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The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy by Tom Chaffin



The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy by Tom Chaffin


On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Confederacy’s H. L. Hunley sank the Union’s formidable sloop-of-war, the USS Housatonic, and became the first submarine in world history to sink an enemy ship. Not until World War I—almost a half-century later—would a submarine again accomplish such a feat. But also perishing that moon-lit night, vanishing beneath the cold Atlantic Ocean’s waters off Charleston, South Carolina, was the Hunley and her entire crew of eight, three more men than had gone down with the Housatonic. For generations, searchers prowled Charleston’s harbor, looking for the Hunley. And as they hunted, the legends surrounding the boat and its demise continued to grow. Even after the submarine was definitively located in 1995 and recovered five years later, those legends—those barnacles of misinformation—have only thickened.

Now, in a tour-de-force of document-sleuthing and insights gleaned from the excavation of this remarkable vessel, distinguished Civil War-era historian Tom Chaffin presents the most thorough telling of the Hunley’s story possible. Of panoramic breadth, this Civil War saga begins long before the submarine was even assembled and follows the tale into the boat’s final hours and through its recovery in 2000. Beyond his exhaustive survey of period documents related to the submarine, Chaffin—to complete his portrait of this technological wonder—also conducted extensive interviews with Maria Jacobsen, senior archeologist at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Center, where the Hunley is now being excavated. What emerges is a narrative that casts compelling doubts on many long-held assumptions, particularly those concerning the boat’s final hours—including the storied blue-light that it allegedly flashed to signal its triumph over the Housatonic. Thoroughly engaging and utterly new, The H. L. Hunley provides the definitive account of a storied craft.

Tom Chaffin is Professor of History and Director/Editor of the James K. Polk Correspondence Project at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His books include Sea of Gray (Hill and Wang, 2006) and Pathfinder (Hill and Wang, 2002). His work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Time, and other publications.


Advance praise for The H. L. Hunley:

“Fueled by obsessive scholarship and a boyish sense of wonder, Tom Chaffin takes us deep down into uncharted fathoms of the Civil War—and then surfaces with a finny, fascinating tale that’s equal parts Shelby Foote and Jules Verne.” —Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder

“There is no more compelling human or high-tech story in the annals of the Civil War than the saga of the remarkable H. L. Hunley and its brave, ill-fated crew. Drawing on a vast archive of original sources and an abundance of interpretive skill, Tom Chaffin has crafted an informed, dramatic page-turner. This is authoritative military history that reads like a novel.” —Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the U. S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and co-author of The Confederate Image.

“Chronicling this multifaceted story of the Confederacy’s secret hope, Tom Chaffin has answered many of the mysteries surrounding the H. L. Hunley. With an extensive examination of primary documents, he has taken on the mythologizers, offering instead an extraordinary contribution to historical understanding.” —Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln