previous next

Reminiscences of torpedo service in Charleston Harbor by W. T. Glassel, Commander Confederate States Navy.

[The following interesting paper was sent us through the Secretary of the South Carolina Historical Society. In a note accompanying the paper the author says that while he has written from memory, and without official reports to refer to, he believes he has given the facts in the order of their occurrence.]

I had served, I believe faithfully, as a lieutenant in the United States navy, and had returned from China on the United States steamer “Hartford” to Philadelphia, sometime in 1862, after the battles of Manassas and Ball's Bluff had been fought. I was informed that I must now take a new oath of allegiance or be sent immediately to Fort Warren. I refused to take this oath, on the ground that it was inconsistent with one I had already taken to support the Constitution of the United States. I was kept in Fort Warren about eight months, and then exchanged as a prisoner of war, on the banks of the James river. Being actually placed in the ranks of the Confederate States, I should think that even Mr. President Hayes would now acknowledge that it was my right, if not my duty, to act the part of a belligerent.

A lieutenant's commission in the Confederate States navy was conferred on me, with orders to report for duty on the iron-clad “Chicora” at Charleston. My duties were those of a deck officer, and I had charge of the first division.

On the occasion of the attack upon the blockading squadron (making the attack at night), if I could have had any influence, we should not have fired a gun, but trusted to the effect of ironrams at full speed. It was thought, though, by older and perhaps wiser officers, that this would have been at the risk of sinking our iron-clads together with the vessels of the enemy. I have ever believed there was no such danger to be apprehended; and if there was, we had better have encountered it, than to have made the fruitless attempt which we did, only frightening the enemy and putting them on their guard for the future.

It was my part, on that memorable morning, to aim and fire one effective shell into the “Keystone State” while running down to attack us, which (according to Captain LeRoy's report), killing [226] twenty-one men and severely wounding fifteen, caused him to haul down his flag in token of surrender.

The enemy now kept at a respectful distance while preparing their iron-clad vessels to sail up more closely. Our Navy Department continued slowly to construct more of these rams, all on the same general plan, fit for little else than harbor defence. The resources of the United States being such that they could build ten iron-clads to our one, and of a superior class, almost invulnerable to shot or shell, I had but little faith in the measures we were taking for defence.

Mr. Frank Lee, of the Engineers, was employed constructing torpedoes to be placed in the harbor, and called my attention to the subject. It appeared to me that this might be made an effective weapon to use offensively against the powerful vessels now being built. An old hulk was secured and Major Lee made the first experiment, as follows: A torpedo made of copper, and containing thirty or forty pounds of gunpowder, having a sensitive fuze, was attached by means of a socket to a long pine pole. To this weights were attached, and it was suspended horizontally beneath a row-boat, by cords from the bow and stern — the torpedo projecting eight or ten feet ahead of the boat, and six or seven feet below the surface. The boat was then drawn towards the hulk till the torpedo came in contact with it and exploded. The result was the immediate destruction of the old vessel and no damage to the boat.

I was now convinced that powerful engines of war could be brought into play against iron-clad ships. I believed it should be our policy to take immediate steps for the construction of a large number of small boats suitable for torpedo service, and make simultaneous attacks, if possible, before the enemy should know what we were about. The result of this experiment was represented to Commodore Ingraham. I offered all the arguments I could in favor of my pet hobby. Forty boats with small engines for this service, carrying a shield of boiler-iron to protect a man at the helm from rifle-balls, might have been constructed secretly at one-half the cost of a clumsy iron-clad. The Commodore did not believe in what he called “new-fangled notions.” I retired from his presence with a feeling of grief, and almost desperation. but resolved to prove at least that I was in earnest. I got row-boats [227] from my friend, Mr. George A. Trenholm, and at his expense equipped them with torpedoes for a practical experiment against, the blockading vessels at anchor off the bar.

Commodore Ingraham then refused to let me have the officers or men who bad volunteered for the expedition, saying that my rank and age did not entitle me to command more than one boat. I was allowed, sometime after this, to go out alone with one of these boats and a crew of six men, to attack the United States ship “Powhatan” with a fifty-pound torpedo of rifle-powder attached to the end of a long pole, suspended by wires from the bow and stern, beneath the keel of the boat, and projecting eight or ten feet ahead, and seven feet below the surface.

I started out with ebb-tide in search of a victim. I approached the ship about 1 o'clock. The young moon had gone down, and every thing seemed favorable, the stars shining over head and sea smooth and calm. The bow of the ship was towards us and the ebb-tide still running out. 1 did not expect to reach the vessel without being discovered, but my intention was, no matter what they might say or do, not to be stopped until our torpedo came in contact with the ship. My men were instructed accordingly. I did hope the enemy would not be alarmed by the approach of such a small boat so far out at sea, and that we should be ordered to come alongside. In this I was disappointed. When they discovered us, two or three hundred yards distant from the port bow, we were hailed and immediately ordered to stop and not come nearer. To their question, “What boat is that?” and numerous others, I gave evasive and stupid answers; and notwithstanding repeated orders to stop, and threats to fire on us, I told them 1 was coming on board as fast as I could, and whispered to my men to pull with all their might. I trusted they would be too merciful to fire on such a stupid set of idiots as they must have taken us to be.

My men did pull splendidly, and I was aiming to strike the enemy on the port-side, just below the gangway. They continued to threaten and to order us to lay in our oars; but I had no idea of doing so, as we were now within forty feet of the intended victim. I felt confident of success, when one of my trusted men, from terror or treason, suddenly backed his oar and stopped the boat's headway. This caussd the others to give up apparently in [228] despair. In this condition we drifted with the tide past the ship's stern, while the officer of the deck, continuing to ply me with embarrassing questions, gave order to lower a ship's boat to go for us.

