Raising the Hunley

The Remarkable History and Recovery
of the Lost Confederate Submarine

Chapter 1


She was sleek, cigar-shaped, and black. When she broke the choppy surface of Lake Pontchartrain, water rippled over her pectoral fins, and her flank glistened in the warm sunlight of early Louisiana spring. She was 34 feet long and dove underwater and resurfaced gracefully, slowly, like a porpoise. She was, her builders thought, beautiful.

It was such a shame to sink her.

Pioneer had only just begun to live up to its potential. In trial runs on the lake, the little submarine had performed well, had even blown up one old wreck once in mock combat. There were a few minor annoyances: it had buoyancy problems, was slow to turn, and couldn’t be trusted to keep an even keel. But those things could be improved. Most important, it had accomplished something few boats that came before it had: it could travel underwater and surface at will.

Still, there wasn’t any choice – it had to be scuttled. It was April 25, 1862, and Farragut was closing in on New Orleans. Since Easter weekend the Union fleet had fought its way through Rebel fire-rafts and a barrage of cannon fire from the banks of the lower Mississippi. The Confederate Army had stood its ground for a week, but it couldn’t hold forever. For the South in 1862, Good Friday did not live up to its name.

New Orleans was in a panic. Rear Adm. David Glasgow Farragut was not a man to be trifled with. The feisty, sixty-year-old naval genius credited with the phrases “full steam ahead” and “damn the torpedoes” was nothing short of an American legend. He had been a sailor since he was nine, when he served aboard the USS Essex during the War of 1812. Now Farragut was leading the Union’s fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, and when he moved on New Orleans, it was only a matter of time before it was be his. A day earlier word had reached the city that the admiral’s ships had just finished off Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip 75 miles downriver. Those forts had been the city’s only defense from the open sea, and now they were gone, destroyed. If the largest and most important city in the South couldn’t be guarded against invasion, what chance did the Confederacy stand? People burned belongings they couldn’t carry and couldn’t bear to see fall into Yankee hands. Soon the wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter would resemble bones, the skeleton of the old city. Very few would stand their ground to fight. New Orleans was a lost cause.

Pioneer could not be allowed to fall into Union hands. It was the South’s newest weapon, and surprise was one of its few advantages. The men knew it must be kept secret. As fires raged across the city, they watched workers open the submarine’s hatch – it had no ballast tanks – and let the murky water seep into its hull. Slowly, Pioneer sank into a deep bend in the New Basin Canal between downtown New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. It had never even seen combat. Now it would never again resurface under its own power. But before Pioneer disappeared into the muck, the submarine did one very important thing for its builders: it proved they could do it – they could build a working submarine.

They would escape with that knowledge.


The H.L. Hunley in the tank at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina. You can tour the submarine museum on the weekends. For more information, see the Friends of the Hunley website at www.hunley.org