Confederate Torpedo Service
By R. O. Crowley
Formerly Electrician of the Torpedo Division, C. S. N.
(The Century / Volume 56, Issue 2, The Century Company, New York, June 1898)
Organization and First Experiments
At the outbreak of the war, one of the most pressing needs of the Confederacy was some effective method of defending its water approaches, especially the James River, leading direct to, its capital city. The South had no ships of war, and the few old-fashioned brick-and-mortar forts located here and there were mostly armed with smoothbore iron cannon, relics of a past age, and rusty from neglect.
To look back now, it seems wonderful how very defenseless we were at the start, and how apparently easy it would have been for a single second-class war vessel to have steamed up to Richmond in the early days of the conflict. For the defense of the rivers men’s minds turned toward torpedoes, which were then but little known in the military world. Scores of plans were submitted to the War and Navy departments, some advocating mechanical torpedoes,—-that is, those which exploded by contact or by timed mechanism—others strenuously urging electrical torpedoes. Those generally intended for use on land naturally fell into the hands of the War Department, while electrical torpedoes for use under water came within the province of the Navy Department. It is of the latter class that this article treats.
The idea of using torpedoes on the Confederate side originated, I believe, with the Hon. S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy; and he directed the distinguished Captain M. F. Maury to make experiments, with a view to their general employment, if practicable. His work began in the spring of 1862, and continued for a few months only with electrical torpedoes. He had arrived at no definite conclusion from his experiments when he was dispatched on an important mission to, where he continued to make experiments in electricity applicable to torpedo warfare, discovering an ingenious method of arranging and testing torpedo mines. The fact that there was no practical result from his experiments in the South was due simply to the want of time to organize his forces and collect material.
At that time the Federal government had no system of torpedoes; indeed, they did not consider it “honorable warfare.” They had no necessity for submarine defenses, because early in the war we had no ships to attack them. Frequent reports reached us that they intended to hang or shoot any man they should capture who was engaged in the torpedo business. It was, therefore, a very risky business on our part, as we were constantly exposed to capture. As some slight security against being summarily executed by the Federals, in the event of my being captured, I was furnished with a document from our Navy Department, which read as follows, as near as I can remember:
The bearer, R. O. Crowley, is in the service of the Confederate States Navy as electrician; and in case of his capture by the United States forces, he will be exchanged for any general officer of their army who may be in our hands.
(Signed) S. R. MALLORY, Secretary of the Navy
(Signed) JEFF’N DAVIS, President.
This document I always carried on my person, although I had no great confidence in its efficacy.
The experiments made under the supervision of Captain Maury consisted of placing a series of hollow spherical shells of iron, containing about fifty pounds of powder, and extending across the bottom of the river, and connecting them electrically by insulated copper wires leading to galvanic batteries on shore. Inside these shells fuses were placed, which were to be ignited by the passage of an electric current through a fine platinum wire.
It was confidently expected that the simultaneous explosion of these shells under a passing vessel would instantaneously destroy the vessel and all on board. Experiments soon demonstrated, however, that fifty pounds of powder in from ten to fifteen feet of water would scarcely do any harm; and very soon the whole plant was entirely disarranged, the wires broken, and the shells lost, by a heavy freshet in the river.
Captain Maury was succeeded by Lieutenant Hunter Davidson, and it was at this time that the writer was appointed electrician of the Torpedo Division. Our headquarters were on board a small but swift steam-tug called the Torpedo, and two Parrott rifles were put aboard of her for emergencies. In the cabin of this little steamer we studied, planned, and experimented for months with various fuses, galvanic batteries, etc., and finally we determined on a system.
Our first object was to prepare a sensitive fuse of fulminate of mercury, to be exploded by the incandescence of fine platinum wire by means of a quantity current of electricity. ‘We succeeded in this, and our fuses were made by taking a piece of quill, half an inch long, and filling it with fulminate of mercury. Each end of the quill was sealed with beeswax, after fixing a fine platinum wire through the center of the quill and connecting the protruding ends of the platinum wire with insulated copper wire. Enveloping the fuse was a red-flannel cartridge-bag stuffed with rifle-powder. The fuse, thus prepared, was ready to be placed in a torpedo-tank containing cannon-powder.
I have been thus particular in describing the fuse because on it depends entirely the certainty of explosion. Our torpedo-tanks were made of half-inch boiler iron. There was an opening to pour in the powder and to receive the fuse. The opening was then fitted with a screw-plug, in which there were two holes for the passage of the wires, and packed with greased cotton waste to prevent leakage of water to the inside. There was a heavy ring by which the tank was slung into position, and through this ring was passed a heavy iron chain attached to a mushroom anchor about twenty feet distant. These tanks were generally manufactured at the Tredegar Ironworks, and subjected to a heavy hydraulic pressure to show any leaks or defects.
Before we decided on the shape of the tank we prepared some ordinary copper soda-water tanks, capable of holding about one hundred to one hundred and fifty pounds of powder, and anchored them floating midway between the bottom of the river and the surface of the water. It was soon found, however, that, owing to their oscillating rotary motion, the electric wires became twisted and the electrical connection was broken. We also found that such floating tanks spent half their explosive force downward, and that copper was too soft to allow a fierce tearing power to the confined gases.
