The Submarine: A Legend Before Its Time
- Monday, April 11, 2005
April 2, 1863: it was a dark and stormy night. A green, cigar-shaped, 47-foot-long submersible warship was being towed behind the USS Sumpter on its way to help capture Charleston, South Carolina. The fierce winds and high seas, however, cut its mission short. In order to save the endangered Sumpter, the USS Alligator was cut loose. It sank off the North Carolina coast, in an area known as "The Graveyard of the Atlantic," and was never seen again.
Alligator? 1863? Subs? Yes, one of the lesser-known stories of the Civil War is that of the submarines, both Confederate and Union. Research in this field is on-going and fascinating. One of the great difficulties in finding information about Civil War-era submarines is because at that time sub records were considered classified information. On the Southern side, many subs operated under the Secret Service, rather than the Navy. The use of submarines during the war was top secret and almost legendary. The South destroyed almost all records of the submarines, because those involved feared for their lives after the South surrendered. The North publicly denounced undersea warfare, but it secretly engaged in its own sub building programs. Therefore, they kept little in the way of official records.
In recent years, as historians have become more aware of the importance of submarines during the Civil War, they have discovered that more than twenty such boats were used at that time. And so in August of 2004, the "Hunt for the Alligator" began. This effort involves many different people, including historians, archeologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, naval experts, Civil War experts, and more. It's a huge effort that is being led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and supported by the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research. For more information go to: www.sanctuaries.noaa.gov/alligator/.
Perhaps you have heard of the CSS Hunley? This Confederate sub was the first known sub to sink a ship in combat. It rammed the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor February 16, 1864 with a spar torpedo that was packed with explosive powder and attached to a long pole on the sub's bow. The Housatonic was destroyed but so was the Hunley.
Amazingly, this sub was recovered in August 2000, and towed to shore. Our family was in Charleston the day it was brought in. Thousands of people lined the route, gazing in amazement that this 150+ year old sub - contemporary of horses and buggies, steamboats and the telegraph - could sustain life underwater, using such features as airlocks, electric motors, air purification systems, and periscopes - features not seen again until the twentieth century. Later, the remains of the nine crewmen who had died inside were given a proper burial. Scientists and historians are learning much about submarine warfare during the Civil War era from this incredible find.
The North and the South used their submarines in two different ways. The North wanted subs to clear obstacles in the water in order to safeguard their fleet. The South used subs on the offensive against the much larger Union Navy. The South had many more subs, most of them privately built.
An interesting theory concerning the USS Tecumseh (Captain Farragut: "D*** the Torpedoes - Full Speed Ahead!") has recently been proposed. Some now believe that rather than hitting a mine, the Tecumseh was sunk by a sub.
Evidently, after the Yankee ship Tecumseh sank, three Confederate soldiers were pulled from the Bay. One of them, Captain Albert Pierce, claimed to have attached a mine to a Yankee ship. He then claimed that his sub, the CSS Captain Pierce, exploded, killing most of his crew. Did the Tecumseh succumb to a Confederate sub? Reportedly, a sunken vessel lies buried in the sand near the Tecumseh - perhaps with today's improving technology, historians will someday be able to tell the whole story.
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