After the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Lincoln ordered a naval blockade of all Southern ports. The Confederacy's response was to commission swift, yachtlike vessels to outrun Union warships. The South also engaged in a do-or-die effort to break through the naval blockade using mines, torpedoes and one of the earliest fully operational submarines, the H.L. Hunley — the first submarine to sink an enemy ship.
Tom Chaffin, professor of history at the University of Tennessee, has written an exciting, exhaustively researched history of a marvelous technological innovation in The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy.
Chaffin paints a descriptive portrait of antebellum New Orleans and the entrepreneurial denizens of Canal Street, among them Francis Hanson Hatch, a Customs House agent, and his assistant, Lawson Hunley. Through a series of transactions involving gun-running and blockade-busting, Hatch and Hunley became partners with James McClintock, a machine designer. They then attracted the interest of the Confederate military with their idea of a "fish-boat."
Building it was a daunting engineering feat. Speed, directional control, air supply, diving, ascending, torpedo delivery, firing safety, escape for the crew — these were all complete technological unknowns at the time.
The 40-foot Hunley sank on its first two demonstration voyages, drowning 13 crew members. On Feb. 17, 1864, the twice-resurrected ship, carrying a torpedo on its spar, slipped across the harbor of Charleston, S.C., toward the USS Housatonic, a 207-foot Union sloop. The ship went down. But so did the Hunley.
Dramatic, well-written and filled — perhaps overfilled — with fascinating information, Chaffin's chronicle of the H.L. Hunley belongs on the bookshelf of every military history aficionado.
Chris Patsilelis reviews books on military subjects for the New York Times and other newspapers.