Today In Charleston History: February 25

1746 – Births

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a Future signer of the U.S. Constitution, was born in Charles Town. He was the eldest son of Charles and Eliza Pinckney. Seven years later, he accompanied his father, who had been appointed colonial agent for South Carolina, to England. As a result, Cotesworth enjoyed a European education.


Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, age 6

He received tutoring in London, attended several preparatory schools, and went on to Christ Church College, Oxford, and graduated in 1764. Pinckney next pursued legal training at London’s Middle Temple. He was accepted for admission into the English bar in 1769. He then spent part of a year touring Europe and studying chemistry, military science, and botany under leading authorities.

In late 1769 Pinckney sailed home. He entered private practice in South Carolina and was elected to the provincial assembly. In 1773 he acted as attorney general in the colony. In 1775 he was a supporter of the patriot cause and was elected to the provincial congress. The next year he was elected to the local committee of safety and made chairman of a committee that drew up a plan for the interim government of South Carolina.

When hostilities broke out, Pinckney, who had been a royal militia officer since 1769, pursued a full-time military calling and joined the First South Carolina Regiment as a captain. He rose to the rank of colonel and fought in the South in defense of Charleston and at the Battles of Brandywine, PA, and Germantown, PA. He commanded a regiment in the campaign against the British in the Floridas in 1778 and at the siege of Savannah. When Charleston fell in 1780, he was taken prisoner and held until 1782. The following year, he was discharged as a brevet brigadier general.


Pinckney, military officer for Continental Army

After the war, Pinckney resumed his legal practice and the management of estates in the Charleston area but found time to continue his public service, which during the war had included tours in the lower house of the state legislature (1778 and 1782) and the senate (1779).

Pinckney was one of the leaders at the Constitutional Convention. He was present at all the sessions, and strongly advocated for a powerful national government. He proposed that senators should serve without pay, but that idea was not adopted, but he exerted influence in such matters as the power of the Senate to ratify treaties and the compromise that was reached concerning abolition of the international slave trade. 

Pinckney became a devoted Federalist. Between 1789 and 1795, he declined presidential offers to command the U.S. Army, to serve on the Supreme Court and as Secretary of War and Secretary of State. In 1796, he accepted the post of Minister to France, but the revolutionary regime refused to receive him and he was forced to proceed to the Netherlands. The next year, however, he returned to France when he was appointed to a special mission to restore relations with that country. During the ensuing XYZ affair, refusing to pay a bribe suggested by a French agent to facilitate negotiations, he was said to have replied “No! No! Not a sixpence!”

When Pinckney arrived back in the United States in 1798, he found the country preparing for war with France. That year, he was appointed as a major general in command of American forces in the South and served in that capacity until 1800, when the threat of war ended. That year, he represented the Federalists as Vice-Presidential candidate, and in 1804 and 1808 as the Presidential nominee, but was defeated on all three occasions.


An elderly Cotesworth Pinckney

For the rest of his life, Pinckney engaged in legal practice, served in the legislature, and was active in many philanthropic activities. He was:

  • a charter member of the board of trustees of South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina)
  • first president of the Charleston Bible Society
  • chief executive of the Charleston Library Society

During the later period of his life, Pinckney enjoyed his Belmont estate and Charleston high society. He was twice married; first to Sarah Middleton in 1773 and after her death to Mary Stead in 1786. He died in Charleston in 1825 at the age of 79 and was interred there in the cemetery at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.


Grave of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, St. Michael’s Church


George Alfred Trenholm  was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Due to his father’s death, George left school at age 16 to work for a major cotton broker, John Fraser and Company in Charleston. By 1853 he was head of the company, and by 1860 he was one of the wealthiest men in the United States with financial interests in steamships, hotels, cotton, plantations, and slaves. His fortune including owning real estate worth $90,000 and personal property (including slaves) valued at about $35,000.  About 39 enslaved persons lived with Trenholm’s family as domestic staff in Charleston.


George Trenholm

When the War broke out, Trenholm immediately moved his company’s head office from New York to the Bahamas, Bermuda and Liverpool. He was appointed to South Carolina’s State Marine Battery Commission, where he oversaw construction of the Confederate ironclad Chicora. Trenholm also personally financed construction of a twelve-vessel flotilla for Charleston’s defense. During the War, his company – now called Fraser, Trenholm and Company – became the Confederate government’s overseas banker. From their Liverpool office, they arranged cotton sales and financed its own fleet of blockade runners, profiting more than $9 million.

Confederate Secretary of the Treasury, Christopher Memminger, used Trenholm as an unofficial adviser. When Memminger resigned, Trenholm was appointed to that post on July 18, 1864.

When Richmond fell to Federal troops, Trenholm fled with the rest of the government in April 1865 and reached Fort Mill, South Carolina. Due to illness he asked President Jefferson Davis to accept his resignation, which Davis accepted with his thanks on April 27, 1865. Trenholm was later briefly imprisoned at Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia. He was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and ordered released on October 11, 1865. 

E. Lee Spence wrote a book in 1995, Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The ‘Real Rhett Butler’ & Other Revelations, which effectively argued the case that Trenholm was the inspiration for the character of Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.


The South Carolina Military Academy officially changed its name name to “The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.” The word “Academy” had become synonymous with secondary schools and the public had the misconception that the South Carolina Military Academy was a preparatory school.


The South Carolina Military Academy, c. 1861. 

Today In Charleston History: February 24

1698 – Disaster

A devastating fire destroyed about one-third of Charles Town, burning the “dwellings, stores and outhouses of at least fifty families … the value of £30,000 sterling.”


President James Monroe visited the Charleston Orphan House and in the evening attended the Charleston Theater.

orphan house postcard

Charleston Orphan House


1828 – Charleston & Hamburg Rail Road

Charles Parker and Robert K. Payne, at the direction of William Aiken, left Charleston by carriage to examine a potential route for the C&HRR. They

“arrived at the Six Mile House at one o’clock, where Mr. Arnot, the keeper, was requested to provide dinner as soon as possible.”

They paid $1.62 for the meals. Later that afternoon they crossed the Ashley Ferry (later known as Bee’s Ferry).

Over the next several weeks, they traveled west toward Hamburg, South Carolina, using Ashley River Road (passing Drayton Hall, Mangolia Planation, Runnymede, Millbrook and Middleton Place) to Bacon’s Bridge. They crossed the Edisto River at Givhan’s Ferry.

Today In Charleston History: February 23

1915 – Deaths

Robert Smalls died, ending an extraordinary life. 

smallsSmalls was born on April 5, 1839, behind his owner’s city house at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, S.C. His mother, Lydia, served in the house but grew up in the fields, where, at the age of nine, she was taken from her own family on the Sea Islands.  The McKee family favored Robert Smalls over the other slave children, so much so that his mother worried he would reach manhood without grasping the horrors of the institution into which he was born. To educate him, she arranged for him to be sent into the fields to work and watch slaves at “the whipping post.”

By the time Smalls turned 19, he was working in Charleston. He was allowed to keep one dollar of his wages a week (his owner took the rest). Far more valuable was the education he received on the water; few knew Charleston harbor better than Robert Smalls.

It’s where he earned his job on the Planter. It’s also where he met his wife, Hannah, a slave of the Kingman family working at a Charleston hotel. With their owners’ permission, the two moved into an apartment together and had two children: Elizabeth and Robert Jr. Well aware this was no guarantee of a permanent union, Smalls asked his wife’s owner if he could purchase his family outright; they agreed but at a steep price: $800. Smalls only had $100.

By 1862, Smalls viewed the Union blockade of the Charleston harbor as a tantalizing promise of freedom. Under orders from Secretary Gideon Welles in Washington, Navy commanders had been accepting runaways as contraband since the previous September. While Smalls couldn’t afford to buy his family on shore, he knew he could win their freedom by sea — and so he told his wife to be ready for whenever opportunity dawned.


The Planter

Just before dawn on May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls and a crew of fellow slaves, slipped a cotton steamer, Planter, off the dock, picked up family members at a rendezvous point, then slowly navigated their way through the harbor. Smalls, doubling as the captain donned the captain’s wide-brimmed straw hat to help to hide his face. As they sailed out of the harbor Smalls responded with the proper coded signals at two Confederate checkpoints and sailed into the open seas. Once outside of Confederate waters, he had his crew raise a white flag and surrendered his ship to the blockading Union fleet.

In less than four hours, Smalls had accomplished an amazing feat: commandeering a heavily armed Confederate ship and delivered its 17 black passengers (nine men, five women and three children) from slavery to freedom. “One of the most heroic and daring adventures since the war commenced was undertaken and successfully accomplished by a party of negroes in Charleston,” trumpeted the June 14, 1862, edition of Harper’s Weekly.

On May 30, 1862, the U.S. Congress, passed a private bill authorizing the Navy to appraise the Planter and award Smalls and his crew half the proceeds for “rescuing her from the enemies of the Government.” Smalls received $1,500 personally, enough to purchase his former owner’s house in Beaufort off the tax rolls following the war, though according to the later Naval Affairs Committee report, his pay should have been substantially higher.

In the North, Smalls was hailed as a hero. He lobbied Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to begin enlisting black soldiers and a few months later after President Lincoln ordered black troops raised, Smalls recruited 5,000 soldiers himself. In October 1862, he returned to the Planter as pilot as part of Admiral Du Pont’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. According to the 1883 Naval Affairs Committee report, Smalls was engaged in approximately 17 military actions, including the April 7, 1863, assault on Fort Sumter and the attack at Folly Island Creek, S.C.

Two months later he assumed command of the Planter when, under “very hot fire,” its white captain became so “demoralized” he hid in the “coal-bunker.” Smalls was promoted to the rank of captain, and starting in December 1863 on, he earned $150 a month, making him one of the highest paid black soldiers of the war. When the war ended in April 1865, Smalls was on board the Planter in a ceremony in Charleston Harbor at Fort Sumter.

Following the war, Smalls served in the South Carolina state assembly and senate, and for five nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1874-1886).He died in Beaufort on February 23 1915, in the same house behind which he had been born a slave and is buried behind a bust at the Tabernacle Baptist Church.

“My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” — Robert Smalls

Today In Charleston History: February 22


The cornerstone of St. Michael’s Church was laid.

1934 – Porgy and Bess
heywardand gershwin

George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward

In a letter to Dubose Heyward, George Gershwin reported that “I have begun composing music for the first act, and I am starting with the songs and spirituals first.” He then asked Heyward to join him in New York so the work could be expedited.

Over the next two months, while living in a guest suite of Gershwin’s famous fourteen-room house at 132 East Seventy-second Street, Heyward wrote the lyrics for almost a dozen Gershwin compositions, including “Summertime,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” “Buzzard Song,” “It Take A Long Pull to Get There,” “My Man’s Gone,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’.” 

Today In Charleston History: February 21 – Charleston Firsts


 Angelina Grimke addressed a Committee of the Legislature of the State of Massachusetts, the first time a woman was invited to speak before a legislative body. She spoke against slavery, and also defended women’s petitioning both as a moral and religious duty and as a political right. Abolitionist Robert F. Wallcut stated that “Angelina Grimké’s serene, commanding eloquence enchained attention, disarmed prejudice and carried her hearers with her.”

