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The Confederacy’s Forgotten Submarine Fleet

Today in History: The Attack of the CSS David, October 5th, 1863

Today the CSS Hunley, the failed Confederate submarine that was recently raised off the bottom of the ocean tends to get all the glory.  Overshadowed by the Hunley was another submersible called the CSS David, a torpedo boat that would spawn a whole fleet of Confederate submersibles during the Civil War.

Designed by St. Julien Ravenel and constructed by a private citizens of Charleston, the CSS David was a cigar shaped craft about 50 feet long and manned by a crew of 4.  A steam powered craft, the CSS David was watertight and had a ballast tank so that it could dive, but it could only dive as far as the top of its smokestack.  Thus it was not a true submarine like the Hunley, however in night attacks it was assumed that the smokestack would not be noticed.

The CSS David was equipped with a 134 pound spar torpedo, which the David would ram into an enemy ship’s hull, detonating the torpedo.  The first attack made by the David on an enemy ship occurred on October 5th, 1863, when it assault a Union blockade ship called USS Ironsides.  The stealthy CSS David got to within 50 feet of the Ironsides before being spotted and fired upon.  Once discovered, the David steamed full speed ahead, ramming the Ironsides and exploding its torpedo.  That attack caused minor damage to the Ironsides, killing one crew member.  

While the attack of the CSS David wasn’t really successful, the Confederate Navy was impressed by the concept, and built a fleet of twenty other David Class submersibles.  However the Confederacy’s sub fleet saw little success.  Most of the blame was not in the subs, but their spar torpedo’s which either caused little damage or failed to detonate altogether.  After the attack on the USS Ironsides, the CSS David also attacked two Union frigates called the USS Memphis and USS Wabash.  In both assaults, the spar torpedo failed to detonate, causing little damage.

The fate of the CSS David is unknown.  However, most David Class submersibles were either scuttled or captured and sold as scrap by Union forces.