Savannah’s Confederate Submarine
I have always been proud of the first successful submarine, the CSS Hunley, because it was manufactured in the city of my birth, Mobile, Alabama. That vessel was shipped via railroad across Georgia to Charleston, where it sank after destroying the USS Housatonic, a Federal warship. That craft was responsible for the accidental deaths of several of its own crews before its combat mission.
I was amazed to learn that a prototype undersea boat was actually constructed in Savannah. The paltry details are related by James Kloeppel in Danger Beneath the Waves and Mark K. Ragan’s Submarine Warfare in the Civil War.
Because the Confederacy lacked a proper naval force, in late 1861 and early 1862 military authorities and civilians in ports across the South were designing and constructing ironclad warships and submarines to protect coastal cities from Union attack.
One such device was produced in Savannah by Dr. Charles G. Wilkinson and Charles Carroll. On the morning of February 22, 1862, the men placed their experimental submersible into the Savannah River at the foot of Montgomery Street and boarded it through a tiny hatch. It is thought that an air valve malfunctioned and the test ended in disaster. Carroll managed to struggle to safety, but Wilkinson was trapped and drowned.
What happened to the submarine is unknown. As Kleoppel wrote, that craft “remains shrouded in mystery.”
On February 24, 1862, the Savannah Moring News reported: “Lamentable Accident. Yesterday an experiment that was being tried for the benefit of the Confederacy, and which two brave men, Dr. Wilkinson and Mr. Charles Carroll, had experimented, resulted in a misfortune, in which one of the gentlemen engaged lost his life. The chain of a crane upon which the instrument was suspended gave way, and Dr. Wilkinson, the investor, lost his life. Mr. Carroll miraculously escaped, after having urged Dr. Wilkinson to make his escape. We commended to the Confederacy the patriotism of these men, who were doing nothing for profit, but simply for the benefit of the cause in which they were engaged, and we are proud to state, that they were both Irishmen. Dr. Wilkinson leaves an only daughter, and we hope and trust that the people of the Confederacy will not allow her to suffer in a pecuniary point, although we know that nothing can replace an honored, loving, and devoted father. At some future period we shall explain more fully everything relating to this sad occurrence.”
Unfortunately, the newspaper was unable to provide follow-up details and there is no known additional information about the device.
Wilkinson, 49 years old, was the first casualty in the fledgling Confederate submarine service.
Learn more about the CSS Hunley.
Jim Miles is the author of nine books about the Civil War and two weird Georgia books. See Jim’s books.