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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Rebel Shore

James M. Merrill

published by
Little, Brown and Company
Boston • Toronto

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p157  Chapter VIII

Submarines, Cigar Boats, and Infernal Machines

Thayer's Note: For following the geography in the text, the map provided on the book's endpages may be useful; it opens in a separate window.

Underwater explosives were strong deterrents to monitors and Yankee cruisers. The barrier was psychological as well as physical. When Du Pont's fleet attacked Fort Sumter in April 1863, monitor skippers saw the infernal machines in the water, failed to move upchannel, and, as Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Beauregard had planned, became caught in a deadly cross fire from the forts. New Ironsides maneuvered for ten minutes over the mines, which failed to go off, due to defective wiring. The editor of the Baltimore American, an eyewitness to the attack, described the fear of these underwater contraptions which overshadowed the entire fleet and the lack of nerve of the monitor captains. The specter of Rebel mines haunted Union personnel and paralyzed the efficiency of the squadron.

In the war at sea the underdog Confederate Navy with no ocean-going steamers save a few commerce destroyers was pitted against the powerful sea arm of the Union. The galling presence of blockaders bossing the shores by day and by night, the harsh treatment meted  p158 out by Federal armadas penetrating the inland waters, the smashing of coastal forts and batteries presented a real challenge to Confederate inventive genius. To battle the overwhelming naval strength of the enemy, Southerners struck out in new directions and chose to fight with mines, submarines, and torpedo boats.

The reverses at Hatteras Inlet, Port Royal, and Roanoke Island early in the war had proved conclusively to the Confederate command that mere rope obstructions could not halt or even slow down the powerful steam fleet of the Union. Sand forts were almost worthless. How could they prevent Federal gunboats from steaming up the James River to Richmond? What would deter the Yankees from seizing all the ports in a matter of months? The Confederate Congress promised a huge reward to the inventor of any new device that would send enemy shipping to the bottom. Scores of rough sketches and detailed drawings piled up on desks at Richmond.

The Confederate Navy Department detailed the stubby-bearded, balding Captain Matthew Fontaine Maury to conduct experiments in the James River. The Captain constructed, submerged, and anchored hollow sphere-shaped shells of iron crammed with fifty pounds of powder and sporting fuses connected to a series of galvanic batteries ashore. Wires broke and snapped; shells drifted away; charges were insufficient to create damage in fifteen feet of water.

Undeterred, the Confederate Navy established a Torpedo Bureau with stations at Richmond, Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. Volunteers for the mine service  p159 were sworn to secrecy, granted special privileges and extra pay, and, occasionally, saw their mates destroyed by accidental explosions. Congress donated $20,000 for this work, subsequently adding another $350,000.

On the tug Torpedo Maury's experiments were continued. Experts devised a new mine equipped with a red flannel cartridge bag filled with rifle powder and a fuse of fulminate of mercury. This was placed in a tank made of half-inch boiler plate and packed with cannon powder. Seamen secured a ring to the bottom of the tank, passed a heavy chain through, and lowered the mine to the desired depth. A mushroom anchor completed the assembly.

Southerners planted two of these mines with one thousand pounds of powder each in the James River several miles below Richmond, concealed the battery in a deep ravine, and ran the wires to the lookout station atop a hill. The Rebels waited.

When the first Yankee vessel, the converted ferryboat Commodore Barney, her side wheels churning, moved up the river, the Confederate lookout lost his wits and pressed the exploding button too soon. One tank exploded thirty yards from the oncoming Commodore Barney. Water shot skyward, burying the careening gunboat under a tremendous wave and sweeping six Federals over the side. The waters calmed. The ferryboat uninjured but her crew shaken, wheeled slowly around, picked up the men, and headed down-river. She steamed directly over the second mine. Unhinged by the first blast, the lookout failed to explode it and ran terror-stricken from his post.

 p160  Federal troops, warned of the mines by a runaway slave, moved from Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, up the James River toward Drewry's Bluff with a flotilla of gunboats. Cutters dragged the river. The Federal naval commander, unable to locate the mines, ordered his double-ender, Commodore Jones, to head up to Deep Bottom. In the lookout stations, Confederates focused their spyglasses on the Yankee gunboat, delighted that the enemy was nearing the trap. The instant Commodore Jones passed over the mine, a terrific explosion rent the water. Fragments of Commodore Jones lay scattered across the river. Sixty of her crew bobbed in the water, face down, dead. The destruction of Commodore Jones shocked the North, and convinced President Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis of the impracticality of a Union gunboat attack against Richmond. He stated publicly that mines were the South's most effective defense against Lincoln's squadrons.

