Book Review The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy by Tom Chaffin


Oct 13, 2019
North of the Wall & South of the Canucks
Title: The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy
Author: Tom Chaffin
Page Length: 352 pages (including index)
Price: 9.99 (Kindle), 13.97 (Audible), 20.95 (hardback), 16.61 (paperback)


I first want to share a personal story. It had only been a few months after our move to a small town of 700 people and the house that to this day my parents and kid brother still reside in. I was in the 4th grade, not well liked by my classmates. I had a few friends, but nothing to write home about. One night, I had gone to bed at the appointed time (which in our family was 8:30pm until you got into high school, then it became 10). It seemed like I had only fallen asleep for a few minutes when I awoke to find my mom standing at the side of my bunkbed, shaking me awake.

"Adam! There's something you need to see!"

Grumbling, I got out of bed, noting the 10pm. My bedroom was in the basement, where one of the two family tvs was placed in the den. My mom excitedly pointed towards the tv and said, "Wait until it gets back to the news."

Of course, I wasn't all that interested in the news, but after coming back from the commercial break, the main news anchor said, "And today in Charleston, history has become present day as the Hunley, the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship in combat and missing for more than a century, has been raised." The news segment lasted only two minutes, I clearly recall the image of it being raised out of the water like a dolphin that's being raised by a crane for transport. After it was done, my mom said, "Ok, back to bed. I don't know why you're out of bed this late."

I wish that was a joke for the last part, but I have other stories of my mom that some might think she's a little bipolar. Anywho.....

That was my first Civil War experience, besides the books I had read. Obviously, in the 20 years that has passed, I haven't forgotten that image of the Hunley emerging from the depths like Osiris after Isis found his sarcophagus he had been trapped in.

As such, I've always had an interest in the Hunley, even if it wasn't strong enough to really learn about it too much. During one of my last book purchase manias, this book happened to be one that I threw in my cart to purchase. It worked out, as I was preparing for my roadtrip to the Carolinas, I decided I would visit the Hunley herself. Even when it was only going to be Charleston, the Hunley was one of the top two priorities for the trip. I even took the book with me, thinking I was going to finish it.....but that didn't happen. Got too busy posting updates!

The book is well-written and easy to get into. The book is broken into three parts. The first part deals with Hunley, Dixon, and the others who worked on the Hunley. It deals with earlier attempts at submarine creation and there were actually a number that had made dozens of successful dives around the world. It also goes into detail of the Pioneer and the American Diver, the Hunley's older brothers.

The second part deals with the Hunley herself, her troubles and the issues involved with such a craft. It ends of course with her disappearance. The last third discusses the theories of why it disappeared, the recovery process and the discoveries made and the efforts to learn more about the ship.

There is a lot of good information in it and helps rectify many common misconceptions. Such as the Hunley being the only submarine that operated in the Civil War. Or that it was the only submarine to be built after the Revolutionary War's Turtle. It also portrays a cast of characters that were motivated more by the income prospects than any loyalty to the Confederacy, even if it was genuine loyalty.

The book however shows it's age. Ironically, in 10 years since it was published, it's fallen far behind the data gathered. Such as they talk at one point how the oceanic buildup is still such they are unable to do any research on the actual hull-plating. That's no longer the case. It also talks about the idea of the concussion of the torpedo possibly knocking out the crew. However, newer research has now shown that the spar for the torpedo could actually be lowered to beneath the submarine to prevent that exact thing. The tour guide explained it to us when I was going through the tour. There is also the fact that basically the entire crew has been pretty much identified while the book was written while only two of the bodies had been confirmed.

The author also seems to be unfamiliar with the social norms at the time. There is the story of Dixon and a young girl in New Orleans (if I recall correctly) who were engaged and that's why he had the diamond ring on his person. My tour guide stated this as fact while the author explains that research has actually dismissed this idea. Yet one of his reasonings had to do with the age difference between the two, Dixon was in his late 20's while the girl was only 14ish. He says that is highly suspect, however, if he understood the period and it's norms, would realize that it was quiet common for really young girls to marry much older guys.

The first two parts, the buildup and the actual Hunley sections are pretty solid, but the modern research part is less useful now with so much time passed. That is not an issue with the book itself, it was written most likely to help promote the Hunley and raise funds for it's research.

I would give it a 4 out of 5.
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