Civil War Torpedo and Civil War Mine

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Civil War Torpedo and Civil War Mine

19th Century, American Civil War, Mines and Torpedoes: Introduction

In the 19th century, mines were referred to as torpedoes, a name probably conferred by Dennis Fletcher after the torpedo fish, which gives powerful electric shocks.
"Ironclads are said to master the world, but torpedoes [mines] master the ironclads!" General G. J. Rains, Chief of the Confederate Torpedo Service

Civil War Torpedo
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Confederate Torpedo Boat, aka Spar Torpedo Boat

The Confederate torpedo boat CSS David with the spar torpedo mounted to the bow.

CSS David with spar torpedo
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Civil War Torpedo

A spar torpedo was a mine attached to a long pole and detonated when the ship carrying it rammed another one. During the American Civil War, the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley used a spar torpedo to sink the USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864.
The USS Housatonic (1861), launched November 20, 1861, was sunk by the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley on February 17, 1864.
USS Housatonic, a 1240-ton (1.1 million-kilogram) steam-powered sloop-of-war with 12 large cannons, was stationed at the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina harbor, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) out to sea. In an effort to break the naval blockade of the city, Confederate Lieutenant George E. Dixon and a crew of seven volunteers, aboard the H. L. Hunley, attacked Housatonic, successfully embedding the barbed spar torpedo into her hull. The torpedo was detonated as the submarine backed away, sending Housatonic and five of her crew to the bottom in five minutes, although many survived by boarding two lifeboats or by climbing the rigging until rescued.

Civil War Submarine
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H. L. Hunley on a pier before her sinking.

USS Housatonic.jpg
USS Housatonic

Hunley had made her first and only attack against a live target on that fateful night of February 17, 1864, she played a small part in the American Civil War, but contributed a major role in the history of naval warfare.

Civil War Submarine
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Confederate Submarine Hunley

Civil War Mine and Torpedo Warfare
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Confederates laying torpedoes in Charleston Harbor

The first Civil War era ship sunk by a mine was the USS Cairo in 1862 in the Yazoo River. Rear Admiral David Farragut's famous statement in 1864, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" refers to a minefield laid at Mobile, Alabama.
A Harvey Torpedo was a type of floating mine towed alongside a ship, and was briefly in service in the Royal Navy in the 1870s. Other "torpedoes" attached to ships or propelled themselves. One such weapon, called the Whitehead torpedo after its inventor, caused the word "torpedo" to be used for self-propelled underwater missiles rather than static devices.
During the U.S. Civil War, the term "torpedo" was also used to refer to various types of bombs, boobytraps, and "sub-terra shells" or "land torpedoes" (artillery shells with pressure fuses buried in the road by retreating Confederate forces to delay their pursuers). These were the forerunners of modern land mines and hand grenades.

CSS Hunley Submarine
American Civil War Submarine.jpg
American Civil War Submarine

CSS H.L. Hunley
American Civil War Submarine.jpg
American Civil War Submarine

American Civil War Mines and Torpedoes
During the American Civil War, the term torpedo was used for what is today called a contact mine, floating on or below the water surface using an air-filled demijohn or similar flotation device. (As self-propelled torpedoes were developed the tethered variety became known as stationary torpedoes and later mines.) Several types of naval "torpedo" were developed and deployed, most often by the Confederates, who faced a severe disadvantage in more traditional warfare methods.

Civil War Torpedo (Mine)
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Confederate Torpedo (Mine)

Civil War Mine
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Civil War Torpedo

In this period, "torpedoes" floated freely on the surface or were bottom-moored just below the surface. They were detonated when struck by a ship, or after a set time, but were unreliable. These could be as much a danger to Confederate as to Union shipping, and were sometimes marked with flags that could be removed if Union attack was deemed imminent. Rivers mined with Confederate torpedoes were often cleared by Unionists placing captured Confederate soldiers with knowledge of the torpedoes' location in small boats ahead of the main fleet.
"Torpedoes" (mines) could also be detonated electrically by an operator on shore (as demonstrated also by Fulton), so friendly vessels or low-value enemy vessels could be ignored while waiting for the capital ships to sail over them. However, the Confederacy was plagued by a chronic shortage of materials including platinum and copper wire and acid for batteries, and the wires had a tendency to break. Electricity was a new technology, and the limitations of direct current for effective distance was poorly understood, so failures were also possible because of the decrease in voltage when the torpedoes were too far from the batteries. Former United States Navy Commander Matthew Maury, who served as a commander in the Confederate Navy, worked on the development of an underwater electrical mine.
The first torpedo designed to attack a specific target was the spar torpedo, an explosive device mounted at the end of a spar up to 30 feet (9.1 m) long projecting forward underwater from the bow of the attacking vessel. When driven up against the enemy and detonated, a hole would be caused below the water line. Spar torpedoes were employed by the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley (and were successful in sinking the USS Housatonic), as well as by David-class torpedo boats, among others. However, these torpedoes were apt to cause as much harm to their users as to their targets.