When a Union assault seemed imminent in 1862, underwater experts went to work in earnest at Charleston. They stretched two heavy cables, one below the other and connected by a network of ropes, across the channel in front of Fort Sumter. The upper cable carried a fringe of floating ropes on the surface, designed to foul the propellers of enemy steamers. Engineers left a gap open near Sullivans Island under the guns of Fort Moultrie, so that blockade-runners could slip in and out of the harbor. Lager beer barrels, calked and pitched and loaded with one hundred pounds of powder, floated a few feet below the surface in front of the cables.  p161 Proudly surveying his work, the chief of the mine division boasted that the new ironclads might be masters of the world, but that mines would master the ironclads.

During the monitors' siege of the forts, which dragged on for months, the phantom struck often. A quick shock, an explosion, a cloud of smoke spoke of the danger lurking beneath the water's surface. The monitor Patapsco, on duty as a picket, cruised near the mouth of the harbor, rammed a mine, and went to the bottom with sixty‑two men. A mine exploded beneath Dahlgren's flagship, Harvest Moon, tearing the bulkheads to shreds and caving in the sides. The Admiral, thinking a boiler had burst, groped his way through the debris, saw the vessel going down, and abandoned ship. Two weeks later his survey vessel, Bibb, took a mine at the bow and sank.

The Confederates stepped up mine operations. On 4 March 1865 the transport Thorn was blown up in the Cape Fear River; on the twenty-eighth, the monitor Milwaukee was destroyed on the Blakely River near Mobile; on the twenty-ninth, the monitor Osage was sunk in the same location; on the first of April, the gunboat Rodolph was obliterated in Mobile; on the thirteenth, the steamer Ida was erased below the obstructions in Mobile Bay; on the fourteenth, the gunboats Sciota, Itasca, the steamer Rose, and a cutter from the ironclad Cincinnati struck mines and sank. A few days later the transport St. Marys was smashed to bits in the Alabama River and the steamer Hamilton from New p162Orleans, carrying the Third Michigan Cavalry, bumped into a mine in the Lower Gap Channel, killing and wounding thirteen.

The squadrons tried various schemes to prevent explosions. Night cutter patrols roamed Charleston waters. Each time they were caught dismantling a mine, Rebels drove them off with a sharp cross fire from the forts. When Yankees succeeded in removing the mines, Confederates planted fresh ones in their places. Sailors rigged huge rope nets equipped with iron bars on booms around ships. Vessels of lesser importance moored alongside the frigates.

The infernal machines, which knocked off fifty-eight Union vessels during the war, lowered the odds against the Confederacy in the war at sea and counteracted the Yankees' initial advantage of steamships over sand forts. Palsied Federal commanders balked at attacking Confederate strongholds. Mines turned back Du Pont. Admiral Dahlgren admitted that underwater explosives embarrassed and detained his monitors from entering Charleston. Admiral Sam Lee refused to assault a weakly defended Wilmington. Mines kept Yankee cruisers at a distance and allowed runners, if they escaped the blockade outside, to steam with impunity to safety.

The United States Government controlled the seas with an overwhelming number of ships, but failed to use mines to tighten the blockade. Had the North established in 1861 a mine-laying outfit, it might have successfully fought mine with mine and blocked up harbor entrances and stopped blockade traffic. The Lincoln Administration verbally blasted the South for employing  p163 inhuman tactics, and only as the war progressed, did it develop underwater explosives. Several gunboats were equipped with mines rigged from their bows, but met with little success.

The most important event in the use of infernal machines was the destruction of the Rebel ironclad ram Albemarle at Plymouth, North Carolina, in 1864. A lieutenant plus a crew of volunteers on board a steam launch crept up to the wharf and discovered the monster protected by a pen of logs thirty feet from her side. Under blistering fire from Confederate deck guns and shore batteries, the launch valiantly crashed through the barrier, lowered her mine, and blasted a hole under the ram's waterline. Albemarle sank quickly. Water gushed into the launch, and of the thirteen crew members, only the lieutenant and a seaman escaped.

