Confederate Spar-Torpedo Boats II

Explosive charge lashed to boom of spar torpedo

The Confederate torpedo boat CSS David showing the spar torpedo mounted to the bow

Contemporary texts attested to the currency of the basic concept of torpedo-boat warfare formulated by Fulton at the time of the American Civil War (Steward 1866:1; Barnes 1869:38–39), but torpedo-boat warfare played no role in the Confederate effort. For several reasons, spar-torpedo boats could not be employed in the way Fulton had envisaged. On a basic level there were quite simply never enough boats available to create a force capable of striking a major blow at one or several Union warships. Given the technical problems the Confederate operators faced, it was actually no mean feat that they managed to keep some of their boats operational over a lengthy period of time. Spar-torpedo boats were complex machines that required high-quality hardware, particularly engines. Fulton’s boats, in contrast, were the standard rowboats of their day; high-end technology they were not.

Even more important, however, was another issue amply illustrated by Lt. Glassell’s attack on the USS New Ironsides. While Glassell’s crew was of a size that would have made Fulton happy, closer inspection reveals a composition very different to that of a larger steam warship. In large, sea-going warships, engineers constituted as little as one-eighth the crew; the first Royal Navy ironclad, HMS Warrior, on commissioning had an overall complement of 645, with only 11 engineers and 75 stokers (Winton 1987:86–87). But fully half David’s crew, one of them an engineer, was involved in running the engine. Even had it somehow been possible to construct more spar-torpedo boats, difficulties in finding enough technically qualified personnel would have precluded operating anything but a small number at the same time.

Also, beside the technical skills, spar-torpedo boat operators also needed great courage to ply their undeniably dangerous trade. According to a postwar interpreter, service in a torpedo boat called both for a “peculiar courage” and the “common attributes of true manliness” (Barnes 1869:149). The problem of finding suitable personnel for torpedo-boat operations is illustrated by an incident aboard the CSS Gunnison, a small, fast steamer equipped as a torpedo craft and serving with the Confederate Squadron at Mobile. The volunteer crew assigned to attack the USS Colorado late in 1863 proved reluctant to undertake so dangerous a mission, and as a result it was eventually called off (Greene 1863; Hitchcock 1863:631–632; Campbell 2000:102–105). Lacking a long-standing tradition of professional service, the Confederate navy had to rely on a combination of inspired individuals commanding boats they often also had designed and volunteers with possibly very different motives. This combination could on occasion produce impressive results, but on the whole it was not possible to make up for the lack of a professional esprit de corps. This shortcoming points at a key issue with the employment of spar-torpedo boats. Not only was a suitable industrial base needed but also a navy that had a sufficient pool of suitable manpower from which a new corps of operators of these weapons could then have been formed.

Apart from the number of boats available and the composition of their crews, the most important obstacle to a proper employment of spar-torpedo boats was the lack of a suitable operational doctrine as well as the means to put it into practice. In fact, even had there been enough Confederate boats for a massed attack, such an operation would likely have run into enormous difficulties as one of the key requirements for the success of such an operation was communication. A successful attack required at least a minimum of central control over the participating boats, something beyond the technological capabilities not only of Confederate forces but indeed of anyone else at the time. Also, the tactical understanding of how best to operate torpedo craft was extremely limited, as the Battle of Trent’s Reach showed. In theory this engagement should loom large in the history of spar-torpedo boats as the only naval engagement during the American Civil War in which both sides fielded spar-torpedo boats. Yet they accomplished nothing, although the Union side may have had as many as 23 torpedoes (Lay 1865:654). Even so, the Battle of Trent’s Reach clearly shows that tactically the spar-torpedo was seen as a melee weapon, much like the ram on larger ironclads. This concept failed to recognize the need for a modicum of room allowing the torpedo boat to exploit both its speed and its maneuverability, particularly if several boats were to be employed as a group.

Taken together, the issues of limited numbers of often technically deficient boats, the shortage of qualified personnel, the absence of suitable means of communication, and the general lack of understanding how best to operate these boats did not prevent tactical success in single actions, but they made operational success pretty much impossible.


