The Strange Deaths Of The Crew Of An American Civil War Submarine


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

The H.L. Hunley, currently on display at the Wrren Lasch Conservation Center in South Carolina, is still being carefully restored by experts. US Naval Historical Center

When was the submarine invented? Now we know what you’re thinking – this must be a trick question, and you’d be right to think that. Versions have shown up since antiquity, although the first military submarine was the 1720 version designed by a carpenter under the orders of Russian Tsar Peter the Great.

Remarkably, the very first submarine to actually sink another warship made its debut during the American Civil War in July 1863, when it was first launched by the Confederates. It sunk during a rather epic battle involving a bizarre form of torpedo, and ever since it was raised from the sea in 2000, researchers have been carefully taking it apart and looking inside. Now, as reported by CNN, the submarine’s innards contain a very strange displacement of human remains.


The crew compartment – sealed for years behind a crust of compacted oceanic sediment – has been opened up and showcased. The crew were not found within it, however; they were all found at their various stations, indicating that they died where they worked. None were found near any sort of escape hatch, which suggested death visited them rather suddenly.

Built at Mobile in Alabama, this metallic submarine was the real deal, in that it had ballast tanks allowing it to descend beneath the waves. It was also powered by a hand crank attached to a propeller, which the tiny crew of no more than eight operated as they moved up on their enemy targets.

This crank has now also been shown to the public as part of the recent restoration work and it was found, rather strangely, to have a tooth embedded in it.


The submarine, named the H.L. Hunley after its inventor, had quite the chequered history. It accidentally sank and took on water within its hull twice – first during its test run and again a few months later. Both times, it killed all the crew onboard, including the creator itself during the second disaster.


As aforementioned, it was the first attack submarine in history to take down an enemy vessel: It used its spar torpedo – an explosive on the end of a very, very long pole – to sink the USS Housatonic in 1864.

During its successful attack run on the USS Housatonic, it may have taken some damage. It’s unclear as to what precisely transpired that day, but there’s a chance that the explosion that sunk the Union vessel also damaged the Hunley itself, which ultimately caused it to take on water and go down for a third time.

Officially found in 1995 on the seaward side of the wreck of the USS Housatonic, scientists and engineers have been pouring through the debris ever since to try and ascertain what happened.

By 2008, a team of researchers determined that the crew had failed to set a pump that would have removed water from the crew’s compartment, which suggests it wasn’t flooded after all. The team suggested that the crew passed out from a lack of oxygen, and ended up being asphyxiated.


However, in 2013, conservationists had found evidence that there was a copper sleeve at the end of the spar torpedo used in the battle. This suggests that during the attack, the explosive got stuck on the spear, which means that it would have detonated incredibly close to the Hunley.

Although it may not have caused water-breaching damage to the hull, the explosion may have knocked the crew unconscious, and ultimately they never woke up. Perhaps the force of the explosion was what caused the tooth to become lodged in the hand crank.

Conrad Wise Chapman's 1864 painting of the H. L. Hunley.

Most of the crew remains were taken out of the Hunley a few years back, and they were buried in 2004 – but it’s likely there’s still a lot more to find in the wreckage. There’s still at least five to seven more years of work left, after which the submarine will be given to a museum, probably in South Carolina.

[H/T: CNN]


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