When someone mentions Confederate submarines, everyone thinks of the C.S.S. Hunley, and rightfully so. The Hunley did become the first submersible combat vessel to sink an enemy warship. But the South’s drive to build and successfully implement innovative warships goes far beyond one ship in February 1864. There were several other Confederate submarines and attempts to disrupt the blockade of Southern ports.
An excellent resource on the subject is Mark Ragan’s Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare (1999). The only thing that could make this book more beneficial would have been an appendix, maybe a quick reference guide, listing the barest details of each submarine.
Another note: the Confederacy built both semi-submersible and completely submersible vessels. The former are at times referred to as torpedo boats or David-Class Torpedo Boats. These craft were built of wood, contained a single screw, and had a steam boiler. They were fifty feet in length, had a four-man crew, and boasted a spar torpedo on the end. They were designed to run at night semi-submerged toward a Federal vessel, to drive the torpedo inside the vessel, and to then back away. On October 5, 1863, a “David” vessel attacked the U.S.S. Ironsides in Charleston, seriously damaging the vessel. The Confederate David was able to return to harbor. (135-137)
Information on many of these Confederate submarines is extremely limited. Many of the Confederate naval records were destroyed at war’s end.
|The Hunley by Chapman|
Franklin G. Smith wrote to the Columbia Herald on June 10, 1861, about building a fleet of Confederate submarines: “Excepting our privateers the Confederate States have not a single ship at sea. Throughout our southern seaports, men of a mechanical turn and of the right spirit must go to work, maturing the best plans for the destruction or the capture of every blockading ship. From the Chesapeake to the mouth of the Rio Grande, our coast is better fitted for submarine warfare than any other in the world. I would have every hostile keel chased from our coast by submarine propellers. The new vessel must be cigar shaped for speed - made of plate iron, joined without external rivet heads, about thirty feet long, with a central section about 4 x 3 feet - driven by a spiral propeller. The new Aneroid barometer made for increased pressure, will enable the adventurer easily to decide his exact distance below the surface.” Of course, there never was a fleet of submarines built, but there were a few of note.
Pioneer – built in New Orleans, Louisiana, and tested in February 1862. The ship was 34 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 4 feet high. It was powered by a hand crank that was attached to a propeller. The Pioneer was scuttled in a canal near Lake Pontchartrain when New Orleans was evacuated. The Federals raised and examined the ship, and in 1868, it was sold for scrap.
Bayou Saint John submarine – no one seems to know the name of this vessel. It was dredged out of Bayou Saint John in 1878. When it was eventually opened, three skeletons were found inside. The submarine is now on display at the Capitol Park Museum – Baton Rouge.
Shreveport submarines – there were supposedly five submarines under construction in Shreveport, Louisiana, by the Singer Submarine Corporation in 1863. One of these was sent to Houston, Texas, while the other four were scuttled toward the end of the war. The other four are still submerged but apparently “surface” in the news when they are exposed during low water levels at the Cross Bayou. See https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/01/24/mystery-of-missing-civil-war-subs-resurfaces/22288817/
Richmond submarines--these include several built by Tredegar Iron Works. One was tested on the James River below Rocketts at the end of 1861. In this test, a diver emerged from the submerged vessels and planted an explosive charge on the bottom of a barge. Once secure in the submarine, the charge was detonated, sinking the barge. On October 12, 1861, an unnamed submarine, possibly the one above or maybe a different vessel, was launched at Sewall’s Point and made for the U.S.S. Minnesota. The craft became entangled in a net and was almost captured. It is not really clear what became of these vessels.
Pioneer II (American Diver) – built in Mobile late 1862. It started out with some type of electrical motor, and then had a steam engine, and eventually had a hand crank. On its first mission in February 1863, in an attempt to attack the Federal blocking fleet there at Mobile Bay, it foundered in heavy seas and sank. But the crew did survive.
Colonel E. H. Agaman – was the idea of Col. E.H. Agaman. His submarine was rocket powered. It is not clear if the submarine itself was rocket powered, or the torpedo. After the fuel for the rocket was shipped from Augusta, Georgia, to Mobile in April 1863, this vessel disappears from the pages of history.
CSS Squib also operated in the James River. In April 1864, the Squib placed a torpedo on the hull of USS Minnesota and detonated it. The torpedo was too close to the surface, and the Minnesota was not seriously damaged. The final disposition of the Squib is unknown. The Squib is also referred to as the Infanta. There were also operating at the end of the war three others: the Scorpion, Hornet, and Wasp.
CSS Hunley – most famous. Constructed in Mobile and transported to Mobile, the Hunley sank twice and killed a crew and a half before the attack the USS Housatonic. Of course we know that the final crew of the Hunley did not return and sank as well, somewhere beyond where the Housatonic went down.
CSS Captain Pierce might have sunk the USS Tecumseh in August 1864 in the battle of Mobile Bay. The boiler of the submarine might have exploded shortly thereafter.
CSS St. Patrick was privately built in Mobile and transferred to the Confederate navy in January 1865. The St. Patrick struck the Federal ship USS Octorara with a torpedo, but the torpedo misfired and did no damage and the St. Patrick escaped.
There were at least two submarines under construction in Wilmington, North Carolina, in late 1864, early 1865. But their final dispositions are unknown.
(For more information, please check out Ragan’s Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War, or, Daniel Franignoul’s “Submarine Monsters of the Confederacy,” Confederate Historical Society of Belgium)