The potential of spar-torpedo boats was clouded not only by the limited success they enjoyed but by the apparent ease with which effective countermeasures could be put in place. Countermeasures ranged from guard boats to devices preventing the boat from actually contacting the target ship. Admiral Dahlgren (1863a:11) ordered such measures in reaction to the attack on the USS New Ironsides. The torpedo threat provoked responses from Confederate as well as Union officers (Bradford 1864; Dahlgren 1864; Mitchell 1864).That these measures were quite effective is suggested by the interrogation of Confederate engineer M. M. Gray in April 1865 (Bradford 1865:413). Despite the boats’ flaws, observers at the time still saw considerable promise in torpedo warfare. Thus in November 1864, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory (1864:770) noted in a letter to Cdr. James Bulloch, one of the Confederacy’s most important agents in Europe, that “the recent destruction of our ironclad Albemarle, and our own similar operations against the enemy, have attracted marked attention to torpedo boats, of which the enemy already has a fleet.” He recommended the construction of further boats and proposed to use guncotton as an explosive, which apparently up to that point had not been used by the Confederates for sea mines or torpedoes (Mallory 1864:771). Likewise, in the aftermath of the Squib’s attack on the Minnesota, Capt. John S. Barnes (1864:601), commanding the Union flagship of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron USS Agawam, was prompted by “the simplicity of construction [of Squib] and its great efficiency as a weapon of war” to provide a description including a detailed drawing and to express the hope that “several of them may be built and furnished the squadron.” Gabriel J. Rains, who had been a mining specialist for the Confederates during the war and afterwards worked on a Torpedo Book that did not see publication until recently (Schiller 2011:13–90), was firmly convinced that “5 of these Davids will conquer any ironclad” (Schiller 2011:75), thereby already indicating the important operational aspect of concentrating numerical superiority on the enemy.

It took European observers of the war not long to follow suit. The first report by a European observer on the use of mines and torpedoes during the war followed by a year Dahlgren’s June 1865 report on the defenses of Charleston. The earliest detailed account of mines and torpedoes was made by Capt. Edward Harding Steward of the Royal Engineers, who went on to command a Royal Engineers’ detachment in the Zulu War of 1879. He concentrated on describing technical aspects of sea mines, spar-torpedoes, and land mines. Steward (1866:1) had served in Bermuda and Halifax throughout 1865 and gathered reports by American officers who had fought in the war. After a brief historical introduction, for which he used Fulton’s 1805 experiments and his 1810 book as a starting point, though for some reason obstinately misspelling Fulton’s name as “Fenton” (Steward 1866:2), he described various types of sea mines, their employment, and possible countermeasures in considerable detail before turning to what he called “motive torpedoes” (Steward 1866:19). Steward (1866:8) stressed the requirement for specialized personnel for the employment both of mines and of torpedo boats, noting that “to get the boat up to the enemy is the great point, and for this cool pluck and steady nerves are required.” He also identified the lack of suitably powerful engines as a key issue in torpedo boat construction (Steward 1866:19). While Steward described in considerable detail the attack by the CSS Squib and the sinking of the CSS Albemarle by Lt. Cushing (Steward 1866:20–22), he did not comment further on the impact spar-torpedo boats might have on naval warfare, though he noted that the U.S. Navy at the time of publication continued to display interest in torpedoes and was building “some small rams” (Steward 1866:26).

Two years later, Viktor Ernst Karl Rudolf von Scheliha, a Prussian who as an engineer officer with the Confederate army had been responsible for the construction of fortifications around Mobile (Lonn 1940:243) and would in later years make important contributions to the development of the automotive torpedo (Gray 2004:26–37), published a massive Treatise on Coast-Defence (Figure 6.2). Von Scheliha’s 326-page study covered the construction of fortifications, the employment of obstructions like block ships, torpedo warfare, and the use of electric light for coastal defense purposes. Von Scheliha (1868:300) saw great potential in the use of spar-torpedo boats, claiming it to be

the opinion of all naval authorities that a boat by means of which torpedoes may with the greatest secrecy and safety be brought into contact with the enemy’s vessel and exploded at the moment of touching without damage to the operator, will form hereafter an essential part of all judicious arrangements for coast-defence.

He went on to describe designs for “true” submarines, which he considered to be both unsafe for their operators and by and large unsuitable for their intended purpose (von Scheliha 1868:300–302), before giving a detailed account of Confederate torpedo-boat operations; that he even included the Saint Patrick should not come as a great surprise, as he—one of the engineers responsible for designing the defenses of Mobile—will have been familiar with the vessel if not with the details of its design (von Scheliha 1868:313–314).

