Confederate use of subterranean shells on the Peninsula.
Several Union officers have written to the editors, stating that they witnessed the explosion of concealed shells or torpedoes at Yorktown
— among them Fred T. Locke
, assistant adjutant-general
to Fitz John Porter
, director of the siege, and Colonel Edward C. James
, of the engineer corps. General Locke
wrote in May, 1885:
On the morning of May 4th, 1862, our pickets sent in a prisoner who said he was a Union man, had been impressed into the rebel service, and was one of a party detailed to bury some shells in the road and fields near the works. . . . A cavalry detachment passing along the road leading to Yorktown had some of its men and horses killed and wounded by these shells.
Our telegraph operator was sent into Yorktown soon after our troops had got possession of the place.
He trod upon one of the buried shells, which burst and terribly mangled both of his legs, from which he died soon after in great agony. . . . In the casemates and covered ways about the fortifications I saw a number of large shells, placed so that they could easily be fired by persons unaware of their presence.
The “Official Records
” show that General Fitz John Porter
referred to the buried shells in his report of the siege, and General William F. Barry
of Artillery, made a statement in detail, in a communication to army headquarters, August 25th, 1863.
's statement is that when the advance detachments entered Yorktown
on the left was fired upon from the Red Fort.
Those on the right experienced some losses from shells planted in the ground, which exploded when trod upon.
Many of these shells were concealed in the streets and houses of the town, and arranged to explode by treading on the caps or pulling a wire attached to the doors.
General W. F. Barry
wrote that buried shells were encountered when they were about to enter the abandoned Confederate lines:
Before reaching the glacis of the main work, and at the distance of more than one hundred yards from it, several of our men were injured by the explosion of what was ascertained to be loaded shells buried in the ground.
These shells were the ordinary eight or ten inch mortar or Columbiad shells, filled with powder, buried a few inches below the surface of the ground, and so arranged with some fulminate, or with the ordinary artillery friction primer, that they exploded by being trod upon or otherwise disturbed. . . . These shells were not thus placed on the glacis at the bottom of the ditch, etc., which, in view of an anticipated assault, might possibly be considered a legitimate use of them, but they were planted by an enemy who was secretly abandoning his post, on common roads, at springs of water, in the shade of trees, at the foot of telegraph poles, and, lastly, quite within the defenses of the place — in the very streets.
On the march from Williamsburg
toward Richmond General Longstreet
wrote to General G. J. Rains
, whose brigade was on duty as rear-guard:
It is the desire of the major-general commanding [Longstreet] that you put no shells or torpedoes behind you, as he does not recognize it as a proper or effective method of war.
In an indorsement on the above, General Rains
advocated the use of buried shells in retreat and for the defense of works.
He forwarded Longstreet
's letter and his own comments to General D. H. Hill
The latter approvingly indorsed Rains
This correspondence went to the Secretary of War
, G. W. Randolph
, whose decision, favorable to Longstreet
's views, was as follows:
It is not admissible in civilized warfare to take life with no other object than the destruction of life. . . . It is admissible to plant shells in a parapet to repel an assault, or in a wood to check pursuit, because the object is to save the work in one case and the army in the other
A copy of the “New York Herald,” containing General McClellan
's report on buried torpedoes at Yorktown
, reached General Johnston
, who, in a letter dated May 12th, requested General D. H. Hill
to ascertain if there was any truth in it. General Hill
referred the matter to Rains
, who on May 14th reported in part as follows:
“I commanded at Yorktown for the last seven months, and when General McClellan approached with his army of 100,000 men and opened his cannons upon us, I had but 2500 in garrison, and our whole Army of the Peninsula, under Major-General Magruder, amounted to but 9300 effective men; then at a salient angle, an accessible point of our works, as part of the defenses thereof, I had the land mined with the weapons alluded to, to destroy assailants and prevent escalade. Subsequently, with a similar view, they were placed at spots I never saw. . . . And again when, at Williamsburg, we were ordered to turn upon our assailants and combat them, . . . some 6 or 7 miles this side of Williamsburg, my command forming the rear-guard of the army, . . . some 4 small shells, found abandoned by our artillery, were hastily prepared by my efforts, and put in the road near a tree felled across, mainly to have a moral effect in checking the advance of the enemy (for they were too small to do more). . . .”
[Compare p. 205.] Editors.