Confederate submarine replica on exhibit at Civil War Museum

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By Randy Patrick

The story of the H.L. Hunley is a tragic tale of the Civil War.

Three times the Confederate submarine sank in or near Charleston Harbor and 21 crewmen lost their lives. Yet it is considered the world’s first successful combat sub because it was the first to sink a battleship — a feat that wasn’t repeated for another 50 years.

A half-size replica of the 40-foot long iron boat is now on display in Bardstown at the Civil War Museum of the Western Theater and will be the featured exhibit for an open house from 6 to 8 p.m. on March 23. It was recently acquired by Steve Munson, who owns most of the museum’s collection.

The museum at 310 E. Broadway reopened last weekend after being closed for the winter.

Bob Llewellyn, the curator, knows the story of the Hunley in detail. It was designed by Horace L. Hunley as the third in a series, and was used as a privateer vessel in the Southern war effort until the Confederate Army took control of it.

The boat was propelled by muscle, with seven of the eight crew members cranking the shaft that turned the blades. It had snorkels it could use when it was just under the surface, but those didn’t work well, so it could only hold enough air to stay underwater for a short time. Its main weapon was a 90-pound bomb attached to a wooden spar, which the sub could release next to a ship by pulling a rope.

Llewellyn said the first time the boat sank, it was tied to the dock, but listed and sank. Only three men escaped. The second time it sank, the entire eight-man crew perished.

The third time it sank was after it sank the U.S.S. Housatonic, a 200-foot Union gunboat, on Feb. 17, 1864. The Union ship was four miles out to sea and presumed to be invulnerable to a submarine attack.

When the men on the union ship saw the sub, Llewellyn said, one thought it was a porpoise. Another thought it was a log washing out on the tide. But when they realized what it was, they started firing at it. But the Hunley got in close and deployed its torpedo against the ship’s ammunition magazine and blew it up.

The ship sank immediately, but was in shallow water near a sand barge and most of its crew climbed the masts and rigging, which were still above the surface, and were rescued by another Union ship.

The Hunley’s crew was not so fortunate. They started backing away, but somehow ended up further out beyond the Housatonic. The ship vanished with its eight crewmembers and wasn’t found until 1995, when Clive Cussler, a novelist who based one of his books on the story of the Hunley, funded an expedition to find it, Llewellyn said. It was discovered buried beneath the mud and sand. In 2000, it was recovered, and is now in a museum near Charleston.

“The unique thing about this submarine is it was the first one to attack and sink an enemy ship, and the amazing thing is that it was not repeated until World War I,” in 1914, Llewellyn said.

There is a video about the Hunley available for sale in the museum’s gift shop.

Llewellyn said the submarine is the showpiece of several new museum artifacts recently acquired. Another is a piece of cloth from the Red Baron’s World War I German biplane. It is at the nearby Lt. Gen. Hal Moore Military Museum, which, along with the Civil War Museum of the Western Theater, the Women’s Civil War Museum, and Old Bardstown Village, a replica of a pioneer settlement, is part of Museum Row.

Llewellyn said that about 150 invitations have been sent out for the reception on March 23, but all are welcome.