By this time she was an accomplished orator, having spoken publicly eighty-eight times to an audience of approximately 40,000 people. Her appearance created a furor. Most people believed a women’s place was in the home, NOT in the public, and certainly not being a public speaker, and certainly not on such an inflaming topic – slavery. Angelina later wrote:

I never was so near fainting under the tremendous pressure of feeling. My heart almost died within me. The novelty of the scene, the weight of responsibility, the ceaseless exercise of the mind thro’ which I had passed for more than a week – all together sunk me to the earth. I well nigh despaired.


The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, led by Col. Charles Fox, triumphantly marched into Charleston. The 55th was the sister regiment of the renowned Massachusetts 54th Volunteers. The enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation by United States President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 had opened the way for the enlistment of free men of color and newly liberated slaves to fight for their freedom within the Union Army. As the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts quickly reached its full complement of recruits, an overflow of colored volunteers continued to pour in from several other states outside Massachusetts-many of whom simply had not arrived in time-prompting Governor John Albion Andrew to authorize yet another regiment of colored soldiers sponsored by the Commonwealth. Thus, the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry came into being.


Today In Charleston History: February 19


A 100-gun salute fired by the Union fleet off the harbor and a 38-gun salute from a land battery celebrated the capture of Charleston. Union photographer began to take pictures of the ruins across the city while Federal troops began a systematic looting spree throughout the city, stealing furniture, pictures, mirrors, statues, pianos, books and silverware. The black population of Charleston freely paraded through the streets carrying a coffin which read “Slavery Is Dead.”

Lt. Colonel Augustus G. Bennett had accepted the city’s surrender the day before. His troops were met at the intersection of Broad and East Bay Streets by  city councilman, George W. William who handed the colonel a note to from Mayor Macbeth which read:

The military authorities of the Confederate States have evacuated the City. I have remained to enforce law and preserve order until you take such steps as you think best.

exchange 1865

Exchange Building (c. 1866.) View from East Bay Street. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Today In Charleston History: February 18 – Charleston Firsts

1735 – Charleston Firsts

The first public presentation of an opera in the colonies is performed at Broad and Church – Shepherd’s Tavern. The opera was titled Flora or Hob In The Well.  Local musicians provided the musical accompaniment on organ and fiddle.

1820 – Execution

 John and Lavinia Fisher were executed. Contrary to what everyone seems to believe (due to lazy tour guides and myth-perpetuating web pages)  they were NOT convicted of murder. Their crime was highway robbery. And also contrary to what everyone seems to believe, she was NOT hanged in her wedding dress. Also, contrary to what everyone seems to believe, she was NOT the first female serial killer. Enough said, let’s move on. 

For more accurate info, refer to my book, Wicked Charleston: The Dark Side of the Holy City (pg. 77-84), or James Caskey’s Charleston Ghosts: Hauntings in the Holy City, (pg. 37-44) or Six Miles From Charleston by Bruce Orr.  


James Petigru’s wife, Adele, attempted suicide by chloroform.

1865 – Civil War

Early in the morning, the Northeastern Railroad Depot accidently blew up, killing and wounding hundreds of evacuating civilians.The Confederates had stored a large quantity of gunpowder there prior to abandoning the city. Children playing with a candle ignited the powder, and over 150 people died in the explosion. Fires started by the rain of flaming debris destroyed more buildings.

railroad depot

Ruins of the depot

Later that morning Union Lt. Col. Augustus Bennett landed at Mills Wharf (East Bay and Broad Streets) with a small party of twenty-two men. They raised a regimental flag over the post office (Old Exchange Building) – the first U.S. flag to fly over Charleston since 1860 on the same pole on which the first secession flag was raised on December 1860.

At 10 o’clock, Bennett’s troops were supplemented by the Fifty-second Pennsylvania and the Third Rhode Island artillery. They moved through the city and established headquarters at the Citadel building on Marion Square. He immediately dispatched troops “with instructions to impress negroes whereever found and to make them work the fire apparatus until all fires were extinguished.”

Bennett secured the arsenal and guarded the largest stores of cotton, tobacco, rice and other foodstuffs in the city.  Later that day Gen. Gillmore wired Army chief of staff Halleck in Washington, D.C.:

The city of Charleston and its defenses came into our possession this morning, with over 200 pieces of good artillery and a supply of fine ammunition. The enemy commenced evacuating all the works last night, and Mayor MacBeth surrendered the city to the troops of Gen. Schimmelfenneg at 9 o’clock this morning, at which time it was occupied by our forces … Nearly all the inhabitants remaining in the city belong to the poorer classes.

Today In Charleston History: February 17 – Charleston Firsts

At 8:45 p.m. on February 17, 1864, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley attacked and sank the USS Housatonic just outside Charleston harbor. It was the first successful military submarine attack in history. Unfortunately, the Hunley never returned from its mission. Her crew of eight were all lost.

The story of the Hunley is one of most amazing episodes in American history, spanning over 150 years from her construction, tragic test runs, historic mission and her amazing discovery and recovery at the turn of the 21st century. It’s the type of story that creates legends.  


Horace L. Hunley was a wealthy, prominent lawyer and planter, who served in the Louisiana State legislature. Southern patriotism inspired him to support the Confederate War effort and he poured much of his personal wealth into the cause. In June 1861 he led a blockade-running mission to Cuba for munitions and arms for the Southern cause.

Then he met an ingenious young engineer named James McClintock. As a youth McClintock joined the crew of a Mississippi river boat and by the time of the Civil War he was known as “the youngest steamboat captain on the river.” He also developed his skills as an engineer and inventor. When he found himself stuck in New Orleans due to the War, he started a business constructing steam gauges in a machine shop just off the French Quarter.