The South, meanwhile, using mines as an excellent defensive weapon, took the offense with torpedo boats and submarines. Early in the war, at New Orleans, Captains James McClintock and Horace L. Hunley completed work on a submarine in the New Basin. Constructed of old boiler plates, this craft measured thirty feet in length. The mid‑section was cylindrical; each of the ends, conical. Sailors maneuvered her by a pair of diving rudders, a stubby conning tower with circular glass ports, and an iron keel that could be dumped, thus lightening the craft and sending her to the surface. The captain and a seaman to operate the propeller crank formed the crew.

The torpedo, detonated by a clockwork mechanism, was secured to the hull behind the conning tower. The  p164 submarine was to dive under the keel of a Yankee frigate so that the torpedo could be screwed to the enemy's bottom by means of a gimlet-tipped crank operated from within the conning tower and left there to explode after the submarine had reached safety.

At Lake Pontchartrain the craft successfully dived and sent a worn‑out schooner to the bottom. Before the submarine could destroy Federal shipping, Farragut and his armada stormed and captured New Orleans in April 1862. The union steamer Pensacola discovered the submarine and dispatched information to the Navy Department.

McClintock and Hunley skipped out of New Orleans to Mobile, where, in the machine shops, they hammered together another submersible. Twenty-five feet long, this craft had wedge-shaped instead of conical ends. Once launched, she sank on a trial run with no lives lost. The Confederate Government refused to flush more money down Mobile Bay and vetoed plans for the construction of a third underwater craft. Mines were cheaper and were doing an admirable job in keeping the enemy fleet at bay.

Captain Hunley dug deep into his pockets and personally met the expense of another new craft. Measuring thirty feet over all, with a wedge-shaped bow and stern, this boat came equipped with two conning towers and a ventilating mechanism. The keel consisted of several flat iron castings which could be released one by one from within the submarine until she acquired sufficient buoyancy to rise to the surface. The conning towers had watertight hinged hatch covers which were  p165 bolted from inside. Small, thick glass ports fitted into the sides and ends of the hatch coamings. The ventilation system was an impractical jungle of pipes. The crew breathed the air contained in the hull, which was not sufficient to allow the boat to remain under water for more than two hours. To replenish the air supply, the submarine surfaced and men opened the hatch covers.

Mechanics riveted bulkheads across the hull to form ballast tanks. The water flooded into each of the tanks through a sea cock and was ejected by a force pump. A shaft equipped with a diving rudder at each end passed through stuffing boxes on each side of the vessel.

When under way, the captain stood with his head in the forward conning tower at the controls. At the old man's command, seamen fastened the hatch covers, lit candles for illumination, flooded the ballast tanks until the top of the shell was about three inches under water, and closed the sea cocks. To dive, the captain lowered the lever and depressed the forward end of the fins slightly, noting on a mercury gauge the depth of the craft beneath the surface, then brought the fins level at a depth at which the submarine would remain and travel. The skipper raised the lever and elevated the fins to surface.

Hunley armed his underwater monster with a torpedo — a copper cylinder loaded with ninety pounds of powder which was towed at the end of a 200‑foot line. Upon sighting the target, the submarine approached, dived under it, and drew the torpedo against the ship's side, where it exploded on contact.

 p166  The submarine's performance in Mobile Bay was highly successful. She easily torpedoed and sank two flatboats. Hunley recruited volunteers for the service, drilled them constantly, and prepared for a night raid against the blockaders hovering off the port. At the last minute, orders came to transfer operations to Charleston. Day laborers loaded Hunley's big fish on freight cars and sent her to South Carolina, where she arrived in the fall of 1862.

After reassembling the submarine and making trial tests, Lieutenant John Payne of the Confederate Navy and a volunteer force set out at night to torpedo the pride of the Yankee fleet, the ironclad frigate New Ironsides. The submarine cast off from a Charleston wharf and nosed out into the channel. The bow wave of a passing steamer swamped the craft. Its commander, standing in the forward conning tower, was the only man to escape.

