The Hunley

The Civil War's Secret Weapon

by Larry C. Kerr

* * * Editors Pick! * * *

This is the story of those men, the crew of the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink a battleship. The Civil War mission came to a tragic end when the Hunley disappeared shortly after completing its task in the waters off the South Carolina coast in February 1864. The fate of the vessel and its crew remained a mystery until 1995.

The novel is also a love story that survived for one hundred forty years. Among the men who served on the Hunley on its last mission, was its commander, Lt. George Dixon. It was rumored for years that Dixon's sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, gave him a gold coin that saved his life at the Battle of Shiloh. After raising the vessel, crews discovered the $20 gold piece. It was bent, just as it would be if it stopped a bullet. The coin was inscribed:

April 6, 1862
My life Preserver
G. E. D


Crosby came upon two of the few sailors on deck. They were among the crew of about 150 men who served on the ship. They’d been together for months so they were at least familiar to him, though he did not know the intimate details of their lives.

“Gentlemen,” he greeted them.

“Aye, sir.”

“How is the evening?” he asked.

“Quiet, sir,” one said. Crosby knew his last name was Brown but couldn’t remember his first name. He was the shorter of the two, about five and a half feet tall, but stocky. He had a round head and hardly any neck.

“Yes sir, and cold,” said the other, William Hathaway, who wiped his nose on his sleeve. Hathaway was closer to Crosby’s five feet ten inches, and thinner. He had a long, sharp nose and to Crosby’s eyes he looked like a bird.

“Indeed,” Crosby replied. “Is your watch almost over?”

“No sir,” said Brown. “We have until ten.”

“You have the advantage over me, then. I must stay out on this chilly deck until midnight,” he told them. Of course they wouldn’t have much sympathy for him, since he was an officer and they were sailors. There was always some jealousy over the privileges of rank, though he tried not to lord it over them as some other officers did.

“It will be a long watch, sir,” Hathaway said.

“I’m afraid so,” Crosby agreed.

They stood facing one another for a few seconds, the sailors unsure of what he wanted.

“Don’t let me keep you from your duties,” Crosby said.

“No, sir,” Brown said.

“I don’t want your ensign to question your devotion to duty.”

“Right, sir,” Hathaway said.

“Carry on then,” Crosby said and left them to continue his slow trek around the deck. As he neared the stern of the ship, he was tempted to pull his watch from his pocket but resisted the urge. Checking it so early would only prolong the shift. He stuck his hands inside his trouser pockets because even with gloves his hands were cold. He felt his pipe and tobacco in his right-hand pocket.

Should he indulge already? Why not? He’d have to fill his pipe lightly to make sure his tobacco would last the entire watch, but it would pass the time. He’d had his corncob pipe for years and it was now well suited to his taste. Because the war had cut off the supply of tobacco from the South, the tobacco they now received in the North was far from the best quality. It was smoky and occasionally made him cough, but they were in a war and had to make sacrifices.

He opened his well-worn, brown leather pouch and poured some tobacco into the pipe, only lightly tamping it down with a finger brown from years of tobacco stains. The match gave off the odor of sulfur that burned his nose a little before the tobacco lighted. He blew out the match then snuffed it out between his short, callused fingers. Matches did not get thrown onto the deckā€”the danger of fire was too great; a blaze could engulf a wooden ship like the Housatonic in minutes.

He sometimes wondered why smoking was permitted on the ship, but he guessed there would be a mutiny if the men were not allowed to smoke, so they lived with the danger. Crosby walked to the side of the ship to toss his match into the water.

A movement in the otherwise still water caught his eye. As calm as the night was, there should be nothing moving. The object was long and dark, and from this distance it looked as though it could be a porpoise. There were many in these waters. As he watched it longer, Crosby realized it was much too large to be a porpoise. It was almost the size of a whale, but he knew there were no whales in the area. As he watched, trying to determine what it was, it moved closer to them. It was headed for the ship.

Crosby raced to the helm of the ship where he found Quartermaster John Williams. “Mister Williams! Mister Williams!” Crosby shouted.


“Point your glass to the starboard side.”

Williams did so. “Sir, I see something, but cannot make out what it is.”

"The Hunley" - Larry C. Kerr


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Historical (Civil War)

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