By the fall of 1861 Hunley and McClintock decided to attempt the construction of a “fish-boat,” a submersible boat that might help combat the superior power of the Union Navy. With Hunley and other southern patriots bankrolling the effort, McClintock used an old iron boiler – 34 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall – to construct the hull. A crew of three would sit inside the boat, two facing each other while cranking a screw propeller and the third would stand in a conning tower to steer with ropes attached to a rudder and simple diving fins that moved up and down. The boat would tug a mine with a contact trigger at the end of a long rope. The named it Pioneer.

They tested the Pioneer on Lake Pontchartrain. It was slow, making 2 knots, nowhere close to the speed needed if they were going to attack much faster Union vessels. There was also no way to transport the 4-ton boat over land. Despite its severe limitations, the Confederate government, intrigued by the possibilities, issued a privateering license to Hunley and McClintock. 

When New Orleans surrendered to the Union in May 1862, the fate of Pioneer was sealed. They sank the boat in a deep channel and fled to Mobile, Alabama where they walked into the machine shop of Thomas Park and Thomas Lyons, who were making weapons for the Confederacy. As Hunley and McClintock explained their plans to construct a second, improved “fish-boat”, a young man working in the shop immediately became interested, and excited – George E.  Dixon.

Dixon was a recently promoted second lieutenant in the Confederate Army. His mechanical talents, and injuries sustained on the battlefield, had landed him a job at the machine shop. In a story of unbelievable luck, and which would take on mythic proportions in later years, Dixon had been shot in the thigh during the battle of Shiloh. The bullet, however, had hit a $20 gold coin in Dixon’s pants pocket. Instead of blowing off his leg, it merely wounded him to the point where he walked with a limp the rest of his life.  

The fortuitous coin was a gift from Dixon’s girlfriend, Queenie Bennett. She gave it to him the day he left with the Twenty-first Alabama on their way to Tennessee. On April 6, 1862, during the battle of Shiloh, under the command of General Beauregard, the bullet impacted Dixon’s thigh with such force he felt as if his leg was on fire. When he awoke he realized his amazing stroke of luck – the coin had taken the impact, placing a permanent dent in the gold piece. It had saved his leg, and his life. From that day forward, Dixon was never without the coin. He grew into the habit of rubbing it with his fingers, his personal good luck charm. He actually had the coin inscribed: “Shiloh, April 6, 1862. My life preserver. G.E.D.”

During the summer of 1862, the men worked on the construction of the new boat, which was named American Diver. With the ever cautious McClintock in charge, the Diver performed well during trial runs in Mobile Bay, with Dixon as part of the test crew. However, their attempt to attack and sink a Union ship failed. As the Diver was being towed to its destination near Sand Island, a violent storm suddenly appeared and Hunley, McClintock and the crew watched the Diver sink in the waters of Mobile Bay.

Determined that their concept was sound, McClintock and Hunley immediately began designing a third boat. Using their past experience, and failures, the new boat was engineered with a much improved design.

The main hull was a railroad boiler – four feet wide and twenty-five feet long – cut in half lengthwise and then two 12-inch iron strips were added on either side. They also added two tapered iron plates fore and aft which enabled the boat to move more easily through the water. A hand crank was installed for propulsion, and a tiller similar to the previous models. To increase its speed, the boat was designed for seven people to man the cranks.

Tanks at each end of the vessel could be opened manually and flooded to allow the boat to submerge. Hand-operated pumps could be used to expel water to allow her to surface. The finished boat was 60 inches wide, about thirty feet long, and five feet tall. They christened it the H.L. Hunley.

The South had already constructed a small fleet of semi-submersible torpedo boats called “Davids” which sat very low in the water and attacked Union ships with varying success.

The David was built from a design by St. Julien Ravenel of Charleston as a private venture. The operation of a semi-submersible was simple: water was taken into ballast tanks so that it would ride low in the water making it difficult to see. At night it would appear to be nothing more than a piece of floating debris. Eventually more than twenty torpedo boats were constructed. The boats carried an explosive charge of 134 pounds gunpowder at the end of a spar that projected forward from the bow.


CSS David – one of the semi-submersible torpedo boats utilized by the Confederacy. Pictured here run abandoned in Charleston.  Courtesy Library of Congress

By this time, Gen. Beauregard was back in command of Charleston’s forces and was attempting to clear the city of the Union naval blockade using the Davids. Beauregard was desperate. Charleston had been strangled by the blockade for almost two year by more than a dozen Federal ships. The city – indeed the entire South – was feeling the economic pinch. There was virtually no foreign trade and the Confederacy realized no matter how many battles Rebel soldiers won, on the economic front, the South was losing badly.

Charleston, in particular, was a passionate target, not only for Union forces, but for the civilian population in the North. As the main aggressor for secession and firing the first shot of the War, hatred toward Charleston was fierce. They wanted Charleston to suffer severe punishment.

The Hunley was ordered to Charleston to assist in the defense of Charleston. She was cut in half, loaded on railcars and camouflaged for the overland journey, with scaffolding build over it to hide its shape and covered.  Dixon, however, was left behind in Mobile. A new crew would be assembled in Charleston to operate the boat, with McClintock in charge of training them.


The Hunley arrived on August 12, 1863. McClintock was offered $100,000 ($1.6. million in current currency) to sink either the New Ironsides or the Wabash, two of the Federal ships in the blockade. With a crew of volunteers, the McClintock conducted a week of safe tests in the harbor between Ft. Johnson and Fort Moultrie, away from the eyes of the Federal blockade. Beauregard quickly became frustrated by McClintock’s caution. He asked that a Confederate Navy man sail on the submarine. When McClintock refused, Beauregard ordered the submarine seized by the Confederate Navy and a crew of volunteers take over its operation.

McClintock was so disgusted he left Charleston.


