Confederate Submarine Hunley Built by Port Lavacans
By STEVE BALES - Men from Lavaca (now known as Port Lavaca) built, maintained, and operated the Confederate Submarine H.L.Hunley, which was recently discovered and raised off the coast of South Carolina.
According to information The Wave received Monday from local historian George Fred Rhodes and Mark K. Ragan, a member of the Hunley recovery team in South Carolina and the projects historian, as strange as the above statement might sound, it is none the less true.
Rhodes and Ragan have co-authored a paper about the first known submarine used in military warfare. They say that the recently raised Confederate submarine Hunley was invented and built by a group of Lavaca men, known from surviving Confederate records, as Singers Secret Service Corps., Singers Torpedo Corp., and The Singer Submarine Corps.
According to their paper, the group was founded in Mobile, Alabama by Lavacans Edgar Collins Singer, an Ohio-born engineer; Dr. John R. Fretwell, a physician born in Mississippi; James Jones, a jeweler born in Kentucky; ].D. Braman, a merchant born in Connecticut; C.E. Frary, a Canadian-born carpenter; David Bradbury, a contractor born in Maine; Robert W. Dunn, a trader born in Kentucky; B.A. Whitney, a merchant born in Massachusetts (who died in Charleston while Hunley was operating there) and William Longnecker, who was in the livery business in Lavaca and was born in Ohio. The group got their start as artillerymen attached to Sheas Battalion of Texas Light Artillery, stationed at Lavaca, according to the Rhodes/Ragan paper. In early 1863 E.C. Singer and Dr. Fretwell invented an underwater contact mine that was quickly patented in Richmond.
All the above mentioned Lavaca men (who were associated with Singer and Fretwell), were transferred to the Engineering Department and quickly ordered to Mine Mobile Bay (Alabama) with their newly invented underwater mines (known as torpedoes during the Civil War). It was during the manufacture and deployment of these mines that the group absorbed New Orleans Inventors Horace L. Hunley, James McClintock and Baxter Watson, who had built a rather crude submarine some months earlier. The Texans decided to invest in another submarine, and the four aforementioned Lavaca men (and Horace Hunley) invested in the underwater project.
Upon the submarines completion it was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina by rail aboard two flat cars. E.C. Singer, J.D. Braman, R.W. Dunn, William Longnecker and B.A. Whitney (all citizens of Lavaca) are known to have been part of the original crew. Within weeks after the submarines arrival in Charleston (and three unsuccessful nocturnal attempts against the union ironclads anchored past Fort Sumter), the vessel was seized by the Confederate Navy. Two crews were killed during operations in Charleston, and a third died on the night of February 17, 1864, following the successful attack on the USS Housatonic, the first vessel in history to fall victim to a submarine.
Although the submarine was seized by the Confederate military, it was still owned by the Singer Submarine Corps., who received a substantial bounty for their efforts from the Confederate Government.
The group was obviously a secret organization (hence one of the groups names Singers Secret Service Corps), and it is documented that the partners not only built and deployed underwater mines (several of which found their mark against union ships), and were engaged in rail road sabotage, but also may have built four late war submarines in Shreveport, Louisiana, and one in Galveston, Texas (surviving documentation indicates a modified Hunley design).
Ragan writes at the end of the Hunley paper, I feel that it is my duty to inform the citizens of Port Lavaca as to their Hunley history and have thus co-authored this article with Calhoun County Historical Commission Chairman George Fred Rhodes, in the hope of finding living relatives of the men mentioned above.
Any letters, photographs, news clippings and even family oral traditions would be greatly appreciated. If you have any information about any of the aforementioned individuals please contact Mr. Rhodes at 202 South Ann, P.O. Box 988, Port Lavaca, Texas 77979 telephone number (361)552-6342 or Mark Ragan at (410)798-1904 (in South Carolina).
Ragan said that a detailed Hunley archive is currently being established in Charleston, South Carolina and any pertinent information will be included. Go to the Hunley website for more information.
Reprinted with permission from the Port Lavaca Wave, Port Lavaca, Texas