We experimented a long time with tanks of various sizes, and at various depths of water, and finally decided that a tank containing two thousand pounds of cannon powder was sure to destroy utterly a ship of any size at a depth of not more than thirty feet.
To give some idea of the many difficulties we encountered, I will mention, first, the scarcity of cannon-powder; secondly, we had only about four miles of insulated copper wire in the entire Confederacy; thirdly, we could obtain only about four or five feet of fine-gage platinum wire. Battery material was very scarce, and acids could be purchased only from the small quantity remaining in the hands of druggists when the war broke out.
In the autumn of 1862 we planted three of these copper torpedoes, each containing one hundred and fifty pounds of powder, in the Rappahannock, below Port Royal, the intention being to destroy any Federal gunboat passing up. Our plans, however, were disclosed to the enemy by a negro, and no attempt was made to steam over the torpedoes. In December of that year, when Burnside was about to attack at Fredericks- burg, it was deemed prudent to abandon our station near Port Royal, to avoid being cut off if the Federal army should succeed iii making Lee retreat.
To this end, I was instructed to proceed without delay to Port Royal, to save all the wire possible, and bring off our galvanic batteries and other material. This was a hazardous undertaking, as our station was outside the Confederate lines, and the enemy was in strong force on the opposite bank of the Rappahannock. In pursuance of orders, I arrived at the station about sunset one evening, and after making due preparations for the transportation of our men and material, the galvanic battery was charged and the circuit closed, and a tremendous explosion took place, throwing up large columns of water, and arousing the inhabitants for miles around. We then began to retreat, and did not get inside our lines until near daybreak the next morning, being much delayed by the muddy roads.(1)
Such was the consternation of the few inhabitants of Port Royal at hearing the explosion, that the town was immediately deserted, and I understood that about forty persons slept that night in a small log hut on a hill about two miles distant.
Operations on the James River
Having our system now perfected, we established a torpedo station, some five or six miles below Richmond, by submerging two iron tanks, containing one thousand pounds of powder each, in twelve feet of water, leading the wires ashore, and connecting them with a galvanic battery concealed in a small hut in a deep ravine. From the battery- house the wires were led to an elevated position near by, where the man in charge could keep a lookout for passing vessels. The position of the torpedoes in the water was indicated by two sticks, planted about ten feet apart on the bluff, and in a line with each other and the torpedoes; and the watchman’s instructions were to explode them by contacting the wires as soon as an enemy’s vessel should be on a line with the two pointers. All this being prepared, we awaited the approach of a Federal gunboat. As was usually the case, one came when least expected, on a beautiful clear day, when our entire force except the man stationed as lookout was absent in Richmond, preparing other war material.
We were apprised by telegraph of the rapid approach of the gunboat, and immediately hastened toward our first station; but we arrived too late. The man in charge had not seen the United States flag for a long period, and never having previously seen a gunboat so near, lost his presence of mind, and fired one of the 1000-pound powder-tanks when the gunboat was at least twenty to thirty yards distant. A great explosion took place, throwing up a large column of water to a considerable height; and the gunboat by her momentum plunged into the great trough, and caught the downward rush of a wave on her forward deck. The guards were broken away, half a dozen men were thrown overboard, and other damage to the gunboat was caused. The steamer then turned about as quickly as she could, and prepared to retrace her route down the river, after picking up the men who had been washed overboard. There was a brilliant opportunity to accomplish her total destruction by firing the remaining torpedo as she passed back over it. But alas! the man had been so astounded at the first explosion that he had fled precipitately, without waiting to see what damage had been done, and the gunboat was thus enabled to return down the river in safety.
The partial success of this attempt at exploding torpedoes by electricity immediately established the reputation of the Torpedo Division, and created great excitement all over the South, it being an undisputed fact that but for this explosion a Federal gun- boat would have been moored at the wharf at Richmond that morning, and would have captured the city.
A description of the defenses of the James River would be incomplete that did not include the barricade at Drewry’s Bluff. The river here is very narrow and deep. The right bank is a high, precipitous bluff, and the left low, flat land, so that the fort on the bluff commanded a wide sweep of country. The barricade was formed by driving piles, and then making square cribs of them, with the interior filled with broken granite, of which there were large quantities at Richmond. These cribs were stretched across the river in an irregular line, and were exposed a little at low tide. Between the cribs several steamboats and schooners were scuttled and sunk. No direct passage was left open, even for our own vessels, except a very labyrinthine route on the left bank, just large enough for small tugboats.
When the time came for our own ironclads to pass down the river, the Torpedo Division was sent to break up some of the cribs by exploding torpedoes on the top of them. In this manner a passage sufficiently wide was effected without damage to the remaining cribs. The barricade was left in such a shape that it could thereafter be quickly reconstructed so as to close the passage entirely.
Blowing up these cribs was great fun for our party, besides affording us practice in experiments. Numbers of fine fish were stunned by each explosion, and, floating to the surface, were speedily captured by us. There were no other barricades in the James River of any magnitude during the war. There was a slight one of stone cribs and sunken vessels at Howlett’s Reach, but it was not considered effective. In fact, the main reliance on the barricades was that they would prevent a surprise movement by the enemy at night; and it was not believed that the one at Drewry’s Bluff would do more than hold a determined enemy at bay for a few hours, while the shore batteries on the bluff could be pouring plunging shot on the decks of attacking vessels.
