On a cold night in February 1864 George Dixon, captain of the CSS Hunley, and his crew of seven attacked and sunk the Federal blockading ship Housatonic in Charleston harbor becoming the first submarine ever to sink a ship. The Hunley never returned to shore after the sinking and was presumed lost at sea. The book, Sea of Darkness, written by Brian Hicks, tells the intriguing story. The narrative bounces back and forth between the events leading up to the fateful night of the sinking and the events leading to the subsequent finding of the sunken Hunley in 1995, over 130 years later.
The book describes all of the persons involved in the development of The Hunley including its namesake Horace Hunley, who provided the financing, and James McClintock and William Alexander who primarily designed the submarine. The Hunley was designed for a crew of eight, seven to turn the hand-cranked propeller and one to steer and direct the boat. Each end of the submarine was equipped with ballast tanks that could be flooded by valves or pumped dry by hand pumps to lower or raise the submarine. The armament included a torpedo attached to the bow by a 22 foot wooden spar and designed to explode on contact. Although an amazing invention for its time, it was still a relatively primitive design and dangerous to operate. In fact, several crewmen died in test runs, including Hunley himself.
Over the next 130 years several attempts were make to locate The Hunley. It was believed the Hunley must have sunk coming back from the attack somewhere between the blockading ships and the shore or was destroyed itself from the blast so search efforts concentrated between the blockading ships and shoreline. However, it was discovered by Diver Ralph Wilbanks, while leading a dive team led by novelist Clive Cussler, 100 yards away and on the seaward side of the Housatonic. In other words, the submarine went further out to sea after the attack rather than immediately attempting to return to shore. The submarine was buried under several feet of silt, which had both concealed and protected the vessel for more than a hundred years. When later raised it was in excellent condition for its age and currently resides in The Friends of The Hunley Museum in Charleston, SC where it can be visited today.
The cause of the sinking is still not known. There was no sign of panic among the crew who were still in their seats. Also, there was no attempt by the crew to raise the submarine to the surface. The book explores several possibilities and the investigation is still ongoing but we may never know for sure.
I would highly recommend this book for persons interested in Civil War history or submarines or even in interesting inventions and how they came about. While examining remains of George Dixon on the submarine a shiny object was discovered close to him. It turned out to be a $20 gold piece given to Dixon by his sweetheart. He had carried it as a good luck charm and it had previously saved his life at the Battle of Shiloh when he was hit in the leg but the bullet was blunted by the gold piece. You can still see the dented gold piece today in the museum in Charleston.