At the outset of the war between the states, the weight of sea power rested with the Northern states both in actual number of existing ships and the capacity to manufacture new ones.
The industrial capacity of the north had matured because of many reasons up to that point. Availability of raw materials and capacity to manufacture them was a critical aspect in all theaters of war. But it was especially poignant in the age where sail was beginning to give way to steam on the high seas.
The union Navy was well positioned to quickly control entry into the ports of the South.
The agricultural heritage of the South demanded trading partners both here and abroad and her entire economy would be strangled without easy access to materials and trading partners willing to help her acquire the wealth she would need to pursue her goals of state rights.
A blockade was a type of warfare commonly used in large scale conflicts but one which the South was unable to easily overcome.
The ability to wage war against a superior enemy at sea had been a goal of many nations for centuries. Even the fledgling colonial power in America tested it with little effect when it used the Turtle as an attempt to battle the mighty English fleet. So it was natural that the South would look for unique ways to level the playing field. Someone who could create a submersible warship could successfully change traditional warfare forever. Even the threat of an unseen enemy would change the tactics and armaments the enemy would need for countermeasures.
On February 17, 1864 the Hunley set sail to establish her place in history.
H. L. Hunley was a submarine of the Confederate States of America that played a small part in the American Civil War, but a large role in the history of naval warfare. The Hunley demonstrated both the advantages and the dangers of undersea warfare. It was the first combat submarine to sink an enemy warship, although the Hunley was not completely submerged and was lost at some point following her successful attack. The Confederacy lost 21 crewmen in three sinking’s of the Hunley during her short career. The submarine was named for her inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley, shortly after it was taken into service under the control of the Confederate Army at Charleston, South Carolina.
The Hunley, nearly 40 feet (12 m) long, was built at Mobile, Alabama, and launched in July 1863. It was then shipped by rail on August 12, 1863 to Charleston, South Carolina. Hunley (then called Fish Boat) sank on August 29, 1863, during a training exercise, killing five members of her crew. It sank again on October 15, 1863, killing all eight of her second crew, including Horace Hunley himself, who was aboard at the time, even though he was not enlisted in the Confederate armed forces. Both times the Hunley was raised and returned to service. On February 17, 1864, Hunley attacked and sank the 1240-short ton (1124 metric tons) screw sloop USS Housatonic on Union blockade duty in Charleston’s outer harbor. Soon after, Hunley sank, killing all eight of her third crew. This time, the innovative ship was lost.
The loss of both ships was certainly impactful to the sailors and officer onboard.
Their families would soon receive word of the shared sacrifices of both crews in service to their causes. Graves would have to wait for over a hundred years for the crew of the Hunley. But the total impact on warfare would be felt on the deckplates of every ship that sailed the seas from that day forward. The submersible warship had proven that it could attack an enemy using stealth as a cloak.
The true lesson of the Hunley was that any nation could now take on the navy of a superior nation and have a significant impact.
This lesson would be learned again and again in future wars. If you failed to prepare for submarine warfare, the use of this technology is obviously evil. As ship after ship sank in the Atlantic during the two wars, the traditional admiralties that clung to the notion that submarines were nothing but “distractions” and ineffectual “toys” in the scheme of naval warfare were disastrously proven wrong.
Even in modern warfare, submarines are the trump card that make the enemy prepare in ways that are exhausting, resource consuming, and expensive. If you know that the freedom of the seas will only be guaranteed by looking beneath the waves as well as above them, you must be prepared to ensure that freedom in one way or another.
Lessons learned, lessons lost
As America’s influence declines, so does her ability to defend her interests at sea.
The Navy is shrinking but the ocean is not.
It still occupies over three fourths of the world’s surface. The same factors that have made submarines powerful deterrents over the past hundred years are still the same as they were when America entered the submarine game in force. Those advantages are now passing to nations like China and many other small nations who recognize that submarine technology is still the great equalizer of all time.
It would be well for the leaders of this nation to heed the lessons of the past rather than become blinded by idealism and progressivism that falsely believes that threats from external sources will cease if only we just humble ourselves.
Those who believe that humbling the national interests will eliminate threats will soon find themselves humbled in ways they could never have imagined.
The only true way towards peace is through superior strength and firepower.
Cowards and dictators both respect the nation that can destroy their path forward at will.
All others only receive their contempt.
Rest in Peace Hunley sailors. I hope your hard earned lesson is not lost on those who need to learn it the most