Review: The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy

Chaffin, Tom. The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy. Hill and Wang (September 30, 2008). 352 pages, maps, illustrations, index. ISBN: 978-0-8090-9512-4 $26.00 (Hardcover).

thehlhunleythesecrethopeoftheconfederacychaffinWhat was the name of the first underwater craft to sink an enemy warship in action?  Many Civil War buffs probably know the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley is the answer, but far fewer know of the trials, tribulations, and in some cases deaths needed in order for the Hunley to take its place in the history books.  Author Tom Chaffin, using mainly primary sources and information gleaned since the raising of the Hunley in 1995, proceeds to tell her story, which necessarily includes her namesake Horace Lawson Hunley and the brave crews which manned her over her brief history.  This book is not only the story of the Hunley but also of the early years of submarines and their struggle to become accepted as valid means of warmaking rather than as “infernal machines.”

Author Tom Chaffin has written several books on Civil War era topics, including the recent Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah and Pathfinder: John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire.  He is a professor of History and director/editor of the James K. Polk Correspondence Project at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville.  Chaffin’s Preface deals extensively with his ideas about using primary sources and his determination early in the project to only relate fats which could be proven, noting extensively any stories which could not be established as factual to his satisfaction.  The end result is a story of the Hunley which goes far in reducing some of the more popular and fanciful tales of the submarine boat to the realm of legend where they belong.

Anyone attempting to chronicle the Hunley naturally must also tell the tale of one of its three builders, Horace Lawson Hunley.  Chaffin uses primary sources, including a log Hunley kept, to tell his tale.  Hunley was closest to his brother-in-law, anti-secessionist wealthy planter Robert Ruffin Barrow, and his friend pro-secession lawyer Henry Leovy.  Barrow was married to Horace’s younger sister Volumnia, and they had two children together.  Hunley tragically went down at the helm of his eponymous ship in late 1863, failing to see its ultimate success.  This tragedy may have also played a part in the Barrows’ ultimate separation shortly after the Civil War, although a larger reason was probably the loss of Robert R. Barrow’s fortune as a result of the war.

The tale of the Hunley and Confederate attempts at creating a successful submarine boat covers three cities, New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston. Horace Lawson Hunley and two others, James McClintock and Baxter Watson, embarked on their extended underwater undertakings with the construction of CSS Pioneer at New Orleans in 1861-1862.  The Union capture of that city in the spring of 1862 prevented the Pioneer from doing any more than making some trial runs in nearby Lake Ponchartrain.  The boat was destroyed as the three men left New Orleans for Mobil, Alabama.  There they continued their submarine experiments and produced the American Diver.  This boat was too slow to be of much use and sank into Mobile Bay in early 1863.  Adding to the craft’s woes was the opposition of Mobile’s naval commander, Admiral Franklin Buchanan.  When the third and last submarine the trio produced (first named the Fish Boat and later the H.L. Hunley) was launched, the boat faced opposition from Buchanan.  He eventually succeeded in getting the submarine transferred overland by rail to Charleston, site of the ship’s ultimate success but also the scene of three tragedies involving the ship. Numerous trials proved the Hunley could sink an enemy ship with her towed torpedo, but the deaths of some of her first crew and all of her second including builder and namesake Horace Hunley caused a shroud of tragedy to hang over the ship.  Chaffin praised the third crew, who were all well aware of what happened to Hunley’s first two crews.  Finally, under the command of Lieutenant George E. Dixon, the Hunley found and sank the USS Housatonic near Charleston Harbor on the night of February 17, 1864, the first submarine to sink and enemy warship in history.  Not until Spetember 1914 would the feat be duplicated by a German U-Boat in the opening days of World War I.

In the latter part of the book, Chaffin goes into how the boat was and has been (mis)remembered since being lost in February1864.  The Hunley’s discovery in 1995 1000 yards east of the USS Housatonic has cleared up some mysteries associated with the ship and created others.  The exact dimensions of the submarine were established, the ship revealed her last crew of eight men still inside, and several holes were discovered in the hull which may lead to clues as to what happened after she sank the Housatonic.  For this reason alone I cannot call this the definitive book on the Hunley.  At the time the book was written, much archaeological work was yet to be done on the vessel.  I wondered at one point why Chaffin hadn’t waited a few years to see if any groundbreaking new information was discovered.

The book is extremely well-written, so much so that I managed to finish it in just two sittings.  Chaffin related the story in such a way that no major prior knowledge of the Civil War is needed in order to read and enjoy this book.  Chaffin allows the men who worked on and operated the Hunley to tell their own story.  In addition, he tackles the many myths and legends associated with the ship, provides readers with the various thoughts and viewpoints associated with each, and clearly makes his own choices as to what really happened with this famous although clearly misunderstood ship.  The result is an eminently readable and thoroughly researched account of the first underwater vessel to sink an enemy ship in action.

The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy by Tom Chaffin is a worthy addition to the literature of the American Civil War at sea.  The tale of the Hunley deserved to be told, and Chaffin had much to add with the discovery of the ship in 1995.  This book will appeal to a wide audience, perhaps exposing new readers to at least a portion of the American Civil War.  The book contains proper endnotes despite this widespread appeal.  Students of naval history, of submarines in particular, will surely want this book in their libraries as well.  I highly recommend this book to TOCWOC’s readers.

For more information on the Hunley and for an “interactive blueprint” of the submarine boat, please visit

I would like to thank Stephen Weil at Hill and Wang.

Update: Jim Beeghley has a review of the book up at Teaching the Civil War with Technology.


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One response to “Review: The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy

  1. Jim Beeghley Avatar


    A great review of the book. I enjoyed reading the book and learning about the Hunley. Lots of information.

    Check out my review at:


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