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Chapter 6

Confederate Patent Office
PREFACE | chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

Submarine invented
to battle Union blockades

Hunley submarine

The United States Civil War was fought by soldiers but won by a blockade. One of Abraham Lincoln's first orders was the establishment of a blockade against Southern ports. The principal reason was to deprive the South of the means to make war, most of which it initially lacked. Secondarily, the Union hoped that if sufficient privation was inflicted on Southern civilians and soldiers, sentiment for Southern independence would fade. The only way to inflict this privation was by a blockade. The South had little in the way of industry with which to make armaments and civilian manufactured goods. It did, however, have cotton, and the European cotton textile industry was based and depended upon the importation of cotton from the Southern United States. If the South could export its cotton for sale in Europe, it could import all it needed to fight and win its war for independence and feed its civilian population.

At first, the blockade was very ineffective. The South had many major ports - Hampton, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans to name a few - a vast number of smaller rivers opening to the sea which could be navigated, and the Mississippi River bisecting it. The North had nothing like the Navy required to patrol and prevent commerce between the South and the rest of the world. The ease with which the South continued to export goods and supply a large army with the imported proceeds is evident from the extent of its military success between 1861 and 1864.

The North began the war with 90 obsolete vessels. However, the North built ships at a furious pace, and by late 1864 had a Navy of almost 700 modern ships — many intended for blockade duty — that imposed substantial hardship on the military and on the civilian population of the South. The South attempted several responses to this blockade, including the development of many different types of mines, known in the 1860's as "torpedoes", ironclad vessels, such as the "Virginia" and "Albemarle", and a fast new type of blockade-runner. Another less well-known effort was the development in the South of a submarine vessel sophisticated far beyond that previously known, and remarkably similar in overall operation to those in use today.

Actually, submarines had been proposed for centuries. David Bushnell built a submarine, the "Turtle", during the American Revolution. Robert Fulton later experimented with an undersea vessel. However, when Horace L. Hunley brought his submarine to Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1963, no submarine had ever sunk a ship in combat.

The Confederate Patent Office lists two patents issued for "sub-marine" boats, Nos. 258 and 261, issued to "C. Williams" of St. Louis, Missouri, along with two other patents for a "torpedo." However, Mr. Williams is not identified elsewhere as having been involved in development of submarines for the Confederate Navy, so it is doubtful that these submarines are really related to those actually built for the South. This is probably a result of the fact that the Confederate government did not seek patents itself because most of its work was in war-related efforts that would have been disclosed to the Union by publication of the patent upon grant.

In any event, Mr. Hunley, working at the Mobile Navy Yard, commenced building a submarine boat in 1862. Her central part was built of an iron-plate boiler, augmented and lengthened with sheets of boiler-plate. She was between 35 and 40 feet long, five feet deep and three and one-half feet wide at her midsection. Two fins controlled from inside were mounted on opposite sides of the hull near the front. These fins were used as bowplanes to dive and surface the boat. The boat was manned by a crew of nine - eight men to sit at and turn a long crank running the length of the boat and connected to an aft propeller - and one man to steer a rudder. She had no snorkel. The only air available was that trapped in the boat when the hatch was closed.

The boat was designed to approach a target on the surface, then dive beneath it while towing a torpedo on a stern line. According to theory, the torpedo would be dragged into the hull of the target, and the boat would be protected from the resulting explosion by the bulk of the target between the torpedo and the boat. When the submarine was finished, it was placed on a railway flatcar and taken to Charleston for trials. Charleston was in the grip of a tight blockade, and the local commander, Gen. Beauregard, hoped to loosen the blockage by its use.

The trials were a disaster. Twenty men, including Hunley himself, perished during tests. The boat was so slow that it had a difficult time getting ahead of and towing the torpedo on the stern line. This danger and the loss of life convinced Gen. Beauregard that it was too dangerous for the submarine to dive deep enough to go under the target. Instead, he ordered her fitted with a torpedo mounted on the end of a long spar attached to and extending outwardly from the bow. The torpedo included a hook, or prong, on its leading end, which would be driven into the wooden side of the ship by ramming. The torpedo would be detached from the spar and the boat would back away to safety, leaving the torpedo hooked to the target. Then a lanyard would be pulled from inside the boat, setting off the torpedo. In this way, the submarine would need only to be a short distance below the surface.

The boat, probably named the "Hunley" after Horace Hunley's death, went out on the night of February 17, 1864. The Hunley rammed her torpedo, as planned, into the side of the "Housatonic", a 207-foot screw steamer weighing 1,240 tons and mounting 12 guns. The resulting explosion quickly sank the "Housatonic" in 27 feet of water. Her crew escaped by climbing the rigging still above water.

Until recently, it was believed that the Hunley sank alongside the Housatonic, perhaps swamped by the explosion. However, even though the Housatonic was removed from Charleston Harbor after the war, no trace of the Hunley could be found nearby. In March, 1995, electronic devices located the Hunley a considerable distance away from the sight of the explosion, perhaps suggesting that the torpedo was released as planned and that the Hunley made good her escape, only to sink from other causes.

A similar type of submarine, referred to as a "David", was also developed by Confederate designers. Actually, this type of boat was a semi-submersible, since it always had at least some of its superstructure above water. These vessels were double-ended, constructed of iron and wood, and were powered by a steam engine. The boiler was forward, the engine astern and the crew between them. Like the Hunley, these craft carried a torpedo mounted on the end of a spar carried on the bow that could be lowered or raised by a line operated from inside the hull by the crew. The boat was submerged for action, so that only a short smokestack, a hatch cover and a stanchion upon which the torpedo line was brought aft could be seen. Little is known about their combat record.

By coincidence, the Confederate Congress appropriated $100,000 to build submarines on February 17, 1864 — the same day the "Hunley" sank the "Housatonic." Work continued on submarines of various types until the end of the war.

Long after the war a professor at the United States Naval Academy found an exquisitely made model submarine that had been lying for years amid other junk at the Navy Department. It was rescued and now resides in the Museum at the Naval Academy. Little is known of its history, but that it is a Confederate patent model and probably was submitted by the inventor of Patent Nos. 258 and 261. The model is beautifully made from brass, with intricate detail. From its design, the principal patentable ideas were probably the carriage of deck guns for surface fire and a helicopter-like arrangement for submerging and surfacing the boat.

Confederate Patent Office
PREFACE | chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

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Copyright, W. Thad Adams, III, 2013. All rights reserved. (Revised December 22, 2017)

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