The H. L. Hunley

The Secret Hope of the Confederacy

Tom Chaffin

Hill and Wang

On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Confederacy’s  H. L. Hunley sank 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. 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 multiplied. Now, in a tour de force of document-sleuthing and insights gleaned from the excavation of this remarkable vessel, distinguished Civil War–era historian Tom Chaffin presents the most thorough telling of the Hunley’s story possible. Of panoramic breadth, this Civil War 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 thorough survey of period documents relating to the submarine, Chaffin also conducted extensive interviews with Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where the Hunley is now being excavated, to complete his portrait of this technological wonder. What emerges is a narrative that casts compelling doubts on many long-held assumptions, particularly those concerning the boat’s final hours. Thoroughly engaging and utterly new, The H. L. Hunley provides the definitive account of a storied craft.


Read an Excerpt

            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




  • Tom Chaffin on Book TV

    Tom Chaffin at the Southern Festival of Books.



Praise for The H. L. Hunley

“The boldest and most powerful book yet written on the saga of the H. L. Hunley. Each detail is sharply etched and dramatically told for a compelling read. The H. L. Hunley is a classic of Civil War history.” —Clive Cussler
“Tom Chaffin’s study is the most thorough treatment of the subject . . . [This] detailed and entertaining book about early naval submersibles will inform students, scholars, and general readers.” —Joseph G. Dawson III, Journal of American History
“Combining a masterful command of his subject with a novelist’s flair for weaving a good story, Chaffin takes readers on an intriguing journey centered on one of the landmark events in maritime history . . . The preeminent volume on the subject.” —Mike Bunn, Alabama Review
“Chaffin’s skillful integration of historic documentation and the archaeological materials illuminates how vital both sources are in gaining a clearer understanding of the past . . . An authoritative text on the vessel.” —Michael Christopher Tuttle, Journal of Military History
“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, St. Petersburg Times
The H. L. Hunley is a revelation.” —William McKeen, Creative Loafing
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, Mobile Press-Register (Alabama)
“The volume can stand as the best available to date.” —William H. White, Sea History
“Detailed and fascinating . . . 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.” —John G. Nettles, Flagpole (Athens, GA)
“[A] brisk retelling . . . Civil War historian Chaffin reconstructs the mythic, short journey of the first submarine in world history to sink an enemy ship.” —Teresa Weaver, Atlanta (A Best of the Georgia Shelf pick)
“A smoothly narrated and comprehensive story of a lost ship in a lost cause.” —Rob Hardy, U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association & Foundation
The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy is narrative history at its most readable and remarkable.” —Leonard Gill, Memphis Flyer
“[A] grand and sweeping story of the Hunley’s origins and the creative, brave men behind it.” —Mike Walker, North Florida News Daily
“A captivating history of the Civil War-era Confederate submarine.” —Myles Hutto and John Stoehr, Charleston City Paper
“Tom Chaffin tells the story of the Hunley’s design and construction, the fateful battle and loss of both [the Hunley and the USS Housatonic], and the discovery and raising of the submarine in The H. L. Hunley, composing a narrative that crackles with excitement and suspense.” —Fredric Koeppel, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
“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.” —Jules Wagman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“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)
“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
“A definitive reading of the submarine’s forensic evidence.” —Garden & Gun magazine
“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
“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 finny, 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 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
“An excellently written and well-documented account of a piece of Civil War history . . . Of the numerous [Hunley] books to appear in recent years, Tom Chaffin’s The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy emerges as the best.” —Steven Ramold, Civil War Book Review
“A well-written and interesting volume.” —Kenneth D. Williams, Civil War News
“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.” —The Valdosta Daily Times
The H. L. Hunley is an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, History Book Club, and Military Book Club.

Reviews from Goodreads



  • 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 (Hill and Wang, 2006) and Pathfinder (Hill and Wang, 2002). His work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Time, and other publications. He lives in Knoxville.

  • Tom Chaffin Meta Larsson





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    The H. L. Hunley

    The Secret Hope of the Confederacy

    Tom Chaffin