The Hunley II – Commentary by Frank Gillispie 10/23/09

Some time back, I acquired a copy of an unpublished manuscript written by my great uncle Ace Argo entitled, "The Heirs of Peggy," and written in the 1950’s as near as we can tell. No copy I’ve seen has a copyright date on it. It contains a number of interesting stories about the lives he and his relatives experienced. There are probably a hundred or so copies spread among various family members. What follows is Chapter 8 from that manuscript.

Chapter 8 chronicles the tale, as told to Ace Argo by his father (my great-grandfather), William David Argo. He is known as "Dave" in the story. To the best of my knowledge, the story is authentic, however, I understand by way of Uncle Ace that some of the family names were changed because at the time it was written, a number of the participants or their close relatives were still living.

My great grandfather was a devout Christian and southern abolitionist. He and his siblings rejected an inheritance because it had been earned with slave labor. Some areas of the book contain terms that are no longer politically correct and would be deemed offensive by today’s standards.

It is shared here as a tribute to my ancestors and the people of the South. I believe it illustrates their humanity and fallibility, the tragedy of war, but most importantly, their patriotism, loyalty, dedication and ingenuity.

From The Heirs of Peggy by Ace Argo, ca. 1950.

Chapter Eight – Huntley II

By spring of sixty—four, the war was bearing down on everyone in the south. Food was scarce and some items such as coffee were unobtainable except for the little bit that trickled back from, the front. During lulls in the fighting, soldiers of the opposing armies would meet secretly between the lines and sugar, tobacco, and rice would be swapped with the Yankee soldiers for coffee. When the boys would come home on furlough, they would bring a little coffee to dad and mom or to the wife. Some was brought in by blockade runners, but the price on this was prohibitive to any but the rich. There was a shortage of almost all drugs, especially quinine, and epidemics of typhoid fever raged.

Confederate commissary wagons would pass through the country, escorted by a patrol of cavalry, and a percentage of everything on the farm in The way of food would be taken and sent to the front. By year sixty—four, one third of everything edible was being requisitioned. People began to resist and many would drive their best cattle and hogs to the back fields or hide them in the swamps. Cured pork such as hams, shoulders, and side meat were removed and concealed in caves along the creek banks. There were complaints that much of the foodstuffs collected never found its way to the front. This was true, but usually it was due to a lack of transportation.

There was much concern that the slaves would rise in rebellion and the Patteros, a sort of vigilante group, were on patrol almost every night. Any slave caught out at night without a pass from his owner was lashed and trotted home. Most of the people had guns around their homes but there was little ammunition. No powder, shot or caps were used for hunting. What little was available was reserved for emergencies. Game became very plentiful, and to those resourceful enough to improvise traps and snares, it helped to augment their dwindling food supply.

Wounded soldiers and those home on furlough reported that the army was short of almost everything; food, clothes, ammunition, and especially in manpower, Battle losses had been heavy the year before and sickness was taking a still greater toll. Desertions and defections had also increased. General Grant had been put in charge of The new Army of the Potomac and everyone knew that he would soon move south with the largest and best equipped force ever to take the field in this country. Lee would have to oppose him with less than half as many men and very inadequate equipment.

Up to this time the attention of the people around Anderson had focused on the northern front for most of their men folks were serving in that theater. The hostilities there were several hundred miles away. But in the spring of sixty—four, General Sherman moved out of Chattanooga and headed south toward Atlanta. General Johnson checked him at Kennesaw Mountain but was unable to hold him and Atlanta fell. Immediately, attention turned to the west. Atlanta was scarcely more than a hundred miles away, and no one knew which way the Yankee army would turn from there but feared it might be east. A Home Guard unit had been organized consisting mostly of youths sixteen and seventeen and men who had lost a limb in the war but could still handle a gun to some extent and provide leadership and stability. They were drilled by a one—armed sergeant and commanded by a wounded captain home from the front. Their duties were mostly to guard supplies and be ready to quell any uprising of the slaves, if such should occur. Dave enlisted along with the first group and did duty until the end of the war.

The Guard seemed to function somewhat as the National Guard does today, the boys working most of the time and doing duty one or two days a week. It was probably exciting and eventful enough, but compared with what was going on elsewhere, it seemed pretty tame to Dave. He remembered the amusing incidents more than the serious ones.

They were grinding sorghum cane for syrup making with a mule pulling a beam ‘round and ‘round for power. Someone galloped up yelling at the top of his voice. "The Yankees are coming, the Yankees are coming!"

Everyone scattered with members of the Guard heading for their headquarters to assemble and arm themselves and others headed for home. One excitable old man jumped on the mule hitched to the syrup mill, popped spurs to him, and galloped around and around until one of the Guard boys ran up and stopped him and headed him for home.

The Guard assembled and marched out of town toward the west, taking along their supply wagon. By nightfall they were on the banks of the Savannah River at Browns Ferry, had bivouacked for the night, and posted sentries. The captain had inquired along the way. Ho one had seen any Yankees, but the ferryman reported that he had an arrangement with a family across the river to signal him if any showed up by hanging garments on the clothes line in a certain way. The signal had been out since early morning and he had not operated the ferry all day.

One of the sentries was posted near the supply wagon where they had eaten their supper and had fed the horses. In the early morning hours, Dave had relieved this post and was on duty there. It was quiet, nothing happening at all except that a pine rooter hog kept nosing around the wagon. Dave chased him away half a dozen times but he kept coming back. Finally he lost his temper and took a shot at the troublesome pig, wounding it, and it started squealing at the top of its voice. The shot and the commotion in the dead of the night was too much for the inexperienced boys of the Guard; they panicked and ran off into the woods. It took the captain half an hour to get them all back together and restore order. When he did he was raging, both at Dave for shooting and at the men for running.

When it was light enough they found a bateau and three men went across the river to look around and talk to the people who had hung out the signal. It was all a mistake. The lady of the house was sick and had hired a colored woman to do the wash. She had hung a union suit on the line in such a way that it formed a perfect "Y," the prearranged signal.

Before the mistake was discovered and while everyone was believing that a Yankee patrol was in the area one of the boys casually remarked, "I’ll bet they are looking for that submarine Thad Wehunt is building." When the excitement was over the captain called the young man aside and inquired further about the supposed submarine because, to his knowledge, Thad Wehunt had lost an arm in the fighting around New Orleans and had been discharged from the Navy. The young man told him That Wehunt was indeed building a sort of half—submersible craft right on his father’s farm along the Savannah River, and which he hoped to float dawn The Savannah when The river was at flood and attack the Union fleet lying off the river’s mouth, and at Fort Royal. The captain had heard nothing of this project but decided that if such a craft was really being built, it would become the duty of The Guard to protect it. So he picked Dave and two others who had mounts and set out for the Wehunt farm to investigate, sending the troop back to town in charge of the sergeant.

None of The family was at home. The captain looked around a little but noticed no signs that anything unusual was going on around there. Then one of the boys who was familiar with the place commented, "I wonder why they moved that old fodder shed? It used to set up here by the barn. Now it is down by the river, and it has been lengthened."

They rode down there and noticed signs of much activity around it. The doors were tightly closed and locked, and there were no cracks that anyone could see through.

The family owned a few slaves and soon one of them, a big, burley fellow, came down and wanted to know what they were doing nosing around there. The captain introduced himself and The boys but made no mention of what They had heard, "We have business with Mr. Wehunt," he explained.

"Mr. Wehunt and his son went into town early this morning and should be back soon now. Make yourselves comfortable and I will get you all a cup of cider. But you must go back up to the house. Marse Thad don’t want nobody messing around his fodder barn." And The big man led them back up The lane.

The father and son arrived an hour later, but at first they were non—committal and would tell them nothing about any boat project. But when the captain explained that he was there to offer the services of the Guard to help in any way possible, the younger man relented and told them the story.