Civil War Naval Mines
Civil War Torpedo and Mine.jpg
Civil War Naval Mine Field

Harpers Weekly, January 1863, illustration of naval torpedoes moored to the river bottom (the predecessors of modern naval mines).

David Farragut encountered tethered and floating contact mines in 1864 at the American Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay. After his leading ironclad, USS Tecumseh, was sunk by a tethered contact mine (torpedo), his vessels halted, afraid of hitting additional torpedoes. Inspiring his men to push forward, Farragut famously ordered, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"
Civil War Remotely Controlled Mines
Frequently used in combination with coastal artillery and hydrophones, controlled mines (or command detonation mines) can be in place in peacetime, which is a huge advantage in blocking important shipping routes. The mines can usually be turned into "normal" mines with a switch (which prevents the enemy from simply capturing the controlling station and deactivating the mines), detonated on a signal or be allowed to detonate on their own. The earliest ones were developed around 1812 by Robert Fulton. The first remotely controlled mines were moored mines used in the American Civil War, detonated electrically from shore. They were considered superior to contact mines because they did not put friendly shipping at risk. Modern examples usually weigh 200 kg (440 lb), including 80 kg (175 lb) of explosives (TNT or hexatonal).

The USS Cairo was only in service for 11 months before making history as the first U.S. marine vessel to be sunk by an electronically detonated mine.

Civil War era image of USS Cairo
USS Cairo Civil War.jpg
Sunk by Confederate mine on December 12, 1862

(Right) Photograph of the USS Cairo in 1862 in the Mississippi River, with crewmen on deck, a boat at her port side, and river steamers in the background. Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center.
The USS Cairo was one of seven ironclad gunboats named in honor of towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers. These powerful ironclads were formidable vessels, each mounting thirteen big guns (cannon). On them rested in large part, Northern hopes to regain control of the lower Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two.
The Cairo's skipper, Lt. Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., was rash and ambitious, a stern disciplinarian, but an aggressive and promising young officer. On the cold morning of December 12, 1862, Selfridge led a small flotilla up the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg, to destroy Confederate batteries and clear the channel of torpedoes (underwater mines). As the Cairo reached a point seven miles north of Vicksburg the flotilla came under fire and Selfridge ordered the guns to ready. As the gunboat turned towards shore disaster struck. Cairo was rocked by two explosions in quick succession which tore gaping holes in the ship's hull. Within twelve minutes the ironclad sank into six (6) fathoms (36 feet) of water without any loss of life. Cairo became the first ship in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo.

Discovering the USS Cairo
USS Cairo Mine.jpg
Civil War Mines

Sinking of the USS Cairo
Civil War Mines River.jpg
Civil War Mines

USS Cairo Exhibit
USS Cairo Exhibit.jpg
Civil War Naval Warfare

USS Cairo (present-day)
USS Cairo Civil War.jpg
Civil War and Torpedoes

Civil War Bombs and Booby Traps

During the U.S. Civil War, the term "torpedo" was also used to refer to various types of bombs and boobytraps. Confederate General Gabriel J. Rains deployed "sub-terra shells" or "land torpedoes", artillery shells with pressure fuses buried in the road by retreating Confederate forces to delay their pursuers. These were the forerunners of modern land mines. Union generals publicly deplored this conduct.

American Civil War Grenades
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(L) Ketchum Grenades; (R) Haynes Excelsior Grenades

Civil War Hand Grenade
Civil War Hand Grenade.jpg
Union Civil War Hand Grenade

Civil War Booby Trap.jpg

Regarding Booby Traps and land mines found during Sherman's March to the Sea, General William T. Sherman recorded in his Memoirs: "On the 8th, [of December 1864] as I rode along, I found the column turned out of the main road, marching through the fields. Close by, in the corner of a fence, was a group of men standing around a handsome young officer, whose foot had been blown to pieces by a torpedo planted in the road. He was waiting for a surgeon to amputate his leg, and told me that he was riding along with the rest of his brigade-staff of the Seventeenth Corps, when a torpedo trodden on by his horse had exploded, killing the horse and literally blowing off all the flesh from one of his legs. I saw the terrible wound, and made full inquiry into the facts. There had been no resistance at that point, nothing to give warning of danger, and the rebels had planted eight-inch shells in the road, with friction-matches to explode them by being trodden on. This was not war, but murder, and it made me very angry. I immediately ordered a lot of rebel prisoners to be brought from the provost-guard, armed with picks and spades, and made them march in close order along the road, so as to explode their own torpedoes, or to discover and dig them up. They begged hard, but I reiterated the order, and could hardly help laughing at their stepping so gingerly along the road, where it was supposed sunken torpedoes might explode at each step, but they found no other torpedoes till near Fort McAllister."