Sketch of the Hunley at the direction of William Alexander, depicting the interior design, for his 1902 article, “Hunley.” Courtesy Naval Historical Center

On August 29, a crew of eight Confederal Navy volunteers, commanded by Lt. John A. Payne, boarded the Hunley. As they let were releasing the lines the Confederate ship, Etiwan, came steaming by. The wake from the rebel ship washed over the Hunley and water poured through its open hatches. Four crew members, including Payne, escaped but the other five drowned inside the submerged vessel.

Three days later Beauregard gave orders to “adopt immediate measures to have it raised at once.”


Horace Hunley arrived in Charleston that day and was stunned to discover that for the third time in two years, his submarine had sunk. When he discovered the particulars of the accident he was enraged. He blamed the accident on government ineptitude. He wrote a curt note to Beauregard:

Sir – I am part owner of the torpedo boat the Hunley. I have been interested in building this description of boat since the beginning of the war … I feel therefore, a deep interest in its success. I propose if you will place the boat in my hands to furnish a crew (in whole or in part) from Mobile who are well acquainted with tis management and make the attempt to destroy a vessel of the enemy as early as practicable.

    Very respectfully, Your Obedient Servant,

H.L. Hunley

Within a week, Hunley was in charge of his boat which had been salvaged from 42-feet of water in Charleston harbor. The first order of business was the removal of the bodies of the five drowned crew members. Their bodies were so bloated they had to be chopped into pieces to be removed. It was horrific and grisly work. They spent more days with soap and brushes cleaning the inside of the boat, removing the silt, mud and stench of decaying flesh. Many of the soldiers began to call Hunley the “iron coffin.”

Hunley telegraphed the machine shop in Mobile, asking that they send workers familiar with the boat to Charleston. Within a few days, six men from Mobile arrived. Much to his dismay, George Dixon was not one the men chosen. For more than a month, Hunley drilled the crew in the operation of the submarine, until the operation of the vessel was smooth.  

On October 15, 1863, Horace Hunley and seven crew members boarded the submarine at Adgers Wharf. There was a small crowd assembled on the dock to watch a demonstration of the Hunley’s capabilities, a dress rehearsal for an actual attack. They were to take the submarine out into the harbor, submerge beneath the Confederate ship Indian Chief and surface on the other side.

The crowd watched the Hunley cruise away from the dock, submerge and … it never came back up. The next day, the Charleston Daily Courier posted this notice:

Melancholy Occurrence – On Thursday morning an accident occurred to a small boat in Cooper River, containing eight persons, all of whom drowned.

When word reached the machine shop in Mobile, all the men were shocked. The lives of George Dixon and William Alexander, two of the original test crew, had been saved by the luck of not being chosen to go to Charleston. However, they knew the boat would be raised for the recovery of the bodies, and they were both confident that the Hunley could be used successfully. They left for Charleston the next day.

Beauregard ordered that the submarine be raised and then grounded. It had killed thirteen Confederate men, and not a single Yankee. “It is more dangerous to those who use it than the enemy” he said.

Due to weather conditions in Charleston harbor, it took more than a month for the recovery to take place. It was 60-feet below the surface, nose buried in silt. On Saturday, November 7, several divers, including Angus Smith who had lifted the Hunley the first time, managed to wrap enough chains around the vessel to raise it to the surface. When the Hunley was finally on the dock at Mt. Pleasant, Dixon and Alexander were present for the grim task of removing the eight corpses.

Beauregard wrote, “It was indescribably ghastly. The unfortunate men were contorted into all kinds of horrible attitudes.”


Dixon and Alexander, however, were not ready to give up on the submarine. They managed to set up a meeting with Beauregard who was living at 192 Ashley Avenue. Dixon had served under Beauregard at Shiloh and the general knew Dixon to be a serious and resolute soldier. They convinced the general that ignoring the vessel would be a waste. Dixon pointed out that the Hunley sank this time because the crew forgot to shut off the ballast-tank valves. The latest accident was just that … there was nothing wrong with the submarine itself, as long as it was operated correctly.

Dixon told Beauregard that with him in command, Alexander as his first officer and a crew of their choosing, the Hunley could, and would, sink a Union ship. Beauregard gave Dixon and Alexander permission to prepare the boat and raise a crew – but only of volunteers.

It took more than a month to get the submarine ready. Like before, the bloated bodies were removed in pieces, and the interior of the vessel was cleaned with twenty-one pounds of soap and lime. All the hatches were left open for several days in an attempt air out the stench. 

Dixon and Alexander were able to acquire most of the new crew from the Indian Chief, the ship in Charleston harbor the Hunley was attempting to submerge beneath when it sank. They explained how dangerous the mission was going to be … that it would involve twelve hour days of hard labor in a claustrophobic environment, often pitch dark black, in cold, wet, cramped conditions with stale air. He only wanted men willing to work in that environment.

Dixon and Anderson supervised the refitting of the Hunley. One of the main alterations, at Beauregard’s order, was to replace the tugged mine with a mounted spar that had an explosive at the end. They also moved the submarine to the northern end of Sullivan’s Island, at Battery Marshall, across from Breach Inlet on Long Island (present-day Isle of Palms.) This took the boat away from prying eyes in the Charleston harbor during their nighttime training sessions. More importantly, it was also closer to the open ocean which made for easier access to the Federal blockading fleet.

CSS H.L. HunleyR.G. SkerrettPen and ink drawing with wash, 190245-125-P

A 1902 sepia-wash drawing of Conrad Wise Chapman’s painting of the Hunley, by R.G. Skerrett. Courtesy Naval Historical Center.

During one of their training missions they wanted to test the limits of how long they could sit on the bottom without refreshing their air. Dixon’s theory was, if they successfully attacked a surface ship, they may need stay submerged for safety and waiting for a tide. They estimated half an hour was the limit.