Von Scheliha (1868:314) emphasized, just as Steward had done before him, the need of finding suitable engines for torpedo boats, stating that “the want of suitable boilers and engines may be designated as the chief reason why torpedo-boat attacks were not more frequently made from the Confederate side.” For him, speed was of great importance in a torpedo boat, a requirement that effectively ruled out any oared design with which the Confederates had repeatedly experimented as well (Campbell 2000:31–41). In his eyes oared boats built in Mobile near the end of the war were merely “make-shifts” (von Scheliha 1868:315). He expected a successful torpedo boat to have a speed of at least 11 knots, an impressive figure for a power plant that was supposed to fit into a vessel roughly the size of the David (von Scheliha 1868:315–316)—for comparison, New Ironsides, though contracted for 9.5 knots, could never make more than 6.5 knots (Canney 1993:18; Roberts 1999:10), and the second-generation monitor, the USS Passaic, designed for 9.0 knots, could only make 7.5 on trials (Canney 1993:78).

To Steward and von Scheliha it was abundantly clear that the spar-torpedo boat had not performed well in the American Civil War for the obvious reason that it was essentially an untested weapon system poorly supported by an insufficient industrial base. At the same time, both had little doubt that rapid technical progress would eventually turn the spar-torpedo into a system playing a key role in coastal defense—rather tellingly, the frontispiece of von Scheliha’s Treatise on Coast-Defence showed a David-type torpedo boat underway. While he had dedicated his book to Prince Adalbert of Prussia, who from 1852 onward had begun to push for the creation of a Prussian fleet, von Scheliha’s real influence on the history of the spar-torpedo boat (and later the development of the automotive torpedo) was the result of his finding employment with the Russian navy after his return to Europe. The Russians had experimented with spar-torpedo boats a decade earlier, during and after the Crimean War (1854–1856); interest was renewed during the early 1860s (Fock 1979:16–17; Polmar and Noot 1991:8). With von Scheliha the Russian navy acquired important firsthand information about the Confederate use of mines and torpedoes; the combination of their own experiences and von Scheliha’s knowledge eventually resulted in what arguably was the heyday of the spar-torpedo boat, its employment in the Russo–Turkish war of 1877–1878 (Sleeman 1880:192–203; Bradford 1882:31–36).


There is no denying that spar-torpedo boats played only a minor role during the American Civil War. On the Confederate side, operations were particularly hampered by the lack of suitable engines, insufficient overall technical support, and manpower requirements the Confederate forces could not readily fulfill. During the latter part of the war Union forces, while able to spend considerable resources on the construction of torpedo boats, found, as von Scheliha (1868:314) pointed out, “little opportunity … for making use of the torpedo in this class of offensive operations.” After the Battle of Trent’s Reach, the USS Spuyten Duyvil, easily the technically most complex spar-torpedo boat ever built (Bourne 1867:373–376; Barnes 1869:154–159; Bennett 1896:482–483), was mainly used for removing river obstacles.

Yet looking back from the last decades of the nineteenth century, many observers saw in the Confederate spar-torpedo boats the ancestors of the torpedo craft of their own day, and while few stated is as boldly as Dabney H. Maury (1894), who in an article set out to describe “How the Confederacy Changed Naval Warfare,” the revolution in naval warfare that the torpedo was supposed to have brought about was commonly thought to have begun in the American Civil War. Closer observation of both the capabilities of Civil War spar-torpedo boats and the way they were employed at first seems to suggest otherwise. Not only were the vessels themselves technically handicapped, they were also mainly used for local defense or single strikes against individual targets. Later nineteenth-century thinking on the use of torpedo boats, of which the Jeune École is probably the best-known example, had more in common with the ideas of Robert Fulton, focusing on the employment of large numbers of torpedo craft, than with the actual operations of the CSS David. Indeed, Fulton’s (1810:37–38) scenario of a swarm of French torpedo boats breaking a blockade by the Royal Navy probably had considerable appeal to French navy planners of the 1890s.

However unsatisfying the Confederates’ experience in operating torpedo boats, their activities were nevertheless observed with great interest in Europe. As a consequence, both the spar-torpedo experiments that were undertaken by European navies during the latter half of the 1860s (Barnes 1869:190–225; Sleeman 1880:220–222; Fock 1979:17) and their employment in the Franco–Prussian War of 1870–1871 as well as the Russo–Turkish war of 1877–1878 in fact owed much to Confederate torpedo-boat operations. The Confederacy may not have changed naval warfare, but it certainly helped form the thoughts of those who did. When in 1874 the British Thornycroft shipyard delivered the spar-torpedo boat Rap to the Norwegian navy, a craft often seen as the first “true” torpedo boat, she was a small, sleek vessel very unlike the David. With a powerful engine and racy lines, she could run at more than 14 knots (Sleeman 1880:163–165, fig. 150; Armstrong 1896:165–166; Fock 1979:42) and thus conformed rather nicely to von Scheliha’s ideas about how a spar-torpedo boat should look.


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