Sherman's March to the Sea
Civil War Destruction.jpg
(Artist depiction of Sherman during his total war campaign)

Civil War Torpedo
Civil Coal Torpedo.jpg
Civil War Boobytrap

(Left) A coal torpedo. This example was prepared with a partial coal dust coating and the plug left out.

Confederate secret agent John Maxwell used a clockwork mechanism to detonate a large "horological torpedo" (time bomb) on August 9, 1864. The bomb was hidden in a box marked "candles" and placed aboard a barge containing Union ammunition (20,000–30,000 artillery shells and 75,000 small arms rounds) moored at City Point, Virginia, on the James River. The explosion caused more than $2 million in damage and killed at least 43 people.
The coal torpedo was a bomb shaped like a lump of coal, to be hidden in coal piles used for fueling Union naval vessels. The bomb would be shoveled into the firebox along with the real coal, causing a Boiler explosion. Although the North referred to the device as the coal torpedo in newspaper articles, the Confederates referred to it as a "coal shell".
The coal torpedo allegedly sank the SS Sultana, making it the greatest maritime disaster in United States history.

Ill-fated SS Sultana
Civil War Sultana.jpg
Civil War and the Coal Torpedo

(Above) Photograph of the ill-fated "Sultana", Helena, Arkansas, ca. April 26, 1865.

The SS Sultana was a Mississippi River steamboat paddlewheeler destroyed in an explosion on April 27, 1865, and it resulted in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers were killed when three of the ship's four boilers exploded and the Sultana sank near Memphis. Most of Sultana's passengers were Union soldiers recently released from Confederate prison camps. This disaster received somewhat diminished attention, as it took place soon after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and during the closing weeks of the Civil War. (See Sultana Tragedy, The: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster.)

"Sultana Ablaze!"
SS Sultana Civil War.jpg
Sketch of the "Sinking of the Sultana"

Painting of the SS Sultana
Sultana Painting Civil War.jpg

In 1888, furthermore, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner, Robert Louden, made a deathbed confession of having sabotaged the Sultana by a coal torpedo. Louden was a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis. Louden had the opportunity and motive to attack the Sultana. He may have had access to the means. (Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, the inventor of the coal torpedo, was a former resident of St. Louis and was involved in similar acts of sabotage against Union shipping interests.) Supporting Louden's claim are eyewitness reports that a piece of artillery shell was observed in the wreckage. Louden's claim, however, remains controversial.

(Sources and related reading listed at bottom of page.)

Recommended Reading: Civil War Heavy Explosive Ordnance: A Guide to Large Artillery Projectiles, Torpedoes, and Mines. Description: Civil War Heavy Explosive Ordnance: A Guide To Large Artillery Projectiles, Torpedoes, And Mines by Civil War expert Jack Bell is a straightforward, highly specialized, exhaustively detailed, 552-page reference to the large munitions employed in the Civil War. A brief introduction and glossary enhance this unique volume, yet the bulk its pages are devoted to specific ammunitions with each shell accompanied by a black-and-white photograph as well as scale measurements, brief commentary, dimensions, and a listing of where they were most often used. Civil War Heavy Explosive Ordnance is a truly impressive and invaluable resource for Civil War historians and military history buffs. Continued below...
Review: Civil War Heavy Explosive Ordnance, by well-known historian and collector Jack Bell, presents an in-depth study of Civil War heavy artillery projectiles, mines and torpedoes. His lifelong association with the CW artillery fraternity provided access to public and private collections containing heretofore-unknown examples of heavy munitions. The author's meticulous research uncovered buried and previously overlooked information and provided important technical and geographic information vital for the in-depth study of the use of heavy explosive ordnance in the war. The result is a highly documented reference source that closes a thirty-year information gap, and significantly advances the state of knowledge about the development and deployment during the war. Civil War Heavy Explosive Ordnance is a necessary tool for the serious artillery collector yet provides interesting reading for the student of general Civil War history. The book contains over 1000 clear photographs and multiple views of the 360 projectiles and 22 torpedoes and mines. Jack Bell's presentation is lucid and while professionally technical is delivered in an extremely readable style.

