Amateur Radio News

Special Event Station N4HLH Honors the H.L. Hunley’s Civil War Victory as the First Submarine to Sink a Warship

On February 17, the Trident Amateur Radio Club will be operating from special event station N4HLH at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina to commemorate the 1864 historic sinking of the first warship by submarine.

The Confederate’s H.L. Hunley was deployed during the Civil War as a divided American nation split into opposing sects of northern and southern states.

Originally docked at Breach Inlet on Sullivan’s Island during the war, just a few miles from the Union’s warship blockade, the submersible was built from rolled iron boiler plates with custom cast iron fittings, powered by a hand crank, and operated by a crew of seven, plus an additional member to pilot the boat.

While yet uncommon in war, the Hunley was not the first military submarine. The first, a submarine named “Turtle,” had been introduced in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. It tried but failed to sink the HMS Eagle, a British warship. Unlike the Turtle, the Hunley would succeed in its mission but at an especially high cost—the lives of all but three crew members who worked it.

The Hunley would sink not one but three times—often under rather mysterious circumstances.

The first instance occurred on August 29, 1863, while docked. The reason, as of yet, is unknown. Some say it succumbed to the wake of a larger boat, while others argued that mooring lines from another ship took it down. But one thing is clear— the submarine submerged unexpectedly killing five members of the eight-man crew.

It was retrieved shortly after, only to sink again during a demonstration put on for the public on October 15 of the same year. The submersible was to dive under the CSS Indian Chief to show its stealth prowess, but, most unfortunately, failed to reappear once submerged. Weeks later the wreck was located and recovered. The cause? The forward ballast tank valve had been left open—in error or by plight—causing the interior to fill with water, killing the entire crew.

The two sinkings in such quick succession gave General P.G. T. Beauregard of the Confederacy pause. He considered a permanent reprieve for the submarine stating, “It is more dangerous to those who use it than to the enemy.” On this, he was not mistaken, and the Hunley’s last venture would prove just that while simultaneously making history.

In February of 1864, the submarine launched a stealth attack on the USS Housatonic, whose crew barely noticed it coming, initially mistaking it for a porpoise surfacing—a not altogether unfitting assumption considering the submarine had many nicknames, including “fish boat,” “fish torpedo boat,” and the “porpoise.” Crewmembers on the USS Housatonic recognized their mistake much too late, sounding the alarm just as the Hunley’s spar torpedo connected with the deck. It would sink the ship, killing five of the 155-man crew.

But more were to perish that same day aboard the Hunley—for reasons, perhaps, never to be known. Following its historic victory, the Hunley’s blue lights were promisingly seen from the shore by fellow Confederate soldiers who could not have predicted, in the moment of enthusiasm over their victory, that it would be the last time. A fire was lit on land to light a path back to shore for the submarine, but the vessel would never return. Instead, it would vanish yet again, as if into an abyss, the circumstances of its absence privileged knowledge to only the dead and sea.

Many would search for the submarine in the hours directly after its disappearance and in the years that would pass, but it was not until a full 136 years later on May 3, 1995, that it was rediscovered—interestingly enough by the best-selling thriller novelist Clive Cussler and his maritime organization, the National Underwater and Marine Agency. Cussler describes his part in finding the wreck: “I have never made claim to being an archaeologist. I’m purely a dilettante who loves the challenge of solving a mystery; and there is no greater mystery than a lost shipwreck.” Indeed. Particularly one so prone to mysterious submergences.

The recovered remains of the crew were excavated and buried at White Points Garden following a 4.5-mile procession attended by tens of thousands of people, many dressed in period-correct attire, with two descendants of the fated crew even in attendance.

And the submarine? You can stop in to see it and even take a tour by visiting the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on the Cooper River in North Charleston. You can also see facial reconstructions of its final crew designed using military records and forensic information but with slight liberties taken to unknown hair, eye, or skin color.

Too busy for a tour? Check out this YouTube video to hear more about the H.L. Hunley and see it for yourself, plus bonus storytelling.

Still pondering what led to its disappearance of the H.L. Hunley? You aren’t alone. Check out this list of theories to see if they’re in line with your own.

And, of course, make sure to participate in the Trident Amateur Radio Club’s H.L. Hunley Submarine commemorative station, N4HLH, on February 17. Full event details are available on the club’s website.

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