Immediate steps were now taken to establish other torpedo stations at several points lower down the river, using in every instance 2000-pound torpedoes. At our lowest telegraph station, which was located on General Pickett’s Turkey Island plantation, opposite Presque Isle, we erected a lookout tower, about one hundred feet high, from which the Federal gunboats at City Point could be seen distinctly. At Presque Isle we stationed a scout whose duty it was to signal the man in the tower when anything suspicious occurred. Presque Isle is only a short distance from Bermuda Hundred, which is near City Point. The lowest torpedo station was at a place called Deep Bottom, about five miles above City Point by land, but more by water. As there were a good many free Negroes in the vicinity of Deep Bottom, we had to do our work with great secrecy, generally planting the torpedoes at night, in a position previously surveyed by day. At Deep Bottom we located the galvanic battery on the right bank of the river, in a pit about four or five feet deep, the top covered over with twigs and brush, and in another pit, some distance off, a place was prepared for the lookout; this pit was also concealed by twigs and brush.
We were duly advised of the advance of General Butler’s army from Bermuda Hundred toward Drewry’s Bluff, the entire Federal fleet also advancing up the river, covering his right wing. The Federals had been told by the Negroes that there were torpedoes at Deep Bottom, and used great caution in advancing. As soon as the fleet rounded the point below Presque Isle, the Federals began shelling our tower, and it was soon demolished; but no one was hurt, as our men took away the telegraph instruments, and rapidly retreated up the river road. A force of marines was landed on both sides of the river, in order to discover the whereabouts of our batteries. A squadron of boats, heavily armed, went in advance of the fleet, dragging the river for wires and torpedoes. Their grapnels, however, passed over and over our wires, without producing any damage, our lookout, from his concealed station in the pit, noting all the movements of the men in the boats, and hearing every word of command. After a while the Federal commander, apparently satisfied that there were no torpedoes there, ordered the Commodore Jones, a double-ender gunboat carrying eight guns and manned by a force of two hundred men, to move up to Deep Bottom, make a landing, and report. This was done, the gunboat passing over our torpedoes; but our man in the pit kept cool, and did not explode them, because, as he afterward said, he wanted to destroy the ironclad, recently captured by the Federals from us near Savannah, Georgia.
The Commodore Jones steamed up to the wharf at Deep Bottom, and found our quarters deserted. This looked suspicious, and the order was then given for her to fall back. Our man now concluded that the entire fleet would retire, and he determined to destroy the Commodore Jones. As she retreated she passed immediately over one of the two torpedoes planted there. All at once a terrific explosion shattered her into fragments, some of the pieces going a hundred feet in the air. Men were thrown overboard and drowned, about forty being instantly killed. The whole Federal fleet then retreated some distance below.
The Federal marines on shore continued their explorations, and our man in the battery-pit suddenly jumped out, and was as killed by a shot from the marines. The small boats again began dragging for our wires, and finally caught them, and by underrunning them to the shore at length discovered the man in the lookout pit, who was immediately taken prisoner and carried on board one of the vessels composing the fleet. He was subsequently imprisoned at Fort Warren, but about a year afterward was exchanged. Both he and his assistant, when taken aboard the fleet, were securely placed in a conspicuous position on the wheel-house of a double-ender gunboat, — the foremost vessel,—in order, as they were told, that if any further explosion took place they should share the consequences.
Thus was accomplished at one blow, and almost as quick as lightning, the complete destruction of a war steamer by submarine torpedoes. So far as I know, it was the first instance of the kind in the annals of war. Its effect astonished the world, and its immediate result was the safety of Richmond from a second peril. General Butler, finding his army completely uncovered on the right wing, was unable to accomplish anything by land, and retired to Bermuda Hundred.
Shortly afterward the land forces again advanced, and compelled us to abandon all our torpedo stations below Dutch Gap.
While we were busily engaged in perfecting our system of submarine defenses, making it necessary that we should have unobstructed navigation of the river, some mechanical torpedoes were planted, under the direction of army officers. As these were entirely unreliable as to certainty of explosion or contact, and were as dangerous to us as to the enemy, our chief, upon being advised of it, demanded their removal. The Secretary of War gave a reluctant assent to his demand that we should drag them up and put them out of harm’s way. There was not much accord between the army and the navy in those days, however; and we were not fully advised in the premises, as will be shown herein. The steamer A. H. Schultz, formerly used as a passenger-steamer between Richmond and Norfolk, and commanded by Captain D. J. Hill, was at the outbreak of the war laid up as useless at the wharf in Richmond. Later she was taken possession of by the Confederate government for the purpose of transporting prisoners to and from Varina, on the James, the point of exchange. One day she started down the river, having on board four hundred and fifty Federal prisoners. She passed the barricades at Drewry’s Bluff safely, and landed her prisoners at Varina, where they were duly turned over to the Federal authorities, and it was expected that she would then bring back to Richmond a like number of exchanged Confederates; but owing to some misunderstanding on the part of the commissioners of ex- change, no Confederates were brought up by the Federals to Varina, so she was obliged to start on her return to Richmond. When she reached a point just below the barricades at the bluff, she came in contact with one of these mechanical torpedoes, placed there by army officers, and an explosion followed, killing two firemen and two Confederate soldiers. The steamer sank in five minutes, and was a total loss. On the downward trip the torpedo probably swung downstream with the strong current, and for this reason the steamer did not come in contact with the percussion fuse; but on her return the torpedo, still swinging with the current, offered a fair mark for the steamer’s hull coming up. It was a most fortunate thing for the South that the Schultz did not strike the torpedo on her downward trip, as the Federals, most of whom were just from the hospitals, and in a weak and sickly condition, would probably all have been drowned, and universal condemnation would have fallen upon the destruction of four hundred and fifty prisoners under a flag of truce.
