On the night of February 17, 1864, there was a naval history first: a Confederate submarine brought down a 12-gun blockade ship, the USS Housatonic.

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Civil War 150: Sinking the USS Housatonic

The Civil War was a time of innovation and technological changes to the art of warfare. The world saw the creation of new guns and weapons, including the machine gun and repeating rifles. The railroad was built at rapid speed in order to connect the West to the East. The first battle of two iron-fortified battleships occurred between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. On the night of February 17, 1864, there was a naval history first: a Confederate submarine brought down a 12-gun blockade ship, the USS Housatonic.

Print shows the Monitor and the Merrimack firing at each other during battle, with other battleships in the background, one sinking on the left. Library of Congress lithograph: LC-DIG-ppmsca-33125

The concept for submarines originated in England in the late 1500s. During the American Revolution, a small submarine called the Turtle was used in an attempt to attack a British naval ship. The attack failed, but the underwater concept was a good one. It is believed that in the War of 1812 there were two different submarines used in battle. With the onset of the Civil War, multiple submarine designs were created and tested, most resulting in failure. People all across Europe and America were working to create designs that could be useful in a maritime attack.

A designer working for the Confederacy by the name of James McClintock designed multiple submarines, most of which resulted in failure: many sank and most others never successfully floated. Finally, the submersible H.L. Hunley, named for a man who had worked with McClintock on submarine design and creation, was victorious.

On the evening of February 17, 1864, the H.L. Hunley, with its eight-person crew, was sent to help break up the Union blockade around Charleston, South Carolina, by bringing down the USS Housatonic. There are varying reports, but most historians agree that members of the USS Housatonic crew saw the Confederate Hunley coming toward them and prepared their fire. Unfortunately for the Union it was too late. The Hunley crew had already fired a torpedo onto the Housatonic and quickly retreated. In mere moments, a large explosion on the Housatonic sunk the vessel. Despite the rapid sinking, most of the ship’s 150-member crew had enough time to abandon the ship. Only five of the Union crew were reported killed. By comparison, the Hunley submarine suffered a similar fate. It is unknown whether it sustained injuries from the torpedo blast or a mechanical failure, but the Hunley also never returned after its mission. Instead, it and its eight crew members sank.

While the Confederate crew of the Hunley may have died on their mission, their military success made maritime history as the first successful submarine attack on a naval ship. The Hunley’s victory encouraged military leaders to further pursue advancements in submarine design. In the 150 years since the Civil War, submarines have been perfected and become one of the most covert and effective military options during times of war and peace.

Connie Golding earned a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in Fine Arts from The George Washington University. She is former Groups Sales Manager at Ford’s Theatre.