“Sullivan’s Island—A more comfortable place could not be found,” said Lt. George Dixon.
Dixon was the commanding officer of the H.L. Hunley, the Confederate submarine whose base of operations was at Breach Inlet in 1864. The crew that worked on the submarine was based in Mount Pleasant.
Including Dixon, the crew of eight traveled mainly by foot to work each day. These men worked extremely long hours and were required to be in great physical condition. They would be turning a crank to propel the craft for hours, moving through several miles of ocean currents to reach their target.
Because the Union Blockade was set up at the mouth of the harbor, the Hunley ended up deploying directly from Sullivan’s Island. They decided to attack the outermost vessels where they were least expected and go inward toward the center from there. This was the best strategy because they were at less risk of being picked off by Union fire. This also helped keep the submarine away from the civilians on the north end of Sullivan’s Island.
In January of 1864, the submarine was moved to Breach Battery from a dock in Mount Pleasant. The view of their position was perfect. They were able to easily see the Union ships that were anchored four miles off the beach. They had a straight shot. The Hunley deployed at night so they were not easily seen, and so the lights from the Union ships were able to act as perfect guides for the small sub to reach its target.
The crew took weeks to prepare for this journey. Most practice maneuvers were done in Cove Creek, where five nights per week they would mimic diving and surfacing. Calm nights with an outgoing tide and smooth waters were best for drills at sea, but during the Charleston winter, the waters were unpredictable. While preparing for the attack, the Hunley was docked for two weeks because of heavy fog and rough water conditions. The men had many issues to work out, like getting back to the island if they left the port while the tide was going out. Rowing against currents can also be very difficult—even impossible. Many times, the crew was unable to make it back to the inlet because of these strong currents, and ended up on another part of the island on their way back in. Evidence indicates a port boat was assigned, most likely used to tow the sub back to the inlet when it was beached.
Another worry was the amount of time the crew had in the submarine before running out of air and becoming asphyxiated. The air available to the men was minimized by the little space they had. A test was conducted to see how long the crew could last in the submarine measuring both physical and mental endurance. The Hunley was underwater for such a long period of time during the test that the marshal assumed no one made it. When the submarine resurfaced after a long two hours, there was only one crew member unable to make it out.
During the last days of training, the crew most likely stayed at the battery rather than Mount Pleasant to spare their exhaustion. The men needed to save as much of their strength as possible before leaving for the attack. By staying at the battery, Lt. Dixon was able to watch out for perfect weather conditions.
Many people are aware of the ending of this story. The Hunley was able to successfully take down their target. The crew flashed a blue light from a magnesium lantern to the comrades to indicate their mission was successful and they were ready to return to Sullivan’s Island. Fires were stoked to guide the submarine on its way back, but the Hunley never made it back that fateful night. The submarine’s whereabouts were in question for over a century until 1995 when it was finally discovered. The submarine’s trajectory from Breach Inlet guided researchers to pinpoint an area of the ocean floor where it was most likely located.
Some say Hurricane Hugo’s bulls-eye path may have moved things around enough to help researchers find the Hunley. It was not likely this really helped, but it kept researchers on their toes looking miles off Sullivan’s Island for the submarine. The sea holds so many secrets with its large and deep waters, but it finally gave this one up after 131 years.
By Mary Coy with Addison Culp