They flooded the ballast tanks and the Hunley settled on the bottom and the crew sat in silence. Dixon, no doubt, sat silently at the controls, rubbing the warp in the gold coin in his pocket where the Yankee bullet had struck. The only illumination inside the submarine was a flickering candle, which snuffed itself out half an hour later. So the men sat in darkness – with time seemingly standing still – until all of them were light-headed from lack of oxygen. They then began to pump furiously and the bow of the submarine started to rise. However, the stern remained on the bottom.

In the pure darkness, working only by feel and his intimate familiarity with the machinery, Alexander discovered seaweed blocking the valve. He managed to clear the obstruction, pump out the tanks and the Hunley bobbed to the surface. Dixon and Alexander threw open the hatches and the men gasped the fresh sea air.

They had been on the bottom two and a half hours.

The experience convinced the crew to make a decision – if the boat ever became stuck beneath the surface, they would flood the vessel and drown themselves. They preferred the quick death of drowning to the long panicked agony of suffocation.

At the beginning of February, William Alexander was ordered back to Mobile by Gen. Beauregard to help build a rapid-fire repeating gun for the Confederacy. At this point in the War, the Confederacy needed any weapons that could be built.

On a cold, clear night, February 17, 1864, after two months of training the new crew, the Hunley left the wharf at Battery Marshall. After the tide turned, she silently sailed out of Breach Inlet, into the Atlantic Ocean and history. She headed for the Federal blockade, four miles off shore. Dixon was most likely dismayed that it was such a clear night – the Hunley would more easily visible as it approached her target, before she dove. 

The plan was simple: after the Hunley had accomplished her mission, she would surface and flash a blue phosphorus lamp. At that signal, the troops on lookout on Sullivan’s Island would light a bonfire on the beach to guide her home.

The USS Housatonic was a 1240-ton screw sloop-of-war launched on November 20, 1861. Eighty-five feet wide, 205 feet long with a beam of thirty-eight feet, the Housatonic, with a crew of 155 men, arrived in Charleston on September 11, 1862 as part of the Federal naval blockade and took a position off the bar.

When the Union authorities had first learned of the existence of the Hunley, and the Davids – and the real possibility of an underwater attack – Admiral John A. Dahlgren wasted no time in laying out defensive plans. He ordered that the ships change anchorage regularly, and keep guns trained on the water at all time. He also advised them:

… not to anchor in the deepest part of the channel, for by not leaving much space between the bottom of the vessel and the bottom of the channel it will be impossible for the diving torpedo to operate except on the side, and there will be less difficult in raising a vessel if sunk.

It would soon prove to be a prescient order.


USS Housatonic – first ship to be sunk by a submarine attack. Courtesy Library of Congress

At 8:40 p.m. Robert F. Flemming, a black sailor, saw something usual floating in the moonlit water, about 400 feet away. He reported the sighting to an officer, who, after looking told him, “It’s a log.”

Flemming responded, “It’s not floating with the tide, like a log would, it’s moving across the tide.”

At 8:45 p.m. John Crosby, the Housatonic’s acting master, also saw something in the water glint off the moonlight “like a porpoise coming to the surface to blow.” It was about 100 yards off the starboard beam. When he looked again, it was gone. He called out an order to “slip the chain, back the engine.”

A moment later an explosion rocked the warship – ninety pounds of gunpowder. Water rushed into the engine room, crashing timbers and metal, and the ship lurched to port and continued to list. Most of the men were asleep in their bunks and dozens of them were tossed into the ocean as an entire section of the ship disappeared. 

Sailors on deck fired rifles into the water, and soon found themselves standing in water – the ship was sinking. Many of the crew manned lifeboats and began to pick up their mates out of the frigid Atlantic water. Others simply climbed the ship’s rigging to safety.

Within an hour of the explosion the Housatonic was sitting on the bottom, in 25-feet of water, meaning more than ten feet of the ship was above the waterline. Out of a crew of 155 there were only five fatalities.

Robert F. Flemming, the black sailor who first sited the “log,” was hanging from the ship’s rigging, waiting to be rescued. Off the starboard bow he saw a blue light shine for a moment. Then, it was gone. But he saw it.

On the beach at Sullivan’s Island, after the blue light signaled, the soldiers lit the bonfire and kept it burning until dawn, but the Hunley never returned.

The following day, Lt. Colonel O.M. Dantzler sent Beauregard a brief note:

I have the honor to report that the torpedo-boat stationed at this point went out on the night of the 17th instant (Wednesday) and has not returned. The signals agreed upon to be given in case the boat wished a light to be exposed at this post as a guide for its return were observed and answered.

Over the next few days the story of the attack was pieced together.  Beauregard sent a telegram to the Confederate command in Richmond:

A gunboat sunken off Battery Marshall. Supposed to have been done by Mobile torpedo boat, under Lieutenant George E. Dixon, Company E, Twenty-first Alabama Volunteers, which went out for that purpose, and which I regret to say has not been heard of since … There is little hope of the safety of that brave man and his associates, however, as they were not captured.

The news of the successful attack was greeted with excitement across the South, positive that was greatly needed for the southern psyche. On February 29, the Charleston Daily Courier reported:

The glorious success of our little torpedo-boat, under the command of Lieutenant Dixon, of Mobile, has raised the hopes of our people, and the most sanguine expectations are now entertained of our being able to raise the siege in a way little dreamed of by the enemy. 

The excitement was short-lived. On the first anniversary of the Hunley’s attack, February 17, 1865, Federal troops marched into Charleston. At the same time 150 miles to the north, Columbia, the state’s capital city, surrendered to Sherman’s troops after being burned. For South Carolina, the War was over, but the story of the Hunley had another 140 years to reach a conclusion.


