Confederate President Jefferson Davis hoped for quick victories that would sap the will of the Union to fight. He also needed a defensive strategy to counter the North’s “Anaconda Plan,” a naval blockade aimed at crushing the rebellion. To forestall this scheme, the Confederates put gunpowder to work in a class of weapons whose use inflames controversy even today.
During the Civil War, the word “torpedo” meant a device containing a charge of gunpowder and intended to sink or disable a ship, or a similar type of buried explosive that we would call a land mine. The idea was not new. Mines had been used in China as early as the thirteenth century. The steamboat inventor Robert Fulton had experimented with torpedoes, and they had been used in the recent Crimean War.
The question of whether such a device was an ethical means of waging war was not a settled question. The torpedo and related weapons were sneaky and indiscriminate. Gunpowder had already expanded the distance at which a man could kill. Some thought that torpedoes made war unacceptably mechanical, anonymous, and inhuman. Like guns before them, they were disparaged as the tools of cowards, offenses against decency and civilized warfare.
The man most responsible for this ingenious and remarkably effective Confederate use of gunpowder was General Gabriel Rains, older brother of the South’s explosives wizard. That both men were involved with gunpowder was something of a coincidence: Fourteen year apart in age, they had scant personal relationship and never worked directly together.
In the spring of 1862, with the Confederates retreating from Yorktown, Virginia, the elder Rains commanded an ineffectual rearguard. To gain time he ordered his troops to bury 8-and 10-inch artillery shells with detonators attached “simply as a desperate effort to distance our men from the pursuing Union cavalry.” The shells exploded and whole companies of Yankees bolted in panic. Union general George McClellan roared that “the rebels have been guilty of the most murderous and barbarous conduct.” General James Longstreet, Rains’ superior officer, forbade the further use of gunpowder in this manner. He condemned the mines as not a “proper or effective method of war.” Longstreet’s view did not win out. Rains was put in charge of a broad program that would make use of torpedoes, mines, and similar gunpowder devices.
The urgent military situation spurred Southerners to the resourcefulness of the desperate. “Many an ingenious mind turned its attention to . . . inventing some machine infernale,” a contemporary observer noted. The Confederate war department, like its northern counterpart, was plagued by proposals, particularly after the government offered a reward for any ship sunk or Union facility ruined. Inventors envisioned torpedo boats powered by rockets, diving apparatus for attaching explosives to ships, balloons for dropping bombs on enemy targets. A man named R. O. Davidson proposed a “Bird of Art.” This was “a machine for aerial locomotion by man” carrying a 50-pound load of exploding shells. A thousand of the birds, he was sure, would put an immediate end to the war. He called on every southern patriot to send him a dollar so that he could start building them.
Gabriel Rains was more practical. He focused on land mines and on mechanically operated floating torpedoes, which were touched off by contact with a ship’s hull. The fulminate that Reverend Forsyth had used to ignite his fowling piece offered an ideal substance to incorporate into a torpedo fuse. A hard knock would set off the primer, which would transmit flame to the main powder charge.
Rains countered arguments that this method of warfare was ignoble by answering that it was justified in “defense against an army of Abolitionists, invading our country.” His confidence in the technique was as boundless as his hatred of Yankees. “No soldier will march over mined land,” he asserted. A corps of sappers armed with mines “could stop an army.”
The justification of torpedoes resulted in some fine distinctions. “It is admissible to plant shells in a parapet to repel assault, or in a road to check pursuit,” Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph concluded. “It is not admissible to plant shells merely to destroy life and without other design than that of depriving the enemy of a few men.”
Among those with mixed feelings was Confederate Lieutenant Isaac M. Brown. He had helped set up the defenses of a makeshift shipyard on the Yazoo River in Mississippi. In December of 1862, his mines blew up the U.S. ironclad Cairo, the first ship sunk in combat by an electrically detonated torpedo. Brown said he felt “much as a schoolboy . . . whose practical joke has taken a more serious shape than he expected.”
The most famous incident of torpedo warfare took place at Mobile Bay on August 4, 1864. Though a native of Tennessee, 63-year-old Admiral David Farragut had remained loyal to the Union. His actions in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Mississippi had contributed to the capture of New Orleans and Vicksburg. The tightening naval noose had reduced the ports available to southern blockade runners to a handful. Farragut was determined to erase Mobile from the list.
The rebels had floated numerous torpedoes in the harbor mouth, leaving a channel protected by the guns of Fort Morgan. Farragut directed a flotilla of four iron-clad monitors and fourteen wooden warships up the channel, led by the armored Tecumseh. He loathed the hidden weapons as unworthy of a “chivalrous nation.” As he watched from the rigging of his flagship, the Tecumseh steered out of the channel and exploded a torpedo. Its propeller rose from the water still turning and in two minutes the ship had disappeared, taking 120 men from a crew of 141 to the bottom. More torpedoes were spotted in front of the squadron. Indeed, the ships’ crews could hear detonators snapping against their hulls. The admiral had already decided to press ahead, forcing as many ships through as he could. “Damn the torpedoes!” he shouted. “Four bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!”
The Union forces continued on and captured the fort that dominated the mouth of the bay. The city of Mobile held out, but its usefulness as a port had ended.