After a year of independence, the government and people of the Confederacy were beginning to worry. During their first year after seceding from the United States, everything had gone well. In 1861 and early 1862 the rebel army enjoyed success after success, and the initial optimism of those in the North who thought the rebels could be defeated in a few months had settled into the grim acknowledgement that the war would take years and cost many thousands of lives.
Now things were turning against the South. It had lost ground in the west, and more seriously its economy was being strangled by a Union naval blockade on its ports. At the beginning of the war, Union General Winfield Scott had rightly seen that one of the Union’s greatest advantages was that it had far more warships. He introduced the Anaconda Plan, in which the Navy encircled the Confederacy like a vast snake, blocking every port and major river and cutting it off from the outside world.
The Confederate Navy tried to fight off the blockade but was seriously outgunned. Confederate blockade runners, independent operators with fast ships, became national heroes for their daring races across the ocean with Union warships hot on their heels. While their adventures made for good headlines, the goods they slipped through the blockade weren’t nearly enough to solve the chronic shortages.
The South needed a different solution. It needed some sort of vessel that could defeat the blockading ships and yet be within the financial and technological means of the Confederate war chest. It was the proposed solution to this problem that led to one of the strangest and inspiring stories of the Civil War—that of the CSS H. L. Hunley, the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy vessel. It is the story of its obsessive inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley, and his brave and determined crewmembers. It is also a story of technology well ahead of its time.
However, as historic and groundbreaking as the Hunley and its mission was, all of that may be overshadowed by the lingering debate over just what happened to the submarine, which never made it back to port after the attack. The submarine was eventually found, but historians still continue to look at all the evidence, including the positions of the crew, in an effort to conclusively determine how the Hunley sank. The enduring mystery has helped keep interest in the submarine alive as salvage efforts continue.