As the years passed, and countless histories of the War were written, through the mist of memory the Hunley became little more than a footnote, a factoid. In 1870 Jules Verne wrote a fantastic story, Twenty Leagues Under the Sea, about the adventures of a submarine, the Nautilus.

Verne was obviously well aware of the American Civil War. European newspapers covered the war in full, and often sensational, detail. In 1865 Verne published a short story “The Blockade Runners,” in which a Scottish merchant captain uses a ship named Dolphin to break the Union blockade of Charleston harbor.

In 1872-73, the former Confederate diver, Angus Smith, who lived on Sullivan’s Island, was given a contract to remove old wrecks from the channel. Smith was a member of the dive team which had raised the Hunley both times they sank in Charleston harbor. He was very familiar with the boat.

A couple of years later Smith responded to a request for his memories about the torpedo boat from former General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was putting papers together about the War. Smith claimed to have attempted a salvage of the Hunley. He wrote to Beauregard:

I went to work to save the torpedo boat, and I got on top of her, and found out the cause of her sinking. The boat is outside or alongside the Housatonic. She can lifted any time our people wish … she can be saved and my opinion is she is as good as the day she was sunk.

In all likelihood, that was the last sighting of the Hunley for more than 100 years.

battery marshall marker

Marker on Sullivan’s Island, with Breach Inlet in the background. Photo by author.

Sometime in the late 1870s P.T. Barnum, master showman and businessman, offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who could salvage the Hunley for his traveling show of oddities. The staggering amount of money sparked off a round of searches and explorations that yielded nothing.

About the same time, the government began the construction of the stone jetties off the coast of Sullivan’s Island – four-mile long groins designed to alter the flow of sand from filling the main channel into Charleston harbor. Not only did the altered sand flow change the contour of Sullivan’s Island, and erode most of Morris Island, it also slowly, but inevitably buried the Hunley deeper.

In 1970, a Charleston-based professional diver, Edward Lee Spence dove off the side of a fishing boat in 27-feet of water, in an attempt to free the line of a fish trap for his friend. Spence, a Civil War naval history expert, was intimately familiar with the thousands of wrecks up and down the Charleston coast. As he went over into the cold November water, he also knew he was close to the site of the Housatonic.

Along the bottom he found where the line was snagged on something that resembled a ledge. Upon closer examination it was solid, a black iron tube, about twenty-feet long, with the rest of it buried beneath the sand. With a flash, he realized what he was touching.

A moment later Spence surfaced and he screamed out to his friends on the boat, “The Hunley! I’ve found the Hunley!” He tossed a buoy, and for claim purposes, he drew a crude map in an effort to mark the location. For next twenty years, Spence crusaded everyone who would listen about his discovery. Problem was, he could never find it again, he had no proof and he refused to release its location, for looting purposes.

In 1994, two groups combined forces in an effort to find the Hunley. The South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthro-pology (SCIAA) issued all permits for anything excavated from South Carolina waters. Employee Mark Newell, was an experienced diver and Civil War buff. His days off were often spent diving off the Charleston coast, mostly around the Housatonic site, looking for the Hunley. He agreed to a joint venture with a non-profit business, NUMA – National Underwater and Marine Agency, operated by best-selling novelist, Clive Cussler. It was a bit of real life following fiction.  

Cussler’s fictional character, Dirk Pitt, is kind of a maritime James Bond. Pitt, who works for an organization called NUMA, first appeared in the 1973 novel The Mediterranean Caper. However, it was the third Pitt novel, Raise The Titanic which vaulted Cussler to mega-selling status, making him a wealthy man with more than 40 million books sold.

This wealth made it possible for Cussler to establish a real-life version of NUMA in an effort to search for lost maritime treasures across the world. They had great success, discovering more than sixty vessels. Cussler, however, vowed that before he died, he would find the Hunley.

Unfortunately, the joint NUMA/SCIAA mission was unsuccessful; it was marked with animosity and ended with no love-lost between the two groups. However, the NUMA team continued to search. Financed by Cussler, Ralph Wilbanks, Wes Hall and Harry Pecorilli continued to search for the Hunley. Periodically Cussler would fax them a new chart with search locations marked on them, but after a dozen or so dives, their confidence was lagging. Cussler kept telling them “the damn things are never where they’re supposed to be.”

On May 3, 1995, Hall and Pecorilli dove a site they had mapped and explored earlier. During the previous dive, the floor had been covered by a bed of oyster shells, but this time, it was clear. Pecorilli began his exploration, poking his stainless steel probe into the sand when he made contact with a solid object. Using the vacuum hose he cleared an area three-feet wide while Hall explored the surface of the metal with his hand. Suddenly he grabbed Pecorilli’s arm and began to gesture. The two men surfaced a few minutes later next to the dive boat. Wilbanks, on board, looked down at them in the water. Hill said, “It’s the Hunley.”

A week later, May 11, Clive Cussler met with the media in front of the iron replica of the Hunley outside the Charleston museum. He played a videotape the divers had made of their discovery. When asked for the coordinates he refused. Only the rightful owners, whoever that was determined to be, will be shown its location, he said. He remarked:

I didn’t spend fifteen years looking for it only to have it broken up by amateurs. Until I see a comprehensive plan put together by qualified people, they won’t get any cooperation from me.

Within days, South Carolina was in another skirmish against the United States government – over the ownership of the Hunley. Under the rules of war, the United States government owned all Confederate vessels. So technically, it was owned by the Navy and the General Services Administration would make the decision.

 State Senator Glenn McConnell, from Charleston, rushed a resolution through the legislature asking Congress to give South Carolina title to the vessel. Congressman Mark Sanford, also from Charleston, quickly registered a bill to that effect in Congress, followed almost immediately by Alabama. Both southern states had good claims to the rights of the Hunley – constructed in one state, and seeing action and lost in the other. They were also both fearful that the Smithsonian Institute would use its formidable power and claim the Hunley for their collection.

