The story of the CSS (Confederate States Ship) Hunley was told to Gilmer Rotarians at their Tuesday lunch meeting at the Gilmer Civic Center by Gilmer native Scoot Hudgins.
Hudgins, now of Waxahachie, has done a lot research on the Hunley, which was the first submarine to sink an opponent in combat, when it destroyed a Union warship in 1864.
His study of the Hunley was an outgrowth of his search for why his ancestors, who did not own slaves, went to war for Southern independence when 11 states seceded and attempted to form their own nation, the Confederate States of America, in 1861.
Hudgins came to the conclusion others have that slavery may have been a cause, but was not the only or even major cause, of the conflict.
He may it clear that the concept of slavery is indefensible today, although it was an accepted institution at the time and had not been abolished in the North or in England very long before the war.
Hudgins said that Northern tariffs on Southern shipments of food, and especially, cotton and tobacco abroad, as well as high import duties on products and equipment the South needed to industrialize, were major factors leading to secession.
(There was then no income tax, and the federal government was financed by customs, tariffs and duties.)
He quoted a speech by then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln in 1848 that when a government failed to meet the needs of its people, the people had the right to leave and form a new government—quite different from the Lincoln of 1860.
Hudgins recounted the political battles that occurred in 1860 resulting in a split Democratic Party running two candidates, and the new Republican Party having its own problems and settling on railroad lawyer Lincoln as a compromise candidate.
After his inauguration, Lincoln calling upon 75,000 “volunteers” to invade the South and force the departing states back into the Union caused more states to secede.
After the disastrous and unexpected Union defeat at First Bull Run (First Manassas), Lincoln hit upon a plan to blockade the South, keeping it from exporting its goods and importing war materiel.
“It was a good plan,” Hudgin said. The South set about building a Navy, using as officers men who had resigned their commissioners in the U.S. and returned South.
The Navy’s goal was to be to break the Union blockade.
A man named H.L. Hunley had a plan for a warship like the world had never seen—a combat submarine.
Two prototypes, the Pioneer I and Pioneer II, were subsequently built but both sank. Each had 3-man crews, who powered the undersea boat by turning a crankshaft to move a propeller.
After the second prototype sank, Hunley came up with a more ambitious plan for an 8-man submersible.
It sank upon testing with the loss of the eight aboard.
The ship was recovered, and Hunley wanted to try again. Gen. P.T. Beauregard told Hunley that he wouldn’t assign any more men. Hunley, who planned to lead the expedition this time, had to get seven volunteers. He got them.
The Hunley was outfitted with a spar which was to be made of wood and to carry a 90-pound charge of black powder. The spar was to be rammed into an enemy vessel and the charge exploded.
On Feb. 17, 1864, the Hunley encountered a 200-foot-long Yankee ship.
The charge sank the Yankee boat, but the Hunley sank, too.
After 16 years of searching, the Hunley was located on May 3, 1995. It was finally raised on Aug. 8, 2000, after being in a watery grave off Charleston, S.C. The eight crewmen were still in their positions. It is believed they may have been knocked unconscious by the force of the explosion. Also, a metal spar had been used instead of the wooden one specified. The charge was 135 pounds, rather than 90 pounds. All may have been factors.
The brave men were interred with great ceremony on April 17, 2004. About 20,000 are estimated to have paid their respects during the funeral procession.
The Hunley is being carefully preserved under climate and humidity control, so the historic relic can be studied.
Thus ended the saga of the ship which changed naval warfare forever.
Hudgins also spoke on the Hunley that evening at a meeting of the Upshur County Patriots-Sons of Confederate Veterans.