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Related Reading:

Recommended Reading: Infernal Machines: The Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare. Description: This book presents a study of explosive devices known collectively at the time as "torpedoes" but mostly what we consider today to be mines. Few people are aware today but mine warfare, both on land and in the water, saw great advancement, mostly in the hands of the Confederates as mines are primarily a defensive weapon. Charleston saw considerable use of mines to keep Union soldiers at bay, and landmines made the assault of some rebel forts almost prohibitively expensive. Offensive mines (spar torpedoes) encouraged the development of submarines, torpedo boats and destroyers. Unfortunately for the Confederates they were never able to effectively use this slight technological advantage to defeat the Union. Continued below...
Reviewer: This is a beautiful little book on a little known subject, Confederate submarine and mine warfare. Here we read discussions and see little known drawings of some absolutely remarkable contraptions including mines the likes of which destroyed the Union warship, "Cairo", on the Yazoo river. At the end of the book is a table, tabulating all the Union warships damaged and sunk by Confederate 'torpedoes' [in fact, mines]. There are a total of 43, an incredible number, and most of these were significant ships that sunk. We also read the description of the first successful submarine in world history, the 'Hunley' and how heroic crews volunteered to service the dangerous vessels. All of her crews died but not before sinking the Union Battleship 'Housatonic.' There is also a discussion of one of the most 'infernal' machines of all. It was a bomb made up to look like a lump of coal. Most ships of the time were steamships operating on coal power. One lump of this stuff into the boiler room and the whole thing blows up...and the ship goes down. One of the greatest losses of lives during the war [actually just after the war] was possibly due to one of these devices. A paddlewheeler taking thousands of Union troops and Union ex-POWs blew up unexpectedly, taking hundreds down with her. It's fascinating to think that a nation--any nation, really--with its back against the wall, can really become innovative...more innovative than the more powerful enemy has to be. Ron Braithwaite author of novels--"Skull Rack" and "Hummingbird God"--on the Spanish Conquest of Mexico
Recommended Reading: Arms and Equipment of the Civil War. Description: Enhanced with marvelous illustrations, the text describes what materiel was available to the armies and navies of both sides — from iron-clad gunboats, submarine torpedoes, and military balloons to pontoon bridges, percussion grenades, and siege artillery — with on-the-scene comments by Union and Confederate soldiers about equipment and camp life. Includes more than 500 black-and-white illustrations. RATED 5 STARS. Continued below...
"This is an almost indispensable book for all Civil War aficionados, covering everything from pistols to ironclads and steamships. The author's own illustrations add to the charm and value of this publication and make its information accessible even to the novice. Many Civil War buffs have known this book for years and will be delighted to find that it is once again readily available. A true classic, this book belongs in every Civil War library!"
"When I first picked this book up in the local library, I expected just another poorly done coffee table book. Boy, was I wrong. As a amateur writer, I soon came to appreciate it's unusual wealth of detailed info on the the equipment and tactics used in the Civil War. The amazing thing is that there are no photos or even color pictures! The author's drawings are clear, numerous, and very helpful. This is a must-have book for any Civil War researcher, re-enactor, or enthusiast!"
Recommended Reading: Confederate Torpedoes: Two Illustrated 19th Century Works with New Appendices and Photographs, Gabriel J. Rains (Author), Peter S. Michie (Author), Herbert M. Schiller (Editor). Description: Hoping to deter the Union navy from aggressive action on southern waterways during the Civil War, the Confederacy led the way in developing "torpedoes," a term that in the nineteenth century referred to contact mines floating on or just below the water's service. With this book, two little-known but important manuscripts related to these valuable weapons become available for the first time. Continued below...
General Gabriel J. Rains, director of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau, penned his Torpedo Book as a manual for the fabrication and use of land mines and offensive and defensive water mines. Includes 21 scale drawings, Notes Explaining Rebel Torpedoes and Ordnance by Captain Peter S. Michie, and documents from the Federal perspective the construction and use of these "infernal machines." A detailed accounting of the vessels sunk or damaged by Confederate torpedoes and numerous photographs of existing specimens from museums and private collections complete this significant compilation. Recommended to fellow Salty Dogs to Civil War Buffs to persons interested in naval warfare.
Recommended Reading: Submarine Warfare in the Civil War. Description: Many people have heard of the Hunley, the experimental Confederate submarine that sank the USS Housatonic in a daring nighttime operation. Less well known, however, is that the Hunley was not alone under the waters of America during the Civil War. Both the Union and Confederacy built a wide and incredible array of vessels that could maneuver underwater, and many were put to use patrolling enemy waters. continued below...
In Submarine Warfare in the Civil War, Mark Ragan, who spent years mining factory records and log books, brings this little-known history to the surface. The hardcover edition, Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War, was published to wide acclaim in 1999. For this new paperback edition, Ragan has revised and updated the text to include the full story of the Hunley's recovery and restoration. "There is no better guide to the fascinating history of submarine technology that evolved during the Civil War." -- Clive Cussler
Recommended Reading: Last Flag Down: The Epic Journey of the Last Confederate Warship. From Booklist: This fascinating book chronicles the remarkable story of the Shenandoah's 58,000-mile voyage around the world during the Civil War. Along the way, it sunk 32 Union merchant and whaling ships heavily laden with cargo, including brandy, rum, and whiskey. After the vessel rounded Africa's Cape of Good Hope, it stopped in Australia and then navigated the ice floes of Siberia's Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, and the Arctic Ocean--much of it through gales, ice fields, subfreezing temperatures, fog, and rain. Continued below...
The ship's crew hoped to destroy the Yankees' western Arctic whaling fleet, but four months after the war ended, the Shenandoah's captain learned that he had been fighting a war "without cause or state." He had gone from being an enemy combatant to a pirate, an offense that could get him hanged. He camouflaged the vessel, circumnavigated the globe, and attempted to surrender in England. By late 1864, moreover, it seemed clear that the Confederacy had only a short time to live. In the west, the Army of the Tennessee was a spent, shattered force. In the east, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was besieged at Petersburg, and the depredations of Sherman and Sheridan brought Southern soldiers to the brink of starvation. In the midst of this gloom, a Confederate ship, the Shenandoah, left Britain and launched a series of remarkably successful raids on Union shipping across vast expanses of open sea. However, cut off from communication with the Southern homeland, the crew was unaware of the surrender of Confederate armies in April 1865. Since the Shenandoah continued raiding, in strictly legal terms the sailors on board were now pirates. When the officers realized this, they began a heroic effort to find a refuge for themselves and their crew. Baldwin and Powers have written a stirring account of one of the more obscure episodes of the Civil War, filled with stunning examples of personal courage in the face of adversity.

