The H. L. Hunley The Secret Hope of the Confederacy

Tom Chaffin

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Confederacy's H. L. Hunley sank the Union's formidable sloop of war the USS Housatonic and became the first submarine in world history to sink an enemy ship. Not until World War I—half a century later—would a submarine again accomplish such a feat. But also perishing that moonlit night, vanishing beneath the cold Atlantic waters off Charleston, South Carolina, was the Hunley and her entire crew of eight, three more men than had gone down with the Housatonic. For generations, searchers prowled Charleston's harbor, looking for the Hunley. And as they hunted, the legends surrounding the boat and its demise continued to grow. Even after the submarine was definitively located in 1995 and recovered five years later, those legends—those barnacles of misinformation—have only thickened.  Now, in a tour de force of document sleuthing with insights gleaned from the excavation of this remarkable vessel, the distinguished Civil War-era historian Tom Chaffin presents the most thorough possible telling of the Hunley's story. Of panoramic breadth, this saga begins long before the submarine was even assembled and follows the tale into the boat's final hours and through its recovery in 2000. Beyond his exhaustive survey of period documents related to the submarine, Chaffin—to complete his portrait of this technological wonder—also conducted extensive interviews with Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist at Clemson University's Warren Conservation Center, where the Hunley is now being excavated. What emerges is a narrative that casts compelling doubts on many long-held assumptions, particularly those concerning the boat's final hours—including the storied blue light that it allegedly flashed to signal its triumph over the Housatonic. Thoroughly engaging and utterly new, The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy provides the definitive account of a fabled craft.


Praise for The H. L. Hunley

"Tom Chaffin's The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy is a captivating history of the Civil War-era Confederate submarine. The book follows the secret weapon from its planning stages in New Orleans to its sinking of a Union ship in Charleston Harbor to its own fateful sinking. The H.L. Hunley also chronicles archaeological work being done on the ship at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston."—Myles Hutto, Charleston City Paper

"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 . . . Chaffin's chronicle of the H.L. Hunley belongs on the bookshelf of every military history aficionado."—Chris Patsilelis, St. Petersburg Times

"The story of the Hunley has been explored in articles, books, and TV movies, but historian Tom Chaffin has produced what may be considered the most exhaustive and accurate account of the submarine and the men who built her in his new book The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy. Given the iron-fisted control the Confederacy exerted over the media to preserve its military secrets and a dearth of official or personal correspondence on the matter, Chaffin faced a daunting task in piecing together his history, but his hard work pays off here in a rich and lively book about visionaries, mercenaries and a technological marvel . . . Chaffin's painstaking history of the Confederate submarine initiative is rich in character studies, from Hunley's friends and family, deeply divided over the rightness of the cause of secession, to the generals and admirals of the Rebel forces. Such flamboyant personages include General P. T. Beauregard, the dashing commander of the Charleston redoubt, and Lt. George E. Dixon, the gambler and dandy who was the skipper on the Hunley's Pyrrhic victory over the Housatonic. But the centerpiece of the book is the boat itself, an elegant 40-foot knife in the water, manned by a crew laboring within its cramped interior to power the boat by hand and a captain guiding the craft virtually blind. Chaffin's prose is vivid as it evokes the claustrophobia and terror the sub's crew experienced and the fervent hopes of the Confederacy to turn back, by any possible means, the Union forces moving in inexorably on all sides. The Hunley was more than a mere footnote to the Civil War. It was a metaphor for the doomed Confederacy itself, an idea Chaffin puts across well . . . The H. L. Hunley is ultimately a detailed and fascinating account of an idea far ahead of its time and of the rogues and heroes who fought and died to make it a reality."—John G. Nettles, Flagpole magazine

