After multiple accidents that led to 13 Confederate casualties, the H.L. Hunley began its first and last mission. On Feb. 17, 1864, the Hunley, under the command of George Dixon, sank the USS Housatonic near the north entrance of the Charleston harbor, making it the first submarine to sink an enemy warship in combat.
The Hunley was built in the spring of 1862 in Mobile at the Park & Lyons Machine Shop. The Hunley was a submersible vessel operated by an eight-man crew. Seven men sat side-by-side on a wooden bench, turning a hand-cranked propeller to power the vessel while another man served as the commander. The commander also was responsible for steering and deployment of weapons.
P.G.T. Beauregard hoped a submarine like the Hunley could help break the naval blockade that was choking any attempted entrance to Charleston harbor. Research and development of the Hunley proved deadly. The Hunley sank twice. The first sinking occurred while tied to her moorings. The Hunley sank when the hatches were left open. That accident killed five. The second sinking occurred during a practice dive, killing all eight of her crew including her namesake, Horace L. Hunley.
With 13 fatalities, any hope of using the Hunley as an effective war weapon was all but given up. Dixon persuaded Beauregard and Jefferson Davis to give the vessel one more try. Dixon was a veteran of the 21st Alabama, which fought in the Battle of Shiloh, and had survived the two-day fight thanks to a lucky coin.
Upon going to war, Dixon's sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, presented him a gold coin for good luck. Dixon kept the coin in his trouser pocket. During the fighting at Shiloh, Dixon was shot at point blank range. The minie ball hit the coin in Dixon's pocket, bending the coin.
After Shiloh, Dixon returned to Mobile and eventually volunteered to serve aboard the Hunley. Sadly, some of that service required Dixon to scrub the interior of the Hunley with lime after the bodies were removed after it sank twice. In 1863, the Hunley was moved from Mobile to Charleston.
On Feb. 17, Dixon spotted the Housatonic moored 2 miles from Battery Marshall. It was a bright moonlit night, which only served to silhouette the Housatonic against the sky. The Hunley approached the Housatonic without being spotted by the night watch aboard the vessel until it was too close. The guns of the Housatonic could not be depressed enough to defend against the Hunley's attack.
As the Housatonic's crew slipped the anchor chain and backed engine to escape the Hunley. Dixon detonated an explosive charge against the Housatonic's starboard side. Within five minutes the Housatonic was completely submerged. There were five fatalities as most of the crew escaped in lifeboats or by clinging to the Housatonic's masts. The Hunley had just ushered in another tool in the ever-growing arsenal of warfare.
The Hunley was said to have surfaced, signaling Confederate troops on shore with a blue lantern. Although successful in sinking the Housatonic, the Hunley failed to return from its mission. The vessel and crew were lost. The reason for the Hunley's disappearance remained a mystery.
The Hunley was discovered May 3, 1995 and was raised Aug. 8, 2000. Inside the Hunley, the remains of eight men were found. Found near one of the bodies, was the bent gold coin given to Dixon by Queenie Bennett.