- The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy
In the hands of three different crews, the Civil War era submarine H. L. Hunley sank on three separate occasions, taking twenty-one out of a possible twenty-four crew members to their demise. One could certainly say the underwater craft was something of a maritime failure. Until it was recovered from the sea in August of 2000, the sub was the object of much speculation and mythologizing. The story of this “secret weapon,” from its conception in the depths of the Confederacy through its tragedy-plagued career and single “successful” mission, to its eventual discovery and display, is handled more adroitly by Tom Chaffin. His narrative is a synthesis of biographies, faded memories, myths, and tale-telling, cross examined with a historian’s rigor, utilizing documentary evidence and the archaeological artifact. Chaffin presents a credible account of the first underwater boat to sink an enemy craft during wartime.
The idea of producing a submarine to sink an enemy ship did not originate with the creators of the Civil War vessel. The serpentine path of this technological achievement begins along the winding Mississippi in the South’s largest urban center, New Orleans, then proceeds through Mobile, Alabama, and finally into the seedbed of secession, Charleston, South Carolina, where both tragedy and “triumph” occur. Chaffin illuminates the lives and desires of the many men that were involved with the creation of various underwater craft, which through time and space ultimately produced the Hunley.
Although the vessel was a Confederate “secret weapon” that may have altered some aspects the war, Chaffin does not delve into “Lost Cause” speculation. Submarine boats were considered “infernal machines”, an unfair method of warfare, at a time when conflict still had a patina of chivalry. Furthermore, Chaffin makes clear that several of the individuals involved with the project, some of whom lost their lives for it, were not native-born Southerners, but northern transplants or even foreigners. Nor was southern patriotism necessarily the primary motive behind the submarine’s development. Financial incentive played a role; the first submarine was actually registered as a privateer. Personal glory is not overlooked; the “secret” weapon was publicly displayed on numerous occasions, rousing awe and praise for its creators. Additionally, competition for scarce resources may have driven the mechanics who built three submarines, culminating in the Hunley, to push the technical limit of the age.
Chaffin employs numerous archival documents to challenge many of the myths that have emerged during the century and a half since the loss of the vessel. He also successfully utilizes the archaeological remains to deconstruct other misconceptions generated by individuals associated with the Hunley. William Alexander’s recollections, though not recorded until the early twentieth century, have been taken as gospel, but found not to accord with some aspects of the recently investigated physical evidence. Chaffin’s skillful integration of historic documentation [End Page 1337] and the archaeological materials illuminates how vital both sources are in gaining a clearer understanding of the past.
Citations are sparse, but many are voluminous. The most extreme example is in Chapter 8, which contains only five endnotes, one a page long. However, the documentation makes The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy a well-researched story, certainly an authoritative text on the vessel. Not only should this book be of interest to the general reader of the Civil War, but to those attentive to the dynamics of civilian/military relations, early industrial and technical development, and the history of first submarine to destroy an enemy ship in warfare.
University Park, Pennsylvania