Confederate submarine on display during Virginia City Civil War Days |

Confederate submarine on display during Virginia City Civil War Days

Karen Woodmansee
Appeal Staff Writer

Karen Woodmansee/Nevada AppealJohn Dangerfield, of Charleston, S.C., sits inside the replica of the Civil War submarine the Hunley that he built out of scrap metal. The Hunley is on display through Monday during Virginia City Civil War Days at the Ramada Inn Virginia City, 100 North E St., Virginia City.

Part of America’s war history will be on display this weekend as a replica of the CSS H.L. Hunley, the first submarine ever to sink a ship in battle, sits at the Ramada Inn Virginia City.

The display is part of the Comstock Civil War Re-enactors fifth annual Virginia City Civil War Days running today through Monday.

John Dangerfield, a shipyard worker from Charleston, S.C., built the replica out of scrap metal, honoring the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship in battle, a feat the Hunley accomplished on Feb. 17, 1864.

The sub, 40 feet long, 4 feet high and 3.5 feet wide, quietly slipped up to the Union war sloop Housatonic and, using a harpoon and a torpedo on a 14-foot bar, rammed the Union Boat four miles out in Charleston Harbor.

The weapon was not intended to explode on impact, but when the eight men in the Hunley threw the sub into reverse, the torpedo’s trigger, attached to the sub by a 150-foot detonation rope was pulled once the sub was out of range. Or so they thought.

The brand-new Housatonic was sunk, killing five sailors, and the Hunley not only made history but became part of a mystery, because the submarine also sunk that same day.

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The reason for the Hunley’s demise was never known, because the remains were not found until 1995, buried in 30 feet of water and under 5 feet of ocean floor, Dangerfield said.

To operate the sub, the men who went down with the Hunley, from the lieutenant in charge, who was wounded at Shiloh, to four Europeans new to America and three more sons of the South, would sit on a bench and use a seven-piece crank shaft to push the drive shaft, which spun the propeller.

The head man was also responsible for opening and closing the snorkeling tubes and handling any emergency should the ballast tanks, which put water to a level high enough to submerge the sub and get a neutral buoyancy, have a problem.

The pumps pushed water out and air in, and could operate either ballast tank, in case one got clogged with sea matter.

The sub had two hatches, a joy stick for steering and 10 windows, or deadlights which could be covered if the crew did not want to be spotted.

“It also gave the men a chance to look up and see if they were still underwater,” Dangerfield said.

They had single candle for lighting, and since the walls of the Hunley were painted white, illuminated the entire submarine.

The ill-fated crew was not the first to die aboard the Hunley. Five men on the first crew and all eight on the second also perished in mishaps, but those times the sub was located and restored.

Dangerfield began his passion of the Hunley in February 2000, he said, after the sub was found, but before it was raised to the surface.

With Friends of the Hunley, an organization dedicated to the sub’s history, and thanks to a movie on the Hunley made by Ted Turner’s TNT network, a mockup was made and put on a tractor trailer and taken around the country, until it got too expensive, Dangerfield said.

But he always thought there should be a mobile exhibit, so with his own funds, he made one. With help from John Nevins of Sacramento, he brought the sub out West.

It will be at the Civil War Days event through Monday, then on Tuesday it will be taken to Carson City for a school program.

By Tuesday evening the sub will be at the Gold Hill Hotel in Gold Hill for a lecture on the Hunley, which begins at 7:30 p.m. For reservations call 847-0111. From there, it will go to Reno for another school program.

Then it’s over the Sierra to the California cities of Benicia, Nevada City, Fortuna, Hollister and Fresno for more school and history programs.

Its popularity with school programs was apparent in Virginia City on Friday as students from the three schools in town came by for tours and information.

Virginia City Middle School Principal Todd Hess said he likes to use the town’s events to educate, if he can.

“We try to if we know about it ahead of time,” he said. “The teachers develop lesson plans to prepare for the event, and we did that in this case.”

Nevins said 15 submarines were built by the South during the Civil War, and about five were built by the North, though the two sides had different ideas on how to use them.

“The South wanted to end the blockade, so they looked for attack subs, and today we know it is a great attack weapon, the most feared in the ocean,” he said. “The North saw it as a way to get men secretly into an area to clear obstacles so ships could get in.”

Other goings-on at the Civil War Days event, which was moved from Miner’s Park and the baseball field to the Ramada because work on the field was not yet completed, include a living encampment, cannon demonstrations, examples of period clothing, gunsmithing and lifestyle of the era.

– Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at or call 881-7351.