Horace Lawson Hunley (1823 – 1863)
The next inductee to our Hall of Fame is Horace Hunley who over the course of his relatively short life was a lawyer, merchant, member of the Louisiana state legislature and a marine engineer. Although born in Tennessee, Horace’s parents moved soon after his birth to New Orleans which is where he grew up and practised law.
His interest in marine engineering was brought to a head by the outbreak of war – the American Civil War – when he and a couple of colleagues, James McClintock and Baxter Watson, started to prototype submarines. I don’t know about you but the idea of being in a submarine fills me with horror. Just imagine how scary it must have been designing and testing early prototypes.
The three collaborators worked on and funded themselves an early submarine for the Confederates, called the Pioneer. The idea behind the sub was quite compelling – by building a vessel that could travel underwater they would be able to surprise enemy shipping as, indeed, the success of subs in the Second World War demonstrated. The Pioneer was first tested in February 1862 in the Mississippi river and then was towed up to Lake Pontchartrain for additional trials. Unfortunately (there is always a vein of misfortune running through the lives of our inductees) New Orleans had fallen into the hands of the forces of the Union before trials had been completed and the Pioneer was scuttled. In 1865 it was raised and examined by Union troops and then sold off for scrap.
A second submarine built by our hero saw the light of day but sank in Mobile Bay off the coast of Alabama.
Undaunted, Huntley this time funded himself and developed a third submarine which could reach the impressive speed of 4 knots per hour, powered by a hand-driven screw. It was 3 feet 10 inches wide, illuminated by candles and its only source of oxygen was what was in the cabin when it was launched. The contraption probably presented more danger to its crew than to enemy shipping as subsequent events soon revealed. On its first trial it sank but was raised to the surface, dusted down and was ready for its second trial.
To demonstrate his faith in the vessel, Hunley was one of the crew of eight for the next trial. Unfortunately, the sub was stranded on the bottom of the sea off Charlestown in South Carolina and all the crew, including our hero, suffocated to death. It must have been a particularly gruesome way to go.
Hunley’s sacrifice did not go unrewarded. The Confederacy managed to recover the vessel (presumably remove the remains of the erstwhile crew) and sent it into action again. This time it actually sank an enemy vessel, the USS Housatonic, in 1864, recording the first success by a sub against enemy shipping. But the success was bitter-sweet as the sub, named the Hunley, disappeared and never returned, taking its third crew to Davy’s locker. Despite this inauspicious start, the concept of a submarine took hold and was, eventually, developed into a more reliable means of marine transport.
Horace, killed by your own invention, you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame
If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards