The Civil War Schemes of William G. Cheeney
Historians and buffs, drawn to the sensational and unsolved, find tantalizing the story of William G. Cheeney's efforts to develop a submarine that may have predated the operations of the H. L. Hunley by three years. Several naval historians suggest that he was successful, but if they had a better understanding of Cheeney’s personal history, they may have invested less credence in his story. Despite their claims, Cheeney never served in the U.S. Navy, he did not have experience with underwater explosives, and his name "Cheeney" was an alias. Instead, this would-be naval engineer was an experienced printer and a one-time lead miner. He was also a habitual thief, a credit dodger, and a schemer. His attempt to build a submarine may have been nothing more than a plot to defraud the Confederate Navy of cash. Cheeney may have been sincere in his efforts to establish a printing career in Missouri, or build a submarine in Virginia, or dig up silver in Texas, but wherever he went, his dubious transactions and audacious promises defined him as a confidence man who maneuvered through the stresses and vulnerabilities evident in the early market system of the United States. This essay entitled “'Irresistibly Impelled toward Illegal Appropriation': The Civil War Schemes of William G. Cheeney" will appear in Jeff Forret and Bruce E. Baker, eds., Southern Scoundrels: Grifters and Graft in the Nineteenth Century, forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press, Spring 2021.