Thad Wehunt had won an appointment to Annapolis Naval Academy and was there for two years before the war broke out. Shortly after the incident at Fort Sumter he left the Academy, returned to South Carolina, and enlisted in the Confederate Navy as a lieutenant. At the Academy he had majored in Naval Design and Construction, and The Confederates made use of his training to assist in the design of the Huntley, the world’s first workable submarine. The vessel successfully attacked and sank a Union warship but went down with it, so the project had to be put down as a failure. Lieutenant Wehunt was transferred to New Orleans and assigned to a small ram Boat. When Admiral Farragut successfully attacked the small Confederate fleet above New Orleans, Wehunt’s ram was among those destroyed. It was broken in two and the after section remained afloat with the lieutenant and several others staying aboard.

The admiral’s flagship came alongside and he called to them to surrender and he would send a boat to take them off. The lieutenant refused rescue and began to berate the admiral as a "damned traitor to his country" because Farragut was a native of Tennessee. The admiral then ordered him shot and the bullet shattered his arm, which had to be amputated later. Farragut then called to him, "Why don’t you damned fools surrender? Don’t you know the war is over?"

"Only the first phase of it is over," the wounded lieutenant replied. "The second phase begins here, and when it is over you will not have a warship afloat."

During his convalescent period, Lieutenant Wehunt used his right hand to draft the design of a new and revolutionary war vessel embodying a modification of the submarine principle combined with the ability to ram. He presented it to his Admiral and he thought it had great potentials, but the South did not have the money and materials to build one, so the lieutenant was thanked for his efforts and given his discharge.

But his interest continued, and after he arrived home he modified the original design to a more crude form that could be made of wood, a material readily available from his father’s sawmill. He sent the drawing to the Admiral. He believed it had possibilities and promised to give him as much help as possible and restored him to duty status.

The ambitious lieutenant set to work, using a few trusted slaves and a few of the young men thereabouts who were too young for military service. His boat was to be called, The Hunley II, in honor of the men who had lost their lives on the first submarine which he had helped to design.

Thad’s father walked with a heavy limp. He had been a railroad man for many years until he was injured in a wreck and had to retire. He believed that through his connections with the shop where the people knew him well he could obtain most of the bolts and rods that would be needed in the construction of the Hunley II.

Thad pledged them to secrecy, then took the group down to the shed and explained the construction and what he had in mind to accomplish. Dave was tremendously impressed and years later could give a minute description of the boat, mostly from memory, but he also had made a few sketches.

The Hunley II was to be forty—eight feet long and eight feet wide in the center. It would taper to a point at each end, much like a large canoe. It would flare slightly at its flat bottom and would be eight feet deep.

The heart of the boat and its ramming power would be in its massive keel, a piece of timber eighteen inches square and fifty—four feet long, extending six feet forward of the boat proper. To this projection was to be attached a cast iron ramming head. The hull would be double—planked with one inch boards to within three feet of the top, but the last three feet would be six inch oak timbers, hewed to the contour of’ the boat, and it would be decked with oak crossties, a supply of which they had on hand at the mill.

Unlike the Hunley I which was propelled by its crew turning a huge crank, the Hunley II would have a power plant. Their saw mill was powered by a steam engine using the upright type of boiler. This boiler was to be used in the boat and would furnish steam for four engines, turning four propellers, two in the conventional stern position and two forward. The boiler could not supply steam to operate these four engines continually, so the designer intended to use only the two stern engines for normal cruising and to use all four when a short burst of speed was needed, and to pull clear of a vessel that had been rammed.

The boat was expected to draw about two and one—half feet of water in the "high" position, and portholes along each side would provide light. There were compartments fore and aft that would be flooded before going into action and the vessel taken down until only two feet of its structure was above water. This would put the ramming head six feet below the surface, and an eighteen inch hole in the side of a wooden warship at that point would be enough.

