The H. L. Hunley

The Secret Hope of the Confederacy

Tom Chaffin

Hill and Wang

            In June 1861, reaching deep into the Greek revival-becolumned hotels, banks, and shops that lined Canal and the narrower streets of the American Quarter immediately upriver, a fresh energy held dominion.  To be sure, it was the same élan, the same sense of self-interested purpose, that also found its way into the warehouses and factors’ offices that squatted along Levee Street’s docks and wharves.  For the city’s mercantile community—that summer’s tangle of sweat-stained, white-linen-clad lawyers, bankers, newspaper publishers and editors, merchants, clerks, shipbuilders, cotton and sugar brokers, and the like—this new war, which most expected would exhaust itself in a few months, promised a wealth of fresh opportunities for private profits from the manufacture of ordnance and uniforms to gunrunning and shipbuilding.

            Operating in that Canal Street spirit, Customs Collector Francis Hatch’s own by-the-bootstraps rise to prosperity gave him a keen eye for spotting both opportunities and the raw resourceful talent needed to convert those main chances into easy treasures.  Officially, Hatch worked for the Confederacy’s Treasure Department.  But that month, June 1861, he had penned a discreet letter to an official in Richmond who worked for another department—the War Department.  In fact, almost certainly, Hatch’s interlocutor was Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker.  A civilian but acting, in this case, in a secret capacity for the Confederate Military, Hatch confided that he needed one thousand dollars in cash to set in motion a “special expedition” that the two had already discussed.

            Moreover, Hatch explained in his letter, he had already found just the man to carry out this scheme—and, even better, that man worked right there on Canal Street.  The man was middle-aged but teemed with a youthful energy.  His name was Horace Lawson Hunley, a thirty-seven-year-old attorney, and he toiled in the Custom House as an assistant customs collector.

            Hatch then had no way of knowing it, but his letter to Richmond would set in motion a conspiratorial chain of events involving acts of heroism as well as greed-fueled hubris that, stretching over the next three years, eventually enmeshed scores of actors.  More than a few of these men, prowling dark, briny waters inside a series of cramped and mysterious cigar-shaped submarines—or submarine boats, as that age called such craft—would be dispatched toward early and watery graves.

            Indeed, by the time this conspiracy reached its twisted denouement, its tentacles would even clutch Pierre Beauregard, the U. S. Army’s original superintending engineer for the still unfinished New Orleans Custom House, and by then, a highly regarded general in the Confederate Army.  Moreover, the desperate arc of the submarine boats’ story would eventually gather men from other cities and regions, and navigate the streets and waters of two other Confederate ports, Mobile and Charleston.

            But in a very real sense, all of those roads and roadsteads—and all of the deals, dreams, and energies that propelled those men, their submarine boats, and their obsession to develop the first underwater craft to destroy an enemy ship—they all coiled back to a single mainspring of a thoroughfare, New Orleans’s Canal Street.  For, in a fundamental sense, from beginning to end, this would remain a Crescent City tale.

Excerpted from The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope Of The Confederacy by Tom Chaffin

Copyright © 2008 by Tom Chaffin

Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

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