During the Civil War, a verifiable dictionary’s worth of new terms unique to the war entered soldiers’ vocabularies: pig sticker, sawbones, Sunday Soldier—such commonplace and mundane words were reconstituted and mixed, gaining new meanings and connotations. Some of them, like sawbones, were simply witty synonyms: surgeon. Others were derogatory, like Sunday Soldiers, which implied that a soldier was incapable of performing duties. And others, like “mustered out,” were best avoided: when a soldier was mustered out he was killed in action, gone forever from the ranks of the living. A total of twenty-one men were mustered out in a unique series of events in 1863 and 1864.
Through the beginning of the War, scientists and engineers on both sides of the front scrambled to complete the first successful underwater warship, or submarine. On the Southern side, Horace Lawson Hunley, James McClintock, and Baxter Watson worked tirelessly in their efforts to build a sub. Their first contrivances, the Pioneer and the American Diver, were abandoned because of Yankee encroachment and sunken in the Mobile Bay, respectively. In 1863, hope grew on the horizon for H.L. Hunley and his associates: their latest project, the Fish Boat, appeared to be on the brink of success. Unlike its earlier counterparts, the Fish Boat, also known as the Fish Torpedo Boat and the Porpoise, passed initial tests with ease: Fish Boat attacked a coal flatboat in Mobile Bay in July of 1863. At the whiff of impending success, the Confederate government promptly seized the Fish Boat and transferred it from its building site in Mobile, Alabama, to Charleston, South Carolina, in August of 1863. As a second-hand attempt at compensation, the Confederacy renamed the Fish Boat the H.L. Hunley and invited the progenitor to his invention’s new home.
On August 29, 1863, the Hunley, stocked with her fresh-faced crew of 8 soldiers, prepared for her first test dive. Confederate Navy Lieutenant John A. Payne, who had volunteered to be the Hunley’s skipper, explored his new craft with open-mouthed wonder and was so enraptured by the sub that he apparently overlooked a very important lever. Payne blindly stepped on said lever, which controlled the sub’s diving planes, causing the sub to plummet downward while all the hatches were still open. The Hunley, of course, flooded and sank, killing five men (the ingenious Payne and two others managed to escape her murderous grasp).
A few weeks later, on October 15, the Hunley and her crew again attempted a mock attack. This time, Hunley himself was aboard in order to assist with the operation of his invention. When the submarine failed to surface, however, onlookers soon realized the seemingly fail-proof vessel had once again failed, this time sending her entire crew of eight to Davey Jones’ locker.
Despite the two failed attempts, the mounting list of casualties, and the loss of the submarine’s namesake, engineer, and sole knowledgeable operator, the Confederate Army chose to continue their efforts to launch the Hunley. They once again raised the Hunley from the depths of the bay and returned her to service.
On February 17, 1864, the Hunley again launched from Charleston’s harbor, this time with a legitimate target. The USS Housatonic, a Union screw sloop, sat in the water outside the harbor, blockading the Confederate wharf and trade center. The Confederate Army sent their not-so-trusty steed the Hunley on a mission to sink the Housatonic. Miraculously, the Hunley was successful: the mummified craft became the first combat submarine to sink a warship. But, given the history of the hapless Hunley, it came as little surprise when the submarine never returned to harbor. Once again the Hunley, a mere twenty feet from her target when the deployed torpedo exploded, sank to the bottom of the sea with her crew trapped inside.
Over the course of her six months of service, the Hunley mustered out a total of twenty-one crew members. Though her final mission was technically successful, the Confederacy finally ceded the sub and did not attempt to raise her. The Hunley rested at the bottom of the ocean for 150 years until she was recovered in 2000. The sub is currently on display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, but as for a relaunch? Like the crews that died within her belly, the Hunley is simply mustered out.