Operations Near Wilmington, North Carolina
Nothing more of consequence took place on the James River, and we were transferred to Wilmington, North Carolina, to defend Forts Fisher and Caswell, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, from any attempt of the Federal fleet to pass the forts. Here we were confronted with a new difficulty—that of laying torpedoes in the sea, in a wide channel; and our resources in the matter of copper wire and battery material were get- ting very scarce. We had plenty of cannon-powder only. The channel in front of Fort Fisher was about half a mile wide; but just at the bar, over which it was necessary for a vessel to pass to enter the channel, there was scarcely room for more than one or two ships to pass at a time.
We first planted in the regular channel near the bar seven torpedo-tanks, each containing two thousand pounds of powder. It was thought that at least one of these would be covered by a vessel in passing; and w~ knew from experience that if one vessel was destroyed by the explosion of a torpedo, no other vessel would dare to renew the attempt.
Of the electric wires, one from each torpedo connected it with a wire leading to one end of the battery, which was located in a bomb-proof comprising a part of the fortifications; another wire led from each torpedo to the opposite end of the battery, and hung disconnected until desired to be exploded. All these wires were intrenched in the sand from the shore-line to the battery. These latter wires were numbered from 1 to 7, and sights were placed showing when a ship covered any particular torpedo.
About this time we received a supply of wire, acids, battery, and electrical appliances through the blockade from Europe, and we intended to plant a torpedo right on the bar, the entrance there being very narrow. Everything was prepared for it; but the appearance of the Federal fleet put an end to the attempt, so we had to rest contented with the seven already planted.
Among the apparatus received from was a lot of Wheatstone exploders and Abels fuses. With these we hastily prepared several copper tanks of a capacity of one hundred pounds of powder, and planted them about three feet deep in the sand on the land side of the fort, about three hundred yards in front, and led the wires in trenches to the traverses of the fort. This was done in expectation of an assault by the Federal land forces. The Federal fleet, however, proceeded to bombard that angle of the fort, and one by one our guns on that side were demolished. At the same time it was discovered that the heavy shells, plowing up the ground in front, had utterly destroyed all our wires, so that the plan of exploding the 100-pound tanks on shore failed entirely.
The result of the bombardment of Fort Fisher is well known. No attempt was made to pass our batteries until the fort was in the hands of the Federals.
As in former instances, our plans were betrayed. One or two nights before the attack, the writer was up at a very late hour, talking to his assistant about our preparations, plans, etc., in a room of a building occupied in part by the midshipmen and officers of the naval squadron doing land duty in Fort Buchanan, which commanded that part of the channel nearest the Cape Fear River. Our conversation was fully overheard by one of the ordinary seamen in the next room, who deserted in a boat that night, and went to the Federal fleet. But for the intelligence conveyed by this deserter, it is believed that the Federals would have made an attempt to pass our land batteries.
Above Fort Fisher, toward Wilmington, we had planted two submarine batteries of one thousand pounds of powder each, connected by electric wires with a Wheatstone exploder located in an old earthwork on the bank of the river. During a heavy thunder- storm the wires were struck by lightning, and both tanks exploded simultaneously, damaging nothing, but frightening the fleet, and causing great watchfulness in their slow advance toward Wilmington. The Cape Fear River could be entered by two channels, one leading up to Fort Caswell, and thence via Fort Campbell into the river, and the other leading up to Fort Fisher and via Fort Buchanan into the river.
The first-named route, via Fort Caswell, or the “old inlet,” as it was called, was entirely undefended by submarine torpedoes, and probably would have been easy to turn with a small ironclad, as the two forts there were old brick-and-mortar constructions armed with old-fashioned smooth-bore guns; but the channel-way was comparatively shallow and tortuous. The other route, via Fort Fisher, was more commonly used by the blockade-runners, as there was no impediment to navigation except the bar in front of the fort.
I have previously noted the great scarcity of materials. To get up a battery without glass tumblers to hold the acid, and without platinum strips to immerse in the nitric acid, was a great difficulty. There was no glass manufactory in the South. Platinum strips could not be obtained. The only platinum suitable for that purpose was being used in the batteries in the telegraph offices. I finally arranged a battery as follows: with the zinc plates formerly used in the Wollaston battery in our early experiments, I had a number of zinc cells cast in the shape of an ordinary glass tumbler, having a projecting arm for a handle as well as to connect it with the next adjoining cell in the series. The inside of these zinc tumblers was amalgamated with mercury, and a solution of sulphuric acid, composed of one part of acid and thirteen parts of water, was poured into each tumbler or cell. In this solution was placed a cylindrical porous cup, open at the top, and filled with nitric acid. In the nitric acid was immersed a piece of cast- iron having four projecting leaves and a projecting handle connected with a corresponding handle of the adjoining zinc cell by an ordinary brass clamp. It would appear, at a casual glance, that the nitric acid would almost instantly consume this cast-iron strip; but it did not, and we found that it would remain several hours without perceptible change, and then the nitric acid would be- come changed into probably a nitrous oxide gas, and effervesce suddenly. It was necessary, then, only to refill the porous cup with fresh, pure nitric acid. The composition of this battery had been suggested to the writer’s mind from having seen, several years previously, a similar battery used by a Dr. Boynton, a public lecturer, to produce electrical phenomena.