"While a child, Tom Chaffin watched a television series on CBS called The Great Adventure, devoted to educating the audience via historical vignettes. A 1966 episode told of the H.L. Hunley, a submarine built by the Confederacy during the Civil War, a submarine that actually sank a Union vessel in 1864. 'A submarine during the American Civil War?' Chaffin thought. 'And a Confederate one at that? Who would have known?' Much later, a history professor at the University of Tennessee, Chaffin decided to document the submarine’s lineage. This book is the result. Submarine warfare did not play a major role in the Civil War . . . The dual darknesses of slavery and death constitute the backdrop . . . Chaffin explains who conceived the submarine, how they got it built during cash-starved war time, and why it proved effective against the enemy, however briefly. For those who treasure peace, the legacy of the H.L. Hunley boded ill. Centuries before the Civil War, Leonardo da Vinci refused to publish his sketches of a submarine. Presciently, da Vinci feared it would welcome to the world’s waters 'men who would practice assassinations at the bottom of the sea.'"—Steve Weinberg, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"The Hunley, working for the Confederate cause, became the first submarine in history to torpedo and sink an enemy ship, the USS Housatonic, in the waters off Charleston. The date was February 17, 1864, but the manually propelled Hunley—40 feet in length; a mere four feet in height—never surfaced, the reason for the submarine's disappearance after the explosion, even its exact location on the ocean floor, an abiding mystery until the sub's sighting in 1995 and recovery five years later. It's now the focus of scientific study at Clemson University's Warren Lasch Conservation Center, just as it has continued to fascinate students of the Civil War, from academics to buffs. Chaffin's an academic but no buff. He's a practiced reporter careful to get the details right. Where Chaffin encountered legends and half-truths (what he called the 'barnacles of accumulated lore') attached to the rich history of the Hunley, he 'unceremoniously cast [them] overboard.' Let one fact speak for itself: The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy is narrative history at its most readable and remarkable."—Leonard Gill, Memphis Flyer

"Historian Tom Chaffin continues his sea-worthy ability to research and write on Confederate naval activities . . . While Chaffin weeds through the many legends surrounding the Hunley, the sub did sink the Northern ship Housatonic off the coast of Charleston, S.C. . . . Chaffin charts the vessel's development, the earlier versions as well as a naval history of submarines up to the American Civil War. Chaffin revels in the technical aspects of the Hunley's creation as well as the drama of it and its creator's stories. He also appends the Civil War drama with the submarine's mid-1990s discovery by suspense novelist and explorer Clive Cussler and its being raised off the shore of South Carolina. A satisfying read for Civil War buffs or naval buffs, for those who know much, or nothing, about the epic tale of the H. L. Hunley."—Valdosta Daily Times

“[A] grand and sweeping story of the Hunley’s origins and the creative, brave men behind it . . . Tom Chaffin is a writer of impressive talents with a ready wit and a careful, studied, approach to historiography. Without ever making his account dry or overly academic, he includes enough historical information in this book to please professionals while still making it very readable for the non-expert who may not have any background on the Hunley or its time period . . . Chaffin's publishers, Hill and Wang, did a most impressive job of putting together a first-class design for this book and the hardcover edition is a sight to behold. At times, I was truly amazed by Chaffin's depth of research: not only are the details of the Hunley's design and construction, the life of H. L. Hunley himself, and other immediate factors involved covered in astute detail, but plenty of background on the concept of submarine warfare in theory and application is also brought to the table . . . Few stories in the chronicles of the Civil War are in so many different ways as engaging as the story of the Hunley and the men behind it. I would encourage anyone interested in the Civil War, Southern History, or maritime history to pick up this fine book.”—Mike Walker, North Florida News Daily

"To win a war, one of the prime requirements is sufficient troop strength. A second is resources to field and equip military forces. A country that's short on either of those requirements will need ingenuity to try to make up the difference between victory and defeat. The Confederacy trailed in troop numbers and resources but had ingenuity, which manifested itself in Robert E. Lee and other generals. New armaments was another field, and it produced the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel, although it also sank on that same day in February 1864. Civil War historian Tom Chaffin has a first-class recounting of the Hunley, from its roots in New Orleans to the first—and failed—submarine at Mobile, Ala., to two founderings during trials and training at Charleston and finally to the submarine itself . . . The H.L. Hunley will appeal to more than just Civil War buffs. Chaffin notes that many questions remain, including those surrounding a blue light signal from the ship that indicated success shortly before it disappeared. Some questions will never be answered."—Jules Wagman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

