Civil War Wednesday: Attacking Beneath the Waves

  • Conrad Chapman sketch of the H.L. Hunley.

The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, made possible with the financing of Horace L. Hunley, traveled via train from Mobile, Alabama, to Charleston in the summer of 1863. General P.G.T. Beauregard, in command of the department encompassing Charleston, sought any method practical to alleviate the ever-increasing effectiveness of the Federal blockade. After a couple of failed test runs, and the loss of several lives, Lieutenant George Dixon assembled a collection of seven brave volunteers to resume training. Their hard work finally paid off on February 17, as the Hunley crew approached the USS Housatonic, anchored outside the harbor, and planted her spar torpedo into the ship’s hull. The resultant explosion ripped the Housatonic apart, and in five minutes she sank beneath the waves of the Atlantic. Five sailors onboard the Federal ship died, but the balance of the 155-man crew found safety on the deck of the nearby Canandaigua. Dixon and his men perished during the attack.

While Dixon and crew prepared for their secret mission, two enterprising individuals also worked on a submersible of their own in Savannah. Charles G. Wilkinson and Charles Carroll, both members of the 25th Georgia Infantry, took their craft out for a test run on February 23 with disastrous results. Little knowledge of their design or plans exists. One historian noted, “…nothing more is known of the event or the fate of the boat.”[1] A few newspaper accounts of the activity in Savannah serve as the main resources for what happened to Wilkinson, Carroll, and their submarine.

Horace L. Hunley, courtesy U.S. Naval Institute
Horace L. Hunley, courtesy U.S. Naval Institute

The Savannah Daily Morning News reported, “Lamentable accident. The chain of the crane upon which the instrument [the sub] was suspended gave way, and Dr. Wilkinson, the inventor, lost his life.” The account praised the men who “…were doing nothing for profit, but simply for the cause in which they were engaged.”[2] The Savannah Daily Republican, in their February 25 edition, noted, “…Wilkinson…had been engaged for some time in perfecting a submarine apparatus; finding it defective in some respects, certain changes were made, which added materially to its weight.” Undoubtedly, this extra weight placed a strain on the cable lowering the vessel into the river. The dramatic fall quite possibly damaged the sub; Carroll effected an escape, while Wilkinson continued to work with an apparent faulty air valve.

The craft sank beneath the river’s surface taking Wilkinson to a watery grave. Rumors of the incident circulated throughout the Confederacy; Richmond’s Daily Dispatch carried a March 3 story, which stated, “Dr. C.G. Wilkinson, Lieutenant of the Emmet Rifles, lost his eye last Sunday, at Savannah, by the explosion of a submarine apparatus, inside of which he was at the time, under water.” Wilkinson lost more than an eye, and Beauregard’s hope for easing the ever-increasing effectiveness of the Federal blockade outside Charleston diminished; February 1864 proved unkind to the brave volunteers attacking beneath the waves for the Confederacy.

Rescue workers soon recovered Wilkinson’s body, and he received interment in Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery. For the crew of the Hunley, they would rest at the bottom of the harbor until August 2000, when recovery efforts for the vessel finally brought her to the surface.

[1] Mark K. Ragan, Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2001), 43.

[2] Ibid.



Michael Shaffer

Michael K. Shaffer is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center. He is a Civil War historian, author, and newspaper columnist, and a member of the Society of Civil War Historians. He serves on the boards of the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County and the River Line Historic Area, and assists the Friends of Camp McDonald as a Civil War consultant.