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[292]

Our torpedo boat. [Cleveland plain dealer, August, 1901.]

The original David, constructed for the Confederate Navy.



Sold for junk.

Its counterpart sunk the Housatonic off Charleston Harbor in 1864— fatal Experiments with the Queen Craft—How it was submerged.


A relic of great historical value was recently allowed to fall to pieces under the junk dealer's hammer and was carted away like so much scrap iron from the old Spanish fort, a few miles back of New Orleans, where it had stood for years a reminder of one of the forlornest hopes upon which man ever ventured.

It was the original David, a counterpart of the one that sunk the Housatonic off Charleston harbor February 17, 1864. It was being secretly constructed out at the fort when New Orleans fell, and upon the occupation of the city by the Federal forces, to save the design, it was rolled into a canal near by. There it remained for years after the war, for its builders and all who knew of it went down with its successor. Years after, when the canal was being dredged, the hulk was found, raised, and set upon the fort.


A queer craft.

Although this queer craft never itself played any part in the war, it was the first of a type which, in the Holland submarines, now gathered by the government into a little fleet, bids fair to revolutionize modern naval warfare. From the plans tested in its construction was built the David that immolated its own crew in destroying its enemy. There was not in naval history another example of career so disastrous and tragic as that of the David. Four crews went down with it in trial trips, and it lost its fifth when it was itself involved in the destruction of its first and last intended victim.

When the original submarine was tipped into the canal in 1862, her designers already had in mind the construction of a duplicate craft. Working from plans of the sunken ship, they built in Mobile in 1863 the famous and ill-fated David. This name was given to it because [293] it was expected to destroy the Goliaths of the Union fleet. The original David, from which its successor differed only in minor details, was cigar shaped, and resembled in general design the Holland submarines of the twentieth century. It had a conning tower, which, when the boat floated, was about all that appeared. The boat was about thirty-five feet long and built of sheet iron. Its principal differences from the modern submarine, those which made it imperfect and manageable only under the most favorable circumstances, were these:


How it was submerged.

The Holland is always buoyant; it is submerged by deflecting a horizontal rudder when the boat is under way, not by filling it to a weight a little more than that of the displaced water. The David was submerged by filling, and possessed only an upright rudder. In case of an accident to the Holland's machinery the boat will float to the top. It was vice versa with the David. The Holland is run by gasoline when on the surface and electricity when beneath. The propeller wheel of the David was turned by eight men. The Holland lies steady in the water. It is perfect ballasted when water is taken into the tanks, because they hold just the required amount to bring the boat to ‘fighting weight’ or ‘diving trim’ and it cannot shift. The David was unstable in this respect. The Holland fires the torpedoes after a moment's rise to the surface, when within range, to sight the vessel to be destroyed and get a direct line upon her. The David dragged her torpedo after her under the keel of the vessel, and it was exploded by the knock, when it struck.

The original David was designed for coast and river work in the gulf and Mississippi river. When it was put out of commission and the second boat was finished the ships of the North were blockading the principal Southern ports, and there was a brilliant opportunity for a submarine torpedo-boat to do the most effective kind of work, if she proved manageable. This she did not do. On her trial trip she sank before her proper time, and did not come up again. Her crew of ten men were suffocated. She was raised, and Lieutenant Payne, of the Confederate navy, volunteered to take command of her. In 1864 he took her to Charleston to undertake operations against the powerful blockading fleet. As she was nearing Charleston, a passing steamer sent its swells over her. Too heavy to rise to the waves, she rolled like a waterlogged tree trunk, and the wash went over her, pouring down her open hatch and quickly carrying [294] her to the bottom, with her crew, Lieutenant Payne, who was in the conning tower, crawled out and swam until a boat from the steamer which had caused the disaster rescued him. Again she was raised and again Lieutenant Payne took command. With his crew of ten men he made ready one evening to set out from Fort Sumpter upon an offensive expedition against the Union fleet, when, for some unknown reason, the David ‘turned turtle,’ taking to the bottom this time eight of her ten men, two of the seamen escaping with the commander. That was enough for Lieutenant Payne; he gave up submarine naval manoeuvres.

In spite of the disastrous succession of accidents, one man maintained his faith in the David. That man was one of the designers, Mr. Aunley. He had the vessel raised, collected a crew, not without difficulty, and taking his craft up the Stone river, made several trials which seemed to justify his confidence. Then there came a day when the David went out and did not come back. Divers found her with her nose stuck in the mud. Mr. Aunley and his ten men were suffocated. For some time she lay at the bottom of the river, but another daring experimenter was found who undertook to navigate her successfully if she were raised. Raised she was, and the new commander might have made good his promises had he not attempted to show that he could take her under a schooner and up on the other side, in which experiment she fouled the cable and suffocated another crew.


A ‘water coffin.’

It speaks volumes for the daring of the southern naval men that any could be found to venture upon the forlorn hope after this. Captain J. F. Carlson and Lieutenant George E. Dixon persuaded the authorities to raise the ‘water coffin,’ as the David had been gloomily nicknamed, and to let them take it out with the purpose of torpedoing the Housatonic of the union fleet. Only five men could be found who were willing to take so desperate a chance. At dusk of a still evening, February 17, 1864, the man-propelled craft made her way out of the harbor. She successfully passed the lines of picket craft around the inner squadron and made for the Housatonic, the Goliath of the outer line of the blockade. She was sighted at 8:45 by the officer of the deck on the Housatonic and hailed. She was running on the top of the water and burning no lights, and when discovered was but 200 yards away. She did not reply, but came on. A call to quarters was sounded. It was too late; the [295] David was inside the range of the Housatonic's guns. The men opened fire with pistols and rifles, but on came the curious little cylinder unaffected. She dove and passed nearly under the vessel's stern, drawing her torpedo after her. It struck the big ship almost amidships. Simultaneously cane the explosion. The Housatonic reeled and in a few moments lunged forward and sank bow first. Most of the officers and crew saved themselves by climbing into the rigging, from which they were taken by the small boats of the other vessels. The David had dived her last. She never came to the surface. After the war, when the wrecks off Charleston were being removed, the David was discovered at the bottom, not 100 feet away from her victim. All of her men were at their stations.

No other submarines were attempted by the Confederacy. The original David, just destroyed, was, therefore, unique, the only existing specimen of a type which has developed into such wonderworking craft as the modern submarines. All the maritime world is reckoning with them now. France is building a flotilla of them. Italy and Greece have some under construction. Germany, Russia, and Japan are experimenting with them, England has five; we have seven. Soon every navy in the world will have them. It might have been worth while for our navy to preserve this first effective type as a historical memento, rather than let it be sold for old iron.

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