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H.L. Hunley. (Naval Historical Center)

Last Voyage of the Peripatetic Coffin

Lookouts aboard the Union sloop Housatonic stared in confusion at a dark object approaching the ship in Charleston Harbor on the night of February 17, 1864. The Union soldiers had no way of knowing that a Confederate submarine, ominously nicknamed the 'Peripatetic Coffin,' was bearing down on them.

By William H. Langenberg

In 1861, only one living American officer had ever commanded a large army in battle. He was General Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican War, but now aging, overweight and soon to retire. A Virginian by birth, Scott believed he understood the Confederate psyche better than most Union military and political leaders. In his view, most Southerners loved their country. If they could be made to recognize the overwhelming power of the North without having their stubborn pride inflamed through attack by a hostile army, many would perceive the error of secession and renounce those fire-eaters who had led them into it. On that premise, Scott devised a strategic war plan and promptly submitted it to President Abraham Lincoln.

Anaconda Plan

In essence, Scott called for a deep-water naval blockade of all Southern ports on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to seal off the Confederacy from European assistance. Concurrently, an army of about 80,000 trained soldiers, backed by gunboats, would storm its way down the Mississippi River, cutting off the southeastern states from the food and cattle provided by Texas, as well as any foreign supplies that might be forwarded through neutral Mexican ports. In Scott's plan, possession of the Mississippi River would be secured by fully garrisoned Union strongholds at Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans, plus lesser posts in between.

The primary purpose of Scott's strategy, which became known as the Anaconda Plan, was "to envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than with any other plan." Politically, the strategy was attractive, since it allowed time for tempers to cool and fostered the possibility of peaceful re-establishment of the Union. Militarily, the Anaconda Plan envisioned a relatively bloodless victory, since it involved no massive invasion of the seceded states. In retrospect, Scott's strategy was one of the few submitted to Lincoln that capitalized fully on the North's overwhelming advantages in population and industrial strength and recognized the vital importance of control over the Mississippi River Valley.


But Scott, still alert at age 75, foresaw one serious obstacle to his strategy: The Northern population was impatient and insisted upon immediate military action. An "On to Richmond!" fervor captured the fancy of most Northerners. They advocated a quick and decisive defeat of the South, which in turn necessitated the prompt capture of the enemy capital at Richmond. Such aggressive sentiment was supported by most contemporary Northern newspapers, which largely ridiculed Scott's Anaconda Plan as too timid and time-consuming. Fomented by Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the influential New York Tribune, the "On to Richmond" fever spread rapidly throughout the North.

Lincoln, however, welcomed and studied Scott's plan. Acting promptly, the president proclaimed a blockade of the Southern coast on April 19, including seaports all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. But Lincoln balked at Scott's proposed strike down the Mississippi, since it would have taken several months to gather, train and equip the necessary military forces.

Lincoln's action initially resulted in only a paper blockade of the South. The Union Navy in 1861 consisted only of 42 ships and 7,600 men, a fraction of the number needed to effectively blockade the nearly 3,600 miles of Confederate coastline. Complicating the Navy's challenge were the numerous barrier islands, bays, rivers and creeks that could harbor blockade runners sailing from neutral bases in Bermuda, Nassau or Cuba. With all those natural advantages, Southerners scoffed at the idea of an effective Union blockade.

Southern Miscalculations

But the South was too complacent. Recognizing the limitations of the 1861 Union Navy, Lincoln authorized three amphibious assaults to secure Union naval bases along the Southern coast. Conducted during the summer and fall of 1861, all three attacks were successful. The Federals secured fortified naval bases at Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, at Ship Island off the Mississippi coast and, most important, at Port Royal in South Carolina. The latter was the best natural harbor on the Confederate coast, and it gave the Union fleet the large, deep-water port it needed to maintain a year-round blockade of major Southern seaports at Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah.

The South made another strategic error soon after the attack on Fort Sumter. Confederate President Jefferson Davis believed Southern cotton was "white gold," indispensable to French and British industrial activity. He therefore proclaimed an embargo on shipments of Southern cotton to Europe in an attempt to create a severe cotton shortage there. In that way, he hoped to persuade France and Britain to help break the Union blockade and grant diplomatic recognition to the seceded states, or at the very least provide war supplies to them. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, earlier bumper crops of cotton had enabled England to build up its cotton inventory, and the resource did not become scarce in Europe until late 1862. By that time, the Union blockade had tightened and the Confederacy was running short of both money and credit.

Blockade Runners

Ingenious merchants and shippers in the South and Great Britain almost immediately devised ways to circumvent the initially ineffective, but gradually tightening, Union blockade. Huge profits generated by successfully running the blockade attracted a broad cross section of participants. Nassau, Bermuda and Havana became the principal departure points for swift, shallow-draft vessels designed especially for blockade running. Loaded with a mixture of war supplies, essential goods and luxuries, those vessels steamed westward to the major Confederate ports at Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah and to lesser harbors at Mobile, New Orleans and Galveston. A smaller amount of supplies was also shipped to the Mexican port of Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.

Blockade runners were generally unarmed, relying on their speed and shallow draft and the cover of darkness to evade Federal blockade ships. Almost all blockade runners returned to their place of departure loaded high with cotton. As the number and efficiency of Union blockade forces increased, however, the odds against the runners rose. In 1861, their chance of capture was about 1-in-10. By late 1863, however, the odds had increased to 1-in-3. The blockade began to strangle the  Confederacy, making it increasingly difficult for the Southerners to feed or arm themselves. The foresight of Scott's Anaconda Plan finally became evident.