This battery, as will be observed from its construction, would stand a great deal of rough usage. Its electrical heating-power was great, but its electromotive force was not sufficient to produce heat at a greater distance than two miles of a metallic circuit.
The operations of the Torpedo Division proper were confined principally to the James and the Cape Fear rivers. Our force was small, though sufficiently elastic to have extended to other points if we had had the necessary materials. It comprised the officer in charge, the electrician and his assistant, two men at each station, two or three telegraph operators, one or two scouts, and the crew of a tugboat, commanded by an executive officer—in all, about fifty men. Of the men at the stations, one was usually either a boatswain or a master in the navy, and the other a young man as a relief, generally a man who was incapacitated from doing active duty as a soldier in the field.
Submarine torpedoes containing powder could not be effectively used in the Mississippi River, principally on account of its great depth, varying from twenty to one hundred and fifty feet, the immense volume of water to be lifted offering too much resistance.
It would not do to calculate the weight of a perpendicular column of water, with a diameter of say three or four feet, in this connection, because powder, exploding equally in all directions, has a tendency to lift a column conically shaped—that is to say, with a lower diameter of about four or five feet and a diameter at the surface of from twenty to thirty feet. To lift a column sufficiently strong in its upward ascent to crush the hull of a passing vessel in water one hundred feet deep would require such an immense quantity of powder as to make it virtually impossible to handle it.
Again, the bed of the Mississippi River is continually varying by the unceasing deposit of accumulations of soil caused by the caving in of its precipitous bluffs, so that a torpedo, when planted in some localities, would in a few months be covered by an immense sand-bar, and thus the effect of an explosion would be deadened. Submerged floating torpedoes, anchored in the channel of a swift current like the Mississippi, could not be depended on to maintain their position very long, and, as has already been explained, would soon part the electric wires by their continual oscillating rotary motion.
These objections—that is, the depth of the water and the difficulty of handling a large quantity of powder—do not, of course, apply in their entirety to guncotton torpedoes, which, being several times stronger than powder, and occupying much less space, could be used in many places to much more advantage. Guncotton is also much safer to manipulate than powder. One does not absolutely know when powder will explode accidentally, but guncotton cannot possibly explode, if kept moist with water to a certain degree, except by means of a detonating fuse of fulminate or other quick-flame material. But I am wandering from the subject. Guncotton was not practically known as an explosive during the war.
It is only the breaking or crushing of the hull of a vessel by the upheaving force of a column of water which makes torpedoes so destructive. It is not the flames of powder, or its suffocating or burning gases, which produce the awful death, in many instances, of all on board, but the instantaneous disruption of the hull, driven inward by the weight of the water, crushing everybody between decks, and instantaneously sinking the craft, and drowning those who are carried down by the rapid sinking of the wreck. An ironclad is more quickly and easily destroyed than any other class of vessel, for the reason that such an immense weight of metal armor carries down to the bottom everybody between decks the instant the hull is shattered by a torpedo, the heavy weight of the iron armor above causing the hull to oppose a more inert resistance to the upheaval of the water underneath, I believe several instances occurred in Southern rivers, during the war, where wooden vessels, coming in contact with mechanical torpedoes containing only a small quantity of powder, were simply lifted out of the water at the bows, without serious injury to the hull.
A review of the facts and experience here stated shows that a system of submarine defenses, to be effectual, should be protected by a small fortification and a land force sufficient to repel any attack by infantry for the purpose of breaking up the electric batteries and destroying the wires on shore, and, in addition to these, by a powerful electric-light reflector to light up the position at night; and the defenses should have one or two small steam-launches with a Gatling gun on board, and apparatus for striking the enemy’s vessels with a spar torpedo while engaged in an attempt to drag for the wires under the water. Since the late war science has developed many improvements in this direction, but none that will prevent the passage of a land fortification by a swift iron-clad man-of- war except submarine torpedoes.
Offensive Torpedo Warfare
So far we had been acting on the defensive, and the torpedoes described might be called defensive torpedoes. It was now determined to apply offensive torpedoes; if the enemy would not come to us to be blown up, we would go to them.
The first thing to be done was to prepare a fuse which was not dangerous to handle, and which would explode quickly on contact with any substance.
To this end we made some sheet-lead tubes, the rounded end being of much thinner lead than the other part.
These tubes were about three inches long and one inch in diameter. Into this tube was inserted a small glass tube, of similar shape, filled with sulphuric acid, and hermetically sealed. The vacant space about the glass tube was then tightly packed with a mixture of chlorate of potash and pulverized white sugar, and the mouth of the lead tube was closed by fastening a strip of muslin over it.
Now, if the rounded end of the leaden tube is brought into contact with any hard substance, the thin lead will be mashed, the interior glass tube broken, and the sulphuric acid becoming mixed with the preparation of chlorate of potash and sugar, an immediate explosion is the result. We then prepared a copper cylinder capable of containing about fifty pounds of powder, and placed several of the leaden fuses in the head, so that no matter at what angle the butt struck the hull of a ship, one of the fuses would be smashed in, and flame from the potash and sugar ignite the powder. At the bottom of the copper cylinder there was a socket made to fit on the end of a spar.
We discussed the matter of exploding spar torpedoes by electricity, but the difficulty of arranging a contrivance to close the electric circuit when the torpedo came in contact with the hull of a ship, and want of conveniences for stowing a galvanic battery in the launch, induced us to adopt the fuses above mentioned instead.
This was a formidable weapon, and one extremely dangerous to handle. We first experimented with an empty cylinder fitted with leaden fuses. The copper cylinder was fastened to a spar attached to the bow of a small steam-launch. Thus prepared, we “rammed” an old bulkhead, or wharf, at Rocketts, in the lower part of Richmond, at first unsuccessfully. We then tried it loaded with twenty-five pounds of powder, and, lowering the spar torpedo about two feet under water, again rammed the bulkhead. The effect of the explosion shattered the old wharf and threw up a column of water, completely drenching the occupants of the launch.
Our steam-launch, or “torpedo launch,” as it was called, was prepared for an expedition against the enemy’s fleet snugly anchored off Newport News. Just at this time a new difficulty presented itself. The launch burned bituminous coal, the smoke from which could be discerned at a long distance, and the sparks from which at night would disclose its presence to an enemy. Some one suggested that we might obtain anthracite coal by dredging at the wharves and in the docks at Richmond. This was accordingly done, and we obtained a supply of the anthracite, for which an almost fabulous sum was paid.
Our launch was about twenty feet long, about five feet beam, and drew three feet of water. She was fitted with a small double engine amidships, and there was sufficient space in her bow for three men, and aft for an engineer, who also acted as fireman. An iron shield was then fixed on her, completely covering the men from plunging rifle-shots.
Thus equipped, and all being ready, we towed the launch down the James River, on a dark night, to a point about ten or fifteen miles below City Point, and then let her go on her dangerous mission.
There were only four persons on board of her, namely, the commanding officer, a mate, a pilot, and an engineer.
From reports afterward made, we learned that she steamed down toward Newport News until the approach of daylight, and then hid in a swamp until the next night, when the attempt was made to blow up the U.S.S. Minnesota, then the flag-ship of the Federal fleet, and the largest war vessel in the Union service. The launch steamed all through the fleet that night, being frequently challenged by the deck lookouts. Finally the Minnesota was seen looming up grimly in the darkness, and, letting down the spar torpedo in the water, the launch rammed the ship just below the water-line on her starboard quarter.
The effect was terrific, the shock causing the Minnesota to tremble from stem to stern. Several of her guns were dismounted and a big hole was opened in her side by the explosion of the 50-pound torpedo.
Owing to the strong tide prevailing at the time, and the violence of the ramming, the launch perceptibly rebounded, so that at the instant of the explosion, which was not simultaneous with the blow, a cushion of water intervened between the torpedo and the hull of the Minnesota, thus weakening the effect and probably saving the ship. She was so thoroughly disabled, however, as we afterward understood, that she had to be towed off, and underwent repairs in the docks. Our men were greeted with showers of bullets from the deck of the ship, but they struck harmlessly against the iron shield of the launch, which quickly steamed away under cover of darkness, and escaped.
This, I believe, was the first instance of successful ramming with torpedoes and the subsequent escape of the attacking crew, most other cases happening subsequently resulting in the death or capture of the attacking party. The effect of this daring attack exercised a great influence on the Federal fleets everywhere. It was necessary to double the watches and exercise untiring vigilance against any further attempts.
During the last year of the war arrangements had been perfected to secure a large quantity of insulated wire, cables, acids, batteries, and telegraph apparatus, etc., from England, an officer having been sent there for that purpose. Every material requisite for the extension of our torpedo system throughout the entire South was obtained, and a small advance shipment did actually reach us through the blockade at Wilmington. The remainder was put on board a swift steamer, with the intention of running the blockade and returning with a full cargo of cotton; but from stress of weather, or other causes, the steamer put into the port of Fayal, and, as I understood, was wrecked in that port, either from the stupidity of the pilot or from treachery. The entire cargo was lost, and it was impossible to duplicate our material before the war ended.
Torpedo Operations in Charleston
Perhaps there is no harbor on the Atlantic coast so well adapted for defense by submarine batteries as that of Charleston. All the requisite accessories for a successful defense by this method exist in a remarkably favorable condition. The main ship channel passes toward the city, between Morris Island on the one side, and Sullivan’s Island on the other, with Fort Sumter between the two islands. Each of these points offers sure protection to galvanic batteries, and each is capable of being made the central point of independent systems. The submerged battery wires radiating from each position could not be destroyed by dragging in the daytime without coming under fire of the land batteries, and with the aid of calcium lights thrown on the position at night, any attempt at dragging would be extremely hazardous. Besides these natural advantages, the depth of water is not too great for effective explosions.
As previously stated in this paper, we were without the necessary material to extend our system to Charleston harbor; besides, the exigencies of the situation at Richmond and Wilmington were too pressing to permit us to think of Charleston. However, some attempts were made by the local military authorities to lay torpedoes in the harbor, and a large one was planted in the main channel, the wires being led into Fort Sumter.
On April 7, 1863, the Federal fleet commanded by Admiral Du Pont moved up the channel northward toward Sullivan’s Island, the frigate Ironsides in advance, followed by the ironclad Keokuk and the wooden vessels. At a distance of about one thousand yards these powerful war-ships opened fire on Fort Sumter with terrific effect, and received, in return, a heavy fire from all the adjacent forts. The Ironsides passed over and over the torpedo before mentioned, and everybody awaited with intense anxiety the moment when it was expected she would be blown to pieces by its explosion. It failed to “go off,” however. Several reasons were assigned for the failure, but probably the true reason was wet powder and want of system in properly testing the wires and the torpedo-tank.
The Federals believed that the harbor was thickly studded with explosives; and although this belief exercised a very considerable moral effect, it did not prevent them from advancing bravely to attack powerful forts, not knowing at what moment their ships might be destroyed.
In the "Southern History Society Papers," Colonel Olmstead gives the following account of an interesting episode in the service which did not come under my eye:
During the summer of 1863 there was brought to Charleston, South Carolina, by rail from Mobile, Alabama, a peculiarly shaped boat known as the “cigar-boat.” Its history is linked with deeds of the loftiest heroism. This boat was one day made fast to the wharf at Fort Johnson, opposite Fort Sumter, preparatory to an expedition against the Federal fleet. It was built of boiler-iron, about thirty feet in length, with a breadth of beam of four feet, and a vertical depth of six feet. Access to the interior was had by two man-holes in the upper part, covered by hinged caps into which were let bull’s-eyes of heavy glass, and through these the steersman looked in guiding the motions of the craft. The boat floated with these caps raised only a foot or so above the level of the water. The motive power was a propeller worked by the hands of the crew, cranks being provided in the shaft for that purpose. Upon each side of the exterior were horizontal vanes, or wings, which could be adjusted to any required angle from the interior. When it was desired that the boat should go on an even keel, whether on the surface or under the water, these vanes were kept level. If it was desired to go under the water, —say, for instance, at an angle of ten degrees, — the vanes were fixed at that angle, and the propeller worked. The resistance of the water against the inclined vanes would then carry the boat under. A reversal of this method would bring it to the surface again. A tube of mercury was arranged to mark the descent. It had been the design of the inventor to approach near to an enemy, then to submerge the boat and pass under the ship to be attacked, towing a floating torpedo to be exploded by means of electricity as soon as it touched the keel.
Insufficient depth of water in the harbor prevented this manner of using the boat, however; and she was then rigged with a long spar at the bow, to which a torpedo was attached, to be exploded by actual concussion with the object to be destroyed.
While the “cigar-boat” was at the wharf at Fort Johnson, with some of her crew on board, she was suddenly sunk by the waves from a passing steamer. Days elapsed before she could be raised. The dead bodies of the drowned crew inside were removed, and a second crew volunteered. They made repeated and successful experiments in the harbor, but finally they too went down, and, from some unknown cause, failed to come up. Once more a long time passed before the boat was raised, and then the remains of the devoted crew were taken from her; nevertheless, still another set of men came forward and volunteered for the perilous duty.
Finally the expedition started; but it never returned. That night the Federal sloop-of-war Housatonic was reported as having been sunk by a torpedo in the lower harbor; but of the gallant men who had thus accomplished what they aimed to do, at the risk of their own lives, nothing definite was ever known until after the war, when divers, in endeavoring to raise the wreck of the Housatonic, discovered the “cigar-boat,” with the bleached bones of her crew, lying near the wreck of the noble ship she had destroyed! (2)
Operations at Savannah
As in the case of Charleston, the torpedo operations at Savannah were without system, and were left entirely to the discretion of the local military authorities.
On March 3, 1863, three ironclads and two mortar-boats advanced up the Ogeechee River to attack Fort McAllister, and bombarded it for a whole day, without any practical results.
During the action the ironclad Montauk came in contact with a mechanical torpedo, which exploded under her bow, but without serious injury.
Operations in Mobile
A great many mechanical torpedoes were planted in Mobile Bay and in the ship-channel, but none were operated by electricity. There was no regular system employed. Some of the torpedoes were merely cans of tin containing a small quantity of powder, with a trigger attachment for exploding them. Others were made of sheet-iron, with a fuse which exploded by pressure, the fuse being protected by a cap of thin brass covered with a solution of beeswax. This latter plan was known as the Rains patent,—invented by Brigadier-General Rains, — and was used in various places, both on land and water. Others were made of oaken kegs and barrels, well painted, and arranged to explode by mechanical contact. These barrels were firmly attached to heavy spars anchored at one end, and kept at the proper angle by chains passing through the spars, thus keeping the barrel torpedoes floating about five feet from the surface.
In the early part of August, 1864, Admiral Farragut, commanding the Federal fleet off Mobile, secured the military co6peration of General Canby for attacking and investing the forts in the harbor. On the morning of the 5th of August the fleet, numbering fourteen steamers and four monitors, carrying in all about two hundred guns, and manned by twenty-eight hundred men, made its entrance into Mobile Bay. In the early light of the morning the attacking fleet moved steadily up the main ship-channel, whereupon Fort Morgan opened on them, and was replied to by a gun from the Brooklyn. A moment later the Federal ironclad Tecumseh came in contact with a mechanical torpedo, an explosion followed, and she disappeared almost instantaneously beneath the waves, carrying with her her commander, T. A. M. Craven, and her entire crew, numbering nearly one hundred and twenty men, most of whom were drowned. (3)
No other casualties resulted from torpedoes, and it was a mere chance that the Tecumseh was sunk. No doubt the superincumbent weight of her iron armor carried her to the bottom so quickly, and it is probable that not more than fifty pounds of powder did the mischief.
Operations on the Yazoo River
Shortly after the fall of the Federals advanced against Yazoo City, Mississippi, both by land and water. Anticipating such an event, a few rude mechanical torpedoes were planted in the Yazoo River, about three miles below the city. They were simply common acid carboys filled with powder and arranged to explode by contact with a trigger. On account of the frequent sudden rise and fall of the river, they required considerable attention to keep them in proper position. Here, again, as had frequently occurred at other points, the destructive force of a given amount of powder had been greatly exaggerated. A carboy would contain about twenty-five pounds of powder, and this quantity is insufficient to do more damage than knock a small hole in the hull of a vessel. On the occasion of the attack there was a sudden rise in the river, and some of the light-draft gunboats passed over the torpedoes safely; but the iron-clad steamer De Kalb, the flag-ship, mounting eight guns, and being of heavier draft, struck the trigger of one of the torpedoes, which exploded under her port bow, knocking a hole in her hull. The pilot, as soon as he felt the shock, ran her toward the shore, and she sank in twelve feet of water, close to the riverbank. No one was injured.
I have already stated that it was the common belief that summary execution would follow the capture of any person engaged in the torpedo service. Judge of my feelings, then, a few days after the capture of Richmond, to see a lieutenant of cavalry, accompanied by two orderlies, present themselves at my residence, with orders from General Terry to conduct me to his headquarters in the Capitol building! The very fact that it had so early been ascertained that I was in that service seemed to indicate prompt measures on the part of the Federals to justify common rumor in their intention to make an example of me. However, I went to the Capitol. I was much surprised, however. After a short conversation, General Terry informed me that I must report to Admiral Porter on his flagship, then lying at the wharf in Richmond. I started immediately, escorted this time by the lieutenant only. On arriving at the wharf, I went aboard the flagship, — I think it was the Malvern,—and walking into the cabin, found myself in the presence of President Lincoln.
After I had introduced myself, and stated the occasion of my visit, Mr. Lincoln called for Admiral Porter. When he came in, Mr. Lincoln said, “Porter, here is the young man you were expecting.” This looked ominous to me. Why had I been expected?
However, in a few minutes we were all three pleasantly engaged in’ conversation.
Admiral Porter then informed me of his desire that, in company with some of the officers of his squadron, I should go down the river and point out where our torpedoes were located, so that they could be removed. “The war is ended,” said he, “and we must clear the river for navigation.” I told him there was no danger whatever to be apprehended from the torpedoes planted by the regular torpedo service, because they could be exploded only by electricity, and our galvanic batteries had been destroyed, and the connecting wires torn up and carried away; but that there were doubtless many others, planted under the direction of army officers, which were mechanical in their operation, and as likely to be fatal to friend as to foe, and of the location of these I knew nothing.
The next morning the Unadilla steamed down the river to the various stations where we had planted torpedoes, and took bearings of the positions. In a few days a regularly organized force had removed all the explosives, and all other obstructions to navigation, and the river was once more safe for travel.
(1) On arriving at Milford depot, on the Fredericksburg Railroad, next day, I found immense numbers of sick and wounded soldiers retreating from Fredericksburg toward Richmond. I boarded the ambulance-train myself, in company with a lieutenant of engineers belonging to General Lee’s staff, on his way to the War Department at Richmond, with plans of General Lee’s intended route in the event of his being forced from Fredericksburg. When our train arrived at Ashland, we found the village in possession of Colonel Kilpatrick, of the Federal cavalry, who immediately summoned everybody to surrender and get off the train, which was then demolished and the engine run off the track. Here was a predicament, and I thought that the time had perhaps arrived when it would become necessary for me to show my document signed by Secretary Mallory. But, upon reflection, I concluded to keep as quiet as possible; so I went up to Colonel Kilpatrick, and said: “Colonel, what shall you do with citizens?” “Nothing,” said he; “you may stand aside.” “All right,” I replied, and immediately vanished in the background. If he had only known what a nice capture he would have made of my friend the lieutenant, and also the aide-de-camp of the Governor of Virginia, who happened to be on the train with a large amount of money belonging to the State, which he was taking to Richmond! The next day I started for Richmond on foot, the railroad bridges and tracks having been destroyed by the Federals. We found their cavalry all along the route, even up to the very fortifications, which they could easily have entered, with scarcely any resistance.
(2) Hunley was in fact not discovered for more than 140 years.
(3) One can never recount too often the heroism of Captain Craven on this occasion. As the vessel was sinking beneath them, he and the pilot, John Collins, met at the foot of the ladder leading to the top of the turret. Craven drew back, saying, “After you, pilot.” “There was nothing after me," said Collins, who was saved. “When I reached the upmost round of the ladder, the vessel seemed to drop from under me." The Tecumseh lies in the channel to this day.—EDITOR.
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