Outmanned and outgunned, the Rebels develop an explosive secret weapon.
On August 5, 1864, Admiral David Farragut—“Old Salamander” to his men—led his Union fleet into a heavily mined Mobile Bay. Almost immediately, the lead monitor Tecumseh struck one of the tethered explosives and was blown to pieces, throwing the rest of the fleet into confusion and inspiring Farragut’s famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
We now define a torpedo as a “cylindrical self-propelled weapon carrying explosives that is launched from aircraft, ships, or submarines and follows an underwater path to hit its target.” But during the war, it referred to any explosive device designed to destroy property and maim or kill the enemy. Most frequently associated with the South’s Secret Services, the concept of incendiary warfare was so intriguing that in 1862 the Confederate Congress created two organizations—the Navy’s Submarine Battery Service and the War Department’s more down and dirty Torpedo Bureau—to develop new technology and oversee the resultant devastation.
The Torpedo Bureau functioned under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Gabriel J. Rains, who was so enthusiastic about the destructive potential of controlled explosives that he wrote an instructional tome—the Torpedo Book—and helped develop some of the devices himself. During the Peninsula Campaign, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet rejected Rains’ enthusiasm as “beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare,” but President Jefferson Davis repeatedly approved funding and manpower to implement the use of these weapons.
The devices took many forms and presaged the more sophisticated weapons of future conflicts. The “horological torpedo” was a simple affair: a box of black powder, a clock and a detonator. Today we would call it a time bomb. On August 9, 1864—just four days after Farragut damned the torpedoes—it was used effectively at Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters and Union supply depot at City Point, Va. The bomb was smuggled aboard a barge, and when it exploded, it set off ordnance throughout the yard— killing 58, wounding 126 and causing millions of dollars’ worth of destruction. “Every part of the yard used as my headquarters is filled with splinters and fragments of shell,” Grant observed afterward. Northerners assumed the explosion was an accident—an assumption not corrected until well after the South surrendered.
The stationary torpedo Farragut encountered at Mobile was a general impediment to Federal shipping, as was the floating mine, although greater precision was achieved with the “spar torpedo.” A canister containing a huge powder charge secured to the end of a long pole, or “spar,” struck against, or attached to, the side of an enemy vessel. The Con federate submarine Hunley used this method to sink the Union warship Housa tonic (and Hunley itself in the process) in Charleston Harbor.
Soldiers on land were no safer from these devices than their counterparts at sea. Rains and his cohorts developed a series of “subterra shells”—the simpler ones designed to go off when stepped on while more sophisticated versions featured tripwires. The Confederates used these land mines at Richmond, Mobile and Charleston, and Rebel soldiers reportedly enjoyed rigging several as booby traps. According to Rains’ own reports, thousands were planted during the final year of the war. “If we can cause the earth to open in a thousand places and destroy a host by fire and shells, soon no troops will be found to hazzard [sic] a march over such a volcano,” Rains theorized in the Torpedo Book.
As it became apparent the Confederate government condoned and encouraged use of torpedoes (although a number of Southern officers joined Longstreet in viewing them as cowardly), inventors came out of the woodwork with variations on existing patterns and innovations all their own. An Irish immigrant, erstwhile insurance agent and Rebel captain, Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, developed an item he called a “coal shell,” although it was generally known as the coal torpedo. This ingenious device, in the words of one historian, was far ahead of its time: A hollow iron casting was filled with black powder then painted with tar and covered in coal dust, making it indistinguishable from a lump of coal. It was to be surreptitiously placed on a Union coal barge, or in a coal pile or bunker. Once shoveled into the firebox beneath a ship’s boiler, it would heat up until the powder ignited, exploding the boiler.
Jefferson Davis reportedly kept a coal torpedo (presumably empty) on his desk in Richmond, in much the same way military officers now might use a hand grenade as a paperweight or conversation piece. So impressed was Davis by the invention that in February 1864, he authorized Courtenay to raise his own 25-man “Secret Service Corps.” Courtenay’s operatives were to employ his little invention “on the Mississippi River and its tributaries,” with authority to travel to the “Northern States, West India Islands, and Europe, to operate on steam vessels, locomotives, and all Federal Property where steam is used.” The War Department provided the corps with the necessary weapons, explosives and components, and Courtenay was to be richly compensated for his efforts, depending upon the amount of devastation he wreaked.
That March, after a letter from Courtenay describing the coal torpedo was intercepted, Rear Admiral David Porter issued an order with steps to be taken to secure Union coal supplies. “Officers will have to be careful in overlooking coal barges. Guards will be placed over them at all times, and anyone found attempting to place any of these things amongst the coal will be shot on the spot….I have given orders to commanders of vessels not to be very particular about the treatment of any of these desperadoes if caught—only summary punishment will be effective.”
The extent of the destruction attributable to the coal torpedo remains a mystery, as does much of the information on the South’s clandestine efforts. The very nature of the work, and the hostile responses it engendered in the North, compelled the Confederate government to maintain a high level of secrecy; at war’s end, Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin destroyed a vast number of Secret Service documents. It can be presumed, however, that the coal torpedo claimed its fair share of the Federal vessels destroyed by sabotage. Courtenay himself claimed his corps of agents “destroyed many Steamers on the Mississippi River and a few months ago blew up the new Gun Boat Chenango at Brooklyn, New York.”
In all likelihood, a coal torpedo destroyed the side-wheel steamer Grey – hound, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s elegant floating headquarters. The explosion on the James River nearly killed Butler and Admiral Porter, who happened to be aboard. Some historians also attribute America’s greatest maritime disaster—the sinking of the Sultana off Memphis, Tenn.—to the device.
Although it is likely the steamship sank because of a faulty boiler and overcrowding, the deathbed confession of a known former Confederate saboteur suggests another possibility. According to a Memphis newspaper article dated May 8, 1888, Robert
Louden claimed to have “smuggled aboard a large lump of coal in which was concealed a torpedo. This he deposited on the fuel pile in front of the boilers for the express purpose of causing the destruction of the boat.” Some 1,800 people—women, children and hundreds of Union soldiers returning from Rebel prisons—died in the explosion.
Shortly after the discovery of his incriminating letter, Courtenay escaped with his family to London, where he tried to interest the British government in buying the plans for his coal torpedo. When he refused to let the British War Office inspect the device without first agreeing to purchase it, the deal fell through. But stories persist that English shipping merchants bought the torpedo for use on their own over-insured vessels, sending them to sea only to blow up and sink, and then claiming the insurance.
Courtenay was described by a descendant as a “cultured and educated man, kindly and deeply concerned for his family’s welfare—not only in material ways, but for a growth in character and matters of the spirit.” One wonders whether the coal torpedo’s long path of destruction would have given him pause, or simply perverse pride of invention.
Writer and historian Ron Soodalter is coauthor of The Slave Next Door.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.