But blockade runners were not the only Confederate naval effort initiated in 1861. At the beginning of the war, the South had essentially no navy. Few sailors and no ships had opted to join the Confederate side when the nation cleaved in two. Jefferson Davis therefore decided to procure a regular navy abroad. Concurrently, he acted to float an irregular one until new warships could be commissioned. Under the Declaration of Paris in 1856, the European powers had condemned privateering as piracy, but the United States government had refused to sign the declaration. During the War of 1812, American privateers had operated successfully against the British merchant marine, and the United States opted not to abandon a practice it might use again.

The Confederate Congress in Richmond also recalled the prior American successes at sea. It authorized that letters of marque be issued to qualified merchant vessels and their captains. Such a document was essentially authorization by a government for one of its citizens to seize the property of an enemy. There was widespread belief among members of the Confederate Congress that some New England skippers, ostensibly greedy Yankees, might be attracted by the easy dollars and apply for Confederate letters of marque. That hope proved futile, but within a few months 20 Confederate privateers were roaming the high seas, operating against the Union merchant marine.

Lincoln immediately declared the Confederate privateers to be pirates, promising that upon capture they would be tried and, if convicted, hanged. Davis countered the threat with one of his own: For every sailor thus hanged, he would hang a Union soldier of corresponding rank, chosen by lot from the Union prisoner-of-war compound at Richmond. That stalemate prevailed throughout the war.

Southern Subs

The issuance of Confederate letters of marque sparked development of the predecessor to the first Southern submarine, CSS Hunley. Shortly after the Confederate Congress solicited applications for letters of marque, two marine engineers and machinists from New Orleans, James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson, decided to build a submarine and operate it against the Union blockade at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Motivated both by patriotism and profit, the two men began construction of the boat in late 1861. At that time no submarine had ever sunk an enemy warship in combat, although David Bushnell's Turtle had almost succeeded in doing so during the Revolutionary War. And about 20 years later, Robert Fulton's demonstrations of his Nautilus submarine suggested that undersea vessels could become lethal instruments of war.

Development expenses for the New Orleans submarine escalated, and additional investors joined the project. Among them was Horace L. Hunley, a former lawyer and state legislator whose enthusiasm for the submarine seemed boundless. By the spring of 1862, the first completed submarine was set for a trial demonstration on nearby Lake Pontchartrain. Named Pioneer, the boat sank a target barge, and her investors were soon issued their requested letter of marque.


Meanwhile, another part of General Scott's derided Anaconda Plan was put into motion when Union Rear Adm. David G. Farragut led a combined military force that conquered New Orleans in April 1862. To prevent the Federals from capturing Pioneer, the submarine was scuttled in Bayou St. John, and McClintock,  Watson and Hunley moved their operation to Mobile.

Mobile proved to be a fortuitous location. The city possessed both the raw materials and fabricating facilities necessary to build a new boat. And the commander of the Confederate forces there, Maj. Gen. Dabney H. Maury, supported the efforts to build a submarine. He assigned two young engineers, Lieutenants George E. Dixon and William A. Alexander from the 21st Alabama Artillery, to assist with the project. Alexander was an Englishman who had arrived in America in 1859, and he played a crucial role in the submarine's development. The second submarine, American Diver, was completed in early 1863. She was towed off Fort Morgan, where the crew was to man the vessel and attack ships of the blockading Union fleet. Again, however, fate intervened, and  the submarine swamped on February 14, 1863, and was abandoned.

Despite two costly failures, Hunley and his now doubtful investors began constructing a third boat. Her hull consisted of an old boiler, about 25 feet long and 4 feet in diameter. To the crude hull were attached tapered bow and stern castings and internal bulkheads to create water ballast tanks for use in raising or lowering the submarine. Seacocks were installed in the ballast tanks, with hand pumps to eject the water. Because of limited combustion air and the absence of a smokestack, coal could not be burned to generate steam when the vessel was submerged.

The H.L. Hunley

The new submarine, named H.L. Hunley in honor of her remaining chief financial backer and principal designer, was forced to use manual power. A shaft passed down the center of the boat, connecting to a single propeller. Eight men sat on the starboard side of the boat and turned the shaft via cranks at the command of the captain. Depth was controlled by two lateral fins connected to a transverse shaft operated by the skipper. Hunley had two entry and escape hatches with 8-inch coamings containing glass ports -- the only means of seeing out of the boat after the hatches were closed, since the submarine had no periscope.

In order to dive, the captain at the bow and the second officer in the stern let water into the ballast tanks until the sea level outside reached the glass ports in the hatch coamings. After the crew manually cranked the propeller up to the desired speed, the captain controlled depth by manipulating the lateral fins. He also steered the submarine with a wheel connected to the rudder by rods running the length of the boat. Hunley could attain a speed of nearly 4 knots in calm water. A mercury gauge indicated depth below the surface. One candle was lighted in the boat for illumination and also to indicate the remaining oxygen supply within the submarine. In essence, Hunley was a primitive weapon -- with inadequate means of escape for the crew in case of flooding.

Next: Pyrrhic Victory

Copyright (c) 2000, PRIMEDIA Enthusiast Publications, Inc.

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