It was to be a triple—threat craft. In addition to its ability to ram it was to be armed with two cannon, one fore and one aft, and these could be raised into firing position by a system of windlasses and a portion of the deck would be raised with them. It was hoped that with its low profile and great speed it could be brought in under a warship’s guns and fire solid shot into its sides at the water line with little risk of damage from return fire.. A crude periscope would provide vision when the guns were in the "up" position.

For its third threat, two heavy rings protruded from the sides near the stern. From these, "drag mines" would be towed. Workable mines had been developed by that stage of the war and the South had a few on hand. It was believed that these could be altered to put the detonating rods forward. Ironclad warships, which could not be effectively attacked by ramming or cannon fire, would be targets for drag—mine attack. The lieutenant’s plan was to come up behind a moving iron clad with a mine in tow at the end of a one or two hundred yard rope, run past it and across its bow and drag the mine beneath it.

Another unique feature Dave remembered was that the vessel was to have giant Eye—bolts near each end, reaching from the deck down through the keel. With these the craft would be lifted by two railroad cranes working from each end, loaded on a flatcar, and transported quickly from one seaport to another.

But why build it here, three hundred miles from the sea? The lieutenant’s answer made sense.

"It is the only place I can build it. No government funds or materials are available, and if they were I probably would not be able to get the approval of the proper officials, for I am only a lieutenant. The Admiral, though sympathetic and cooperative, nevertheless regarded it as a "hair brained" project. But he agreed with me that hair brained projects were about all we had left. And who can tell, this one might just work, and if it does the blockade can be broken, for we have ample materials to build more.

Plans were to take the boat down the river to Savannah during one of the many winter floods which occurred regularly in that country, practice on the half sunken ships in the estuary there until his ramming technique was perfected, then attack the Union warships at night just before dawn so there would be light to get back into harbor. If successful to any degree, he would then move on up and attack the fleet at anchor at Fort Royal.

Construction was already under way. A large virgin pine that stood on a rise of ground above the shed had been cut, the fifty—four foot log rolled into place by muscle power and hewed to shape by hand axes, for it was much too long to be handled by their small sawmill. The fodder shed had been dismantled and rebuilt over it. The bottom was completed and the sides were in process of being raised.

But a tragic ill wind blew against the endeavor and the boat was never completed. If it had been, who knows? The entire story of the War Between the States may have had a different ending.

Both the Wehunts reasoned that certain essential metal materials should be acquired before further effort was expended. These would include; the ramming head, three more engines and four propellers. Friends in The navy at New Orleans had promised to get the propellers from sunken boats and ship them to Augusta. From here and there they gathered enough scrap iron to make the ramming head and prow. The material was loaded into the wagon and the senior Wehunt started on the four-day journey to the foundry in Augusta.

Thad knew that the river was navigable for tugboats and barges as far up as Augusta, but from there to their place it was unknown to him. Water was low at that time of year and all navigational hazards would be visible, so on The same day his father left with the wagon of scrap iron he and Big Tobe, a trusted slave, left by boat to float to Augusta and chart the stream.

They never made it. Mr. Wehunt stayed with relatives in Augusta for Three weeks, hoping and praying, then gave up and donated the scrap iron to the war effort and came back home, a bereaved, discouraged, and beaten man.

No one knows what happened but most likely they both drowned while attempting to negotiate one of the many rapids. Tobe was a good hand with a boat but had had no experience in handling one in fast water, for the river near the Wehunt farm was relatively smooth.

There was no one to carry on with The project, so after a few months it was dismantled, The big keel timber was cut into shorter lengths and sawed into lumber.

Months later the badly decomposed body of a negro man was found entangled in some muscadine vines in The river just below Calhoun Falls, and was thought to be that of Big Tobe. But the body of Lieutenant Thad Wehunt was never found that anyone around Anderson ever heard of.

In this work of limited vision, recognition is only given to those who try and succeed. What a pity that those who give such effort to noble projects and fail through no fault of their own are not also appropriately recognized and honored.

Originally published at

Copyright © 2009 by Frank Gillispie

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