Confederates surfaced the submarine, hustled another crew on board, and sent her against New Ironsides a second time. She capsized and sank off Fort Sumter. Payne and a sailor were the only survivors. Undismayed, the Confederates raised the craft a second time and handed it over to another volunteer force. Captain Hunley took command.

Diving successfully in Charleston Harbor, the inventor and his crew, confident that their craft would blow the blockade to pieces, dived, as a lark, under a Confederate ship. A ballast tank overflowed, the submarine sank with all hands.

The Rebel commander at Charleston agreed to raise  p167 Hunley for one last attempt. Experts exchanged the towed torpedo for a spar torpedo which was attached to a 22‑foot tapering boom projecting from the bow. To destroy a ship, the submarine ran the torpedo head on into the side of the enemy.

Refitted, Hunley moored off Battery Marshall on Sullivans Island, opposite Fort Sumter. Day after day, month after month, the skipper drilled his men, diving, surfacing, and obliterating makeshift targets.

At sundown on 17 February 1864, Hunley left her wharf and headed down the bay at four knots with orders not to dive. A low‑lying fog clung to the surface of the water.

The newly launched sloop of war Housatonic lay at anchor at the harbor's mouth. Union lookouts noted the cloudless sky, the outline of the other blockaders, and the surface fog. It was quiet. The watch was relieved at 8 P.M. The officer of the deck noted a plank moving listlessly in the water. His quarter, telescope in hand, reported that the ripple was a school of fish. The officer suddenly recognized that it was a floating mine and sounded the beat to quarters. Bluejackets shot from the forecastle, slipped the anchor chain, backed the engines, and began a zigzag pattern. The cannon would not bear. Men fired pistols and rifles and threw knives in vain efforts to explode the approaching mine.

The torpedo smashed into the starboard side. Geysers of water flooded the deck. Timbers splintered. The captain was thrown several feet into the air. Housatonic filled rapidly. She heeled over to port and went down  p168 stern first with five of her crew. The survivors, jammed into two launches, made it to the other blockaders. Housatonic was a total loss. Hunley went down with her prey, flooded by the onrush of water.

A more successful means of damaging enemy cruisers were the Rebel torpedo boats. Propelled at seven knots by a steam engine driving a screw propeller, these wooden- or iron-hulled cigar-shaped boats measured fifty feet in length, seven in breadth. The boiler was forward, the engine lay aft, and amidships was a cuddyhole for the captain, engineer, and crew. When assaulting the enemy, the craft was so well submerged that nothing was visible except her short stack and the hatch coaming. These boats carried their torpedo on a spar protruding from the bow, which could be raised or lowered by a line passing aft into the cuddyhole.

On the night of 5 October 1863, the torpedo boat David attacked New Ironsides on duty off Charleston. A minute before the explosion, a Federal officer hailed a small object in the water. Suddenly, there was a roar. The ironclad lurched. David plunged violently. Water flooded into the stack and hatchway. Her machinery jammed. Amid the rattling fire from New Ironsides, David's skipper and crew abandoned ship. After swimming for hours, the oil‑soaked captain and a fireman were picked up by Federal pickets. The engineer, meanwhile, made it back to the riddled David as she drifted downstream and discovered the pilot, who could not swim, clinging to her side. Together, they climbed back on board, fixed the engines, and proceeded back to Charleston. At first New Ironsides seemed little  p169 damaged, but an examination revealed extensive leaks which could be repaired only at a navy yard.

Northward off Newport News, Virginia, officers on board the flagship Minnesota noticed a rowboat maneuvering toward the ship. The boatswain hailed her.

"U. S. S. Roanoke," was the reply.

Sure that the rowboat was not from the frigate, the officer of the deck hollered through the speaking trumpet.

"Roanoke," came back an insistent voice.

The Minnesota's lieutenant ordered the craft alongside.

"Aye! Aye!"

Instantly, Yankee seamen heard a crash, felt Minnesota tremble and shake. A survey revealed that the actual damage was negligible, but the concussion had smashed all the boxes and shell straps and had ripped off the hatch of the shell room and magazine.

Rumors spread throughout the Union fleet that the Rebels planned to blow all blockaders out of the water with their cigar boats. The brass feared that the whole blockade would be riddled by these cheap, convenient, and deadly craft. Admiral Dahlgren, more unnerved than other commanders, complained that the mines and Davids were the most formidable obstacles in his way to Charleston. He demanded that the Department award $30,000 to the man who could destroy or capture a Confederate torpedo boat.

