Backfiring Boat Bomb: Civil War submarine’s missile likely killed its own crew

Backfiring Boat Bomb: Civil War submarine’s missile likely killed its own crew

The mystery of the H.L. Hunley’s disappearance has long puzzled scientists. On February 17, 1864, during the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate crew of the submarine H.L. Hunley launched a black powder torpedo against a Union ship, the USS Housatonic. They succeeded in sinking the ship, but the submarine strangely sank too.

In 2000, the submarine was recovered from the ocean floor, and skeletons of the eight crewmembers were found still seated at their stations without obvious physical injuries. 150 years later, it was still unclear why the crew didn’t attempt to escape, and how they died.

Now, scientists may have the answer. In new research published in PLOS ONE, they constructed a scale model of the submarine, appropriately named the CSS Tiny, and set off underwater blasts intended to recreate the relative pressures that the H.L. Hunley would have experienced. Their analysis, along with previous experimental data, revealed that the crew’s own torpedo against the Union ship likely created a blast wave which also traveled into the submarine. The air blast strength was estimated to have been strong enough to cause fatal brain and lung trauma, killing the crew where they sat.

Author Rachel Lance said of the work: “The disappearance of the Hunley has long stood as one of the great mysteries of American history. Finding the cause of death of the crew has finally allowed us to declare the mystery solved.”

Image Credit: Lance et al. (2017)

Research Article: Lance RM, Stalcup L, Wojtylak B, Bass CR (2017) Air blast injuries killed the crew of the submarine H.L. Hunley. PLoS ONE 12(8): e0182244.


Beth works at PLOS as Journal Media Manager. She read Natural Sciences, specializing in Pathology, at the University of Cambridge before joining PLOS in 2013. She feels fortunate to be able to read and write about the exciting new research published by PLOS.

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