On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Confederacy'sH. 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. But after accomplishing such a feat, the Hunley and her crew of eight also vanished beneath the cold Atlantic waters off Charleston, South Carolina. For generations, the legend of the Hunley grew as searchers prowled the harbor, looking for remains. Even after the submarine was definitively located in 1995 and recovered five years later, those legends have continued to flourish. In a tour de force of document-sleuthing and insights gleaned from the excavation of this remarkable vessel, the distinguished Civil War-era historian Tom Chaffin presents the most thorough telling of the Hunley's story possible. Of panoramic breadth, this 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. Engaging and groundbreaking, The H. L. Hunley provides the definitive account of a fabled craft.
This lively account of the first submarine to sink an opposing ship is an excellent niche history. Chaffin (Sea of Gray) relates that H.L. Hunley was neither soldier nor engineer, but an adventurous New Orleans attorney turned exporter who wanted to make his fortune selling the submarine he developed with several partners to the Confederate Navy. After two unsuccessful tests, in 1863 a third submarine performed decently, but the unenthusiastic local commander extolled its virtues to General Beauregard, who agreed to commission a submarine. It was shipped to Charleston, S.C., where it sank twice during testing, drowning both crews-- including Hunley himself. In February 1864, the submarine, named the H.L. Hunley, finally sank a Union blockader with its torpedo but never returned. The event assumed mythic status, culminating in great excitement when divers exhumed the wreck in 2000. Chaffin finishes with a lucid description of the impressive details of this splendid artifact of engineering. Sampling from letters, articles and memoirs, the author succeeds in separating facts from legend in this engrossing examination of a pioneering weapon of war. Maps. (Oct.)
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Hill and Wang
February 15, 2010
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