Recommended Reading: Civil War Navies, 1855-1883 (The U.S. Navy Warship Series) (Hardcover). Description: Civil War Warships, 1855-1883 is the second in the five-volume US Navy Warships encyclopedia set. This valuable reference lists the ships of the U.S. Navy and Confederate Navy during the Civil War and the years immediately following - a significant period in the evolution of warships, the use of steam propulsion, and the development of ordnance. Civil War Warships provides a wealth and variety of material not found in other books on the subject and will save the reader the effort needed to track down information in multiple sources. Continued below…

Each ship's size and time and place of construction are listed along with particulars of naval service. The author provides historical details that include actions fought, damage sustained, prizes taken, ships sunk, and dates in and out of commission as well as information about when the ship left the Navy, names used in other services, and its ultimate fate. 140 photographs, including one of the Confederate cruiser Alabama recently uncovered by the author further contribute to this indispensable volume. This definitive record of Civil War ships updates the author's previous work and will find a lasting place among naval reference works.

Sources: Blair, Clay. Silent Victory. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975; Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Titans. Simon and Schuster; 1995. ISBN 0-684-80196-5; Crowley, R.O. "Confederate Torpedo Service". The Century, Volume 56, Issue 2, The Century Company, New York, June 1898; Hartmann, Gregory K. with Scott C. Truver (1991). Weapons That Wait: Mine Warfare in the U.S. Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-753-4; Milford, Frederick J. "U.S. Navy Torpedoes: Part One—Torpedoes through the Thirties". The Submarine Review, April 1996. (quarterly publication of the Naval Submarine League, P.O. Box 1146, Annandale, VA 22003); Milford, Frederick J. "U.S. Navy Torpedoes: Part Two—The Great Torpedo Scandal, 1941-43". The Submarine Review, October 1996; Milford, Frederick J. "U.S. Navy Torpedoes: Part Three—WW II development of conventional torpedoes 1940–1946". The Submarine Review, January 1997; O'Kane, Richard H. (1987). "Seventh Patrol", Wahoo: The Patrols of America's Most Famous World War II Submarine. Novato, California: Presidio Press; Perry, Milton F. Infernal Machines: The Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. ISBN 0-8071-1285-2; Memoirs of General William T. Sherman.

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