context


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