Sailors became trigger happy. The boatswain of the steamer Flag startled his slumbering men: "Slip the cable! Slip the cable!" Dashing for the spar deck,  p170 sailors saw a floating object bearing down on the ship and heard the skipper shout: "Back her! Back her! For God's sake, back her! She is right under our bow." As the unidentified object glided harmlessly past, a shot from Flag's cannon cut it in two, disclosing it to be a mass of floating seaweed.

While underwater contraptions were taking their toll of Union shipping, the Confederacy strained to launch a fleet of ironclads to destroy the blockade, a blockade which was severely punishing the South. Palmetto State and Chicora, having disabled Mercedita and Keystone State in 1863, proved too sluggish, too gawky to ravage enemy cruisers.

Southward in Savannah, Rebel hopes soared as mechanics converted the British steamer Fingal into the ironclad ram Atlanta. Purchased in September 1861 by a Southern agent on the Clyde, the blockade-runner Fingal was loaded with a cargo of Enfield rifles, cartridges, percussion caps, cavalry sabers, bayonets, revolvers, and rifled cannon for her first voyage under Confederate colors. On 2 November 1861, Fingal arrived at St. George, Bermuda. Ten days later, she sneaked through the blockade off Savannah.

Stevedores discharged the cargo and seamen battened down the hatches for the outward run. Before she could take departure, the Federal blockade, strengthened by the capture of Port Royal and Tybee Island, thoroughly sealed up Savannah. The Richmond government ordered the steamer converted into an ironclad. Workers cut Fingal down to the main deck, constructed the casemate  p171 with iron plate in two layers, secured to a backing of oak and pine, and fitted a ram with a spar torpedo to the bow. Gunners supervised the placement of the 7‑and 6‑inch Brooke guns.

During her shakedown runs on the Savannah River, Atlanta's ability to maneuver was hampered by steering difficulties. This mechanical setback, coupled with the squabbles over command, haphazard recruiting methods, and the monitors' attack on Charleston, prevented Atlanta from reaching fighting trim until June 1863. Proud of their Goliath, Georgians boasted that her cannon fired balls as large as iron kettles and that she was the strongest ironclad afloat.

Itching to see action, naval officers learned that two Union monitors, Weehawken and Nahant, after retiring from Charleston, lurked in Wassaw Sound. Before dawn, 17 June, two steamers, thronged with sight-seers, most of them ladies who had exchanged jewelry for an ironclad ram, watched Atlanta move toward her target. In Savannah, city fathers concocted plans for a grand ball and victory celebration.

At 4 A.M. a messenger awakened Weehawken's skipper, reporting a strange vessel in the sound. The captain got up grudgingly and went out on deck. Through his glass he noted a huge craft built like Merrimac. Quickly, Weehawken slipped the cable and cruised downstream, her decks cleared for action. Atlanta, steering awkwardly, rammed into a mudbank, backed off, grounded again hard and fast. The Confederate guns blazed. Weehawken came up to within 300 yards and opened fire. The first shot smashed into the side  p172 of Atlanta's casemate; the second crushed the pilothouse. Eight cannon blasts from the ram missed their targets. Fast in the mud, her guns unable to train on Weehawken, part of her crew wounded or dead, Atlanta surrendered. The Federals captured 145 men, and a survey revealed that the ram could easily be hauled off and repaired. Crestfallen revelers were carted back to Savannah, where they reported Atlanta's ignominious failure and canceled plans for the victory celebration.

Weehawken's victory raised the prestige of the monitors, but Gideon Welles had little time for rejoicing. Federal ships operating in Gulf waters without monitor support were meeting reverses, and the ironclad ram Tennessee, a greater menace than Atlanta, was ready to strike the wooden cruisers off Mobile.

Thayer's Note:

a The Colt is never mentioned in the book; and it is not certain that this is in fact the Colt. The tentative identification is that of the Photographic History of the Civil War series. Another possibility is that the wreck seen here is that of the Sylph, which was run ashore on Sullivans Island in 1865. The page for this stereograph at the Library of Congress merely identifies the ship as a blockade-runner.

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