"Tom Chaffin tells the story of the Hunley's design and construction, the fateful battles and loss of both ships and the discovery and raising of the submarine in The H.L. Hunley: Secret Hope of the Confederacy, composing a narrative that crackles with excitement and suspense."—Fredric Koeppel, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis)

"Prior to its recovery from the Atlantic seabed in 2000, the H.L. Hunley was assumed to have been a slapdash contraption, thrown together with scrap materials during the hurly-burly of wartime. But after the 40-foot submarine was safely positioned in its conservation tank at a North Carolina laboratory, researchers were surprised at just how well-made and elegant the little craft proved to be (for example, its hull plates were fitted flush, end to end over a frame, and the rivets were hammered flat to reduce drag as it ghosted through the water). In fact, one scientist likened the vessel's appearance to that of a dolphin and went on to assert that its makers wanted their 'boat to look, and move, like an animal that swims through the sea." In the right years since the Hunley's recovery, much has been learned about its design and fate, but enduring mysteries remain, as demonstrated in an absorbing new book, The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy by Tom Chaffin. In his brief preface, Chaffin, a historian and director of the James K. Polk Correspondence Project at the University of Tennessee, explains that he was in part motivated to write this book by a desire to understand just how the Hunley could have been as sophisticated as it was, given the difficulties and obstacles that surrounded its origins. A great deal has been written about the Hunley over the years, of course, much of it contradictory and confusing, thus Chaffin quickly decided to concentrate his sleuthing on the primary resources as much as possible 'Early in my research,' he explains, 'I realized that the Hunley's story, over the years, had become encrusted with the barnacles of accumulated lore.' The result of his efforts is a fast-paced, engaging story spiced with admirable literary references (Chaffin is clearly a great reader) that will both entertain and inform . . . The H.L. Hunley is not only the most up-to-date book about the unusual craft, it is also the most readable and accessible. If there is a Civil War or local history buff on your Christmas list this year, you could hardly do better than to present them with a copy of this book."—John Sledge, Press-Register (Mobile)

"On August 8, 2000, the wreck of the H.L. Hunley was raised from the bottom of the Charleston Harbor, where it had sunk in 1864 during the Civil War. The Hunley was the first 'submarine' to sink an enemy ship, and Tom Chaffin tells its story with an easy-flowing narration and description of the events surrounding the Hunley and its creators, crews, demise and recovery."—Curled Up with a Good Book

“The author provides a complete history of the Hunley as well as biographical sketches of the individuals involved in its financing, design, construction, and operation . . . Utilizing a variety of published and unpublished source materials, as well as interviews with the Lasch Conservation Center archaeologists tasked with the vessel’s excavation and preservation, Chaffin also dispassionately examines the many myths and mysteries surrounding the Hunley. The relative viability of competing theories, among them inquiries into the mythical ‘blue light,’ the location of the wreck, how the submarine was lost, etc., is addressed, often raising more questions than answers. With well-supported conclusions and appealing writing, The H. L. Hunley will serve as a fine introductory book for the interested general reader, as well as a handy resource for the more dedicated students of the Civil War navies.”—Andrew Wagenhoffer, Civil War Books and Authors

"A smoothly narrated and comprehensive story of a lost ship in a lost cause."—Rob Hardy, U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association & Foundation

"Civil War historian Chaffin reconstructs the mythic, short journey of the first submarine in world history to sink an enemy ship. The wreckage of the Hunley was located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1995 and recovered five years later—more than 135 years after it vanished with its eight-member crew. Chaffin mines the discovery thoroughly in this brisk retelling."—Teresa Weaver, Atlanta magazine

“Fueled by obsessive scholarship and a boyish sense of wonder, Tom Chaffin takes us deep down into uncharted fathoms of the Civil War—and then surfaces with a . . . fascinating tale that’s equal parts Shelby Foote and Jules Verne.”—Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder

“There is no more compelling human or high-tech story in the annals of the Civil War than the saga of the remarkable H. L. Hunley and its brave, ill-fated crew. Drawing on a vast archive of original sources and an abundance of interpretive skill, Tom Chaffin has crafted an informed, dramatic page-turner. This is authoritative military history that reads like a novel.”—Harold Holzer, cochairman of the USS Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and coauthor of The Confederate Image

“Chronicling this multifaceted story of the Confederacy’s secret hope, Tom Chaffin has answered many of the mysteries surrounding the H. L. Hunley. With an extensive examination of primary documents, he has taken on the mythologizers, offering instead an extraordinary contribution to historical understanding.”—Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln

"The real story of the 'submarine boat' Hunley has eluded writers for years. While there have been any number of volumes written on the subject, most have been woven with conjecture, supposition, and popular myth. Tom Chaffin's new book details the facts of the undertaking: the players, the politics, and, importantly, the current condition of the conservation/archaeological work being performed on the recovered vessel . . . Chaffin's work is detailed and annotated . . . The notes of sources, interviews, and the like are all-inclusive and his bibliography is likewise most complete. Photographs and drawings, both contemporary and current, complete a fine volume . . . There is still much to be found in the details of the vessel—some may be uncovered, some may not—but the work continues, and I dare to hope that Mr. Chaffin might, in the future, offer an update of his book with those revelations included. Whether or not he does, this volume can stand as the best available to date."—William H. White, Sea History

The H. L. Hunley is a revelation.”—William McKeen, Creative Loafing

“A definitive reading of the submarine’s forensic evidence.”—Garden & Gun magazine

"Civil War historian Chaffin plumbs the depths surrounding the creation and ultimate fate of the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship. After sending the USS Housatonic to the bottom of Charleston Harbor, the Confederacy's H.L. Hunley disappeared on the night of February 17, 1864. Its wreckage was not recovered until 2000, and questions about how and why it sank remain unanswered. To clear up at least some of the enigmas surrounding this ahead-of-its-time vessel (a submarine would not sink a ship again for 50 years), the author has consulted local history sources and interviewed the senior archaeologist at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, where the sub's excavation is ongoing. Its dimensions and appearance are now known, but at the time of its construction everything about the Hunley was supposed to be secret. Facing a stifling naval blockade in 1862, the Confederacy took the unprecedented step of establishing a torpedo bureau within the army and a navy submarine battery service. Longstanding moral objections to ‘infernal machines’ that could strike without warning, coupled with the need for wartime secrecy, ensured that tests of the Hunley went largely unreported; Chaffin found little contemporary press coverage and few firsthand accounts. Nonetheless, he managed to trace the furtive movements and contributions of the trio behind the vessel: engineer James McClintock, whom the author credits with most of the design; his partner Baxter Watson; and New Orleans attorney Horace L. Hunley, who sank with it on a trial run as captain in October 1863. Even its more successful 1864 outing was a Pyrrhic victory; more men died on the Hunley than on the Housatonic. Avoiding uninformed speculation, Chaffin crafts an exciting narrative of an important innovation in military technology and the political considerations that shaped its development. Insightful and intriguing, meriting a place toward the front of the squadron of Civil War, naval and aquatic archeology titles."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This outstanding piece of scholarship and clear writing will answer most questions and lay to rest most legends about the famous Confederate submarine, the first of its kind to sink an enemy warship . . . The research that went into this book was also exhaustive (it is also unbiased), but it doesn’t make the book exhausting. Altogether, 'the secret hope of the Confederacy' is now a good deal less secret, and Civil War collections can fill many gaps with a single purchase.”Roland Green, Booklist

“Sampling from letters, articles and memoirs, the author succeeds in separating facts from legend in this engrossing examination of a pioneering weapon of war.”—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



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            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

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  • Tom Chaffin on Book TV

    Tom Chaffin at the Southern Festival of Books.



  • Tom Chaffin

  • Tom Chaffin is a professor of history and the director/editor of the James K. Polk Correspondence Project at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His books include Sea of Gray and Pathfinder , both published by Hill and Wang. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, Time, and other publications. He lives in Knoxville.
  • Tom Chaffin Meta Larsson