South Carolina then fire a shot across the bow of the U.S. government’s claims. McConnell, who at this time was chairman of the hastily formed Hunley Commission, claimed that the U.S. government had no claim, since the Hunley was never a Confederate vessel – it was a privateer, designed and built with private money. Lawyers produced papers from Horace Hunley’s business concerns in Mobile that proved McConnell’s supposition.  The lawyers argued that, according to South Carolina state law, for any private property abandoned for more than a year and a day, rights were forfeited.

They also argued that the Federal jurisdiction only extended three miles into the ocean. Since the Hunley was almost four miles from shore, she was out of the jurisdiction of the Federal government.

Finally, an agreement was worked out: The U.S. government kept title to the Hunley, and the submarine would stay in Charleston. The SCIAA, National Park Service and the Naval Historical Center were to be involved in the recovery of the submarine and Hunley Commission was appointed to direct and manage the display of the vessel.

Cussler gave up his coordinate numbers and within the year, a platoon of divers/ archeologists from all the agencies verified the claim – it was the Hunley.   

Five years later, August 8, 2000, the H.L. Hunley broke the surface of the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in 136 years. With a crowd of hundreds of boats dotting the surface, carrying thousands of on-lookers, the raising of the Hunley was broadcast to the world.

Thousands of people in Charleston, from all across the South, ditched work and found some location to watch the historic event.  Hanging from her secure sling, the Hunley, and a flotilla of hundreds of boats, sailed into Charleston harbor, past Fort Sumter, past Castle Pinkney, and up the Cooper River. More than 20,000 people lined Charleston’s Battery sea wall, beaches, parks and marinas to watch the submarine’s procession.

As the parade approached the USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier that is a permanent museum on the Cooper River, a regiment of Confederate reenactors fired a twenty-one gun salute from the deck. A lamp on the carrier was lit with a blue light, signaling “Mission Accomplished,” one-hundred and thirty-six years later. 


The H.L. Hunley breaks the surface for the first time in 136 years, August 8, 2000. Courtesy Naval Historical Center

The submarine was placed in a deep water tank at the Charleston Navy base. The next step was her conservation and her excavation.

In March 2001, chief archeologist Maria Jacobson was the first person to fully enter the submarine. As she cleared away the thick muddy sediment which filled the iron tube, she came across the body of the first crewman. Over the next few weeks they discovered six other remains – seven of the crew were still inside. The body of George Dixon, they hoped, would most likely be in the forward conning tower.

Meanwhile, in addition to the careful extraction of the bodies, there was a steady stream of artifacts being recovered almost daily – pipes, clothing, buttons, pocketknives, as the submarine slowly reveled her secrets.

On May 17, 2001, they discovered a signaling lamp in the conning tower, and also, the body of Lt. George E. Dixon. Five days later, Maria Jacobson was working on preparing Dixon’s body for removal when her fingers ran across a small, solid circular object near Dixon’s pelvis. She held the object out in her muddy hand and as water was poured over it, a warped gold coin was revealed. She turned it over, and read the inscription “Shiloh. April 6th 1862. My life Preserver. G.E.D.”

Other than the recovery of the bodies of the crew, the discovery of Dixon’s coin was the most sought after artifact from the Hunley.

The last funeral of the War Between the States fittingly took place in Charleston on April 17, 2004. The third crew of the Hunley took their final voyage, a 4-and-a-half mile journey from White Point Garden in downtown Charleston to Magnolia Cemetery.  More than 400 journalists from across the world covered the event. Ten thousand reenactors participated, and more than 50,000 people lined the streets of Charleston to watch the procession pass.

After a memorial ceremony at 9:15 a.m., horse-drawn caissons carried the crew down East Bay Street to Magnolia Cemetery, where they were interred next to the first two crews of the Hunley.


The third crew of the Hunley, at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston. Photo by author.


H.L. Hunley


Michael Cane
Nicholas Davis 
Frank Doyle
John Kelly
Absolum Williams


Horace Hunley – captain
Robert Brookbank
Joseph Patterson
Thomas W. Park
Charles McHugh
Henry Baird
John Marshall
Charles L. Sprague


Lieutenant George E. Dixon
Arnold Becker 
C.F.  Carlson 

Frank Collins
James A. Wicks
Joseph Ridgeway



Today In Charleston History: February 17

1627 – Founding

Barbados was settled by Englishman Henry Powell, who arrived with 80 settlers and 10 slaves who were kidnapped, lower class English or Irish youth. The island was established as a proprietary colony, funded by Sir William Courten, a London merchant who owned the title to Barbados. The first colonists were technically tenants and much of the profits were returned to Courten.  

1748 – Weather

The temperature fell to ten degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest day in Charlestown in the 18th century. The cold killed the orange trees in the area.


H.L. Hunley Submarine Sinks U.S.S. Housatonic (CLICK HERE For Entire  Hunley Story)

1865 – Civil War

Sherman’s troops burned Columbia, South Carolina. The bells of St. Michael’s Church, hidden beneath the floorboards of a shed next to the construction site of the new State House, were “melted and calcinated from a state of former beauty to little more than lumps.”


Today In Charleston History: February 16


Carolina returned from Barbados with sixty-four settlers.

1724- Births
Christopher Gadsden

Christopher Gadsden

Christopher Gadsden, son of Customs Collector Thomas Gadsden, was born in Charlestown. Christopher would become one of the richest and most powerful men in the city’s history.


Charles Theodore Pachelbel married Hanna Poitevin in St. Philip’s Church in Charleston.