The man who backed his oar had now thrown his pistol overboard, and reached to get that of the man next to him for the same purpose. A. number of men, by this time, were on deck with rifles in hand. The torpedo was now an incumbrance to retard the movements of my boat.

I never was rash, or disposed to risk my life, or that of others, without large compensation from the enemy. But to surrender thus would not do. Resolving not to be taken alive till somebody at least should be hurt, I drew a revolver and whispered to the men at bow and stern to cut loose the torpedo.

This being quickly done, they were directed quietly to get the oars in position and pull away with all their strength. They did so. I expected a parting volley from the deck of the ship, and judging from the speed with which the little boat travelled, you would have thought we were trying to outrun the bullets which might follow us. No shot was fired. I am not certain whether their boat pursued us or not. We were soon out of sight and beyond their reach; and I suppose the captain and officers of the “Powhatan” never have known how near they came to having the honor of being the first ship ever blown up by a torpedo boat.

I do not think this failure was from any fault or want of proper precaution of mine. The man who backed his oar and stopped the boat at the-critical moment declared afterwards that he had been terrified so that he knew not what he was doing. He seemed to be ashamed of his conduct, and wished to go with me into any danger. His name was James Murphy, and he afterwards deserted to the enemy by swimming off to a vessel at anchor in the Edisto river.

I think the enemy must have received some hint from spies, creating a suspicion of torpedoes, before I made this attempt. I got back to Charleston after daylight next morning, with only the loss of one torpedo, and convinced that steam was the only reliable motive power.

Commodore Tucker having been ordered to command the naval forces at Charleston, torpedoes were fitted to the bows of ironclad rams for use should the monitors enter the harbor. [229]

My esteemed friend, Mr. Theodore Stoney, of Charleston, took measures for the construction of the little cigar-boat “David” at private expense; and about this time I was ordered off to Wilmington as executive officer to attend to the equipment of the iron-clad “North Carolina.” She drew so much water it would have been impossible to get her over the bar, and consequently was only fit for harbor defence.

In the meantime, the United States fleet, monitors and ironsides, crossed the bar at Charleston and took their comfortable positions protecting the army on Morris' Island, and occasionally bombarding Fort Sumter.

The “North Carolina” being finished, was anchored near Fort Fisher. No formidable enemy was in sight, except the United States steamer “Minnesota,” and she knowing that we could not get out, had taken a safe position at anchor beyond the bar to guard one entrance to the harbor. I made up my mind to destroy that ship or make a small sacrifice in the attempt. Accordingly, I set to work with all possible dispatch, preparing a little steam tug which had been placed under my control, with the intention of making an effort. I fitted a torpedo to her bow so that it could be lowered in the water or elevated at discretion.

I had selected eight or ten volunteers for this service, and would have taken with me one row-boat to save life in case of accident. My intention was to slip out after dark through the passage used by blockade-runners, and then to approach the big ship from seaward as suddenly and silently as possible on a dark night, making such answer to their hail and questions as occasion might require, and perhaps burning a blue light for their benefit, but never stopping till my torpedo came in contact and my business was made known.

I had every thing ready for the experiment, and only waited for a suitable night, when orders came requiring me to take all the men from the “North Carolina” by railroad to Charleston immediately. An attack on that city was expected. I lost no time in obeying the order, and was informed, on arriving there, that “my men were required to reinforce the crews of the gun-boats, but there was nothing in particular for me to do.” In a few days, however, Mr. Theodore Stoney informed me that the little cigar boat built at his expense had been brought down by railroad, and [230] that if I could do anything with her he would place her at my disposal. On examination I determined to make a trial. She was yet in an unfinished state. Assistant-Engineer J. H. Toombs volunteered his services, and all the necessary machinery was soon fitted and got in working order, while Major Frank Lee gave me his zealous aid in fitting on a torpedo. James Stuart (alias Sullivan) volunteered to go as fireman, and afterwards the services of J. W. Cannon as pilot were secured. The boat was ballasted so as to float deeply in the water, and all above painted the most invisible color, (bluish.) The torpedo was made of copper, containing about one hundred pounds of rifle powder, and provided with four sensitive tubes of lead, containing explosive mixture; and this was carried by means of a hollow iron shaft projecting about fourteen feet ahead of the boat, and six or seven feet below the surface. I had also an armament on deck of four double-barrel shot guns, and as many navy revolvers; also, four cork life-preservers had been thrown on board, and made us feel safe.

Having tried the speed of my boat, and found it satisfactory, (six or seven knots an hour,) I got a necessary order from Commodore Tucker to attack the enemy at discretion, and also one from General Beauregard. And. now came an order from Richmond, that I should proceed immediately back to rejoin the “North Carolina,” at Wilmington. This was too much! I never obeyed that order, but left Commodore Tucker to make my excuses to the Navy Department.

The 5th of October, 1863, a little after dark, we left Charleston wharf, and proceeded with the ebb-tide down the harbor.

A light north wind was blowing, and the night was slightly hazy, but star-light, and the water was smooth. I desired to make the attack about the turn of the tide, and this ought to have been just after nine o'clock, but the north wind made it run out a little longer.

We passed Fort Sumter and beyond the line of picket-boats without being discovered. Silently steaming along just inside the bar, I had a good opportunity to reconnoitre the whole fleet of the enemy at anchor between me and the camp-fires on Morris' Island.

Perhaps I was mistaken, but it did occur to me that if we had then, instead of only one, just ten or twelve torpedoes, to make a simultaneous attack on all the iron-clads, and this quickly followed [231] by the egress of our rams, not only might this grand fleet have been destroyed, but the 20,000 troops on Morris' Island been left at our mercy. Quietly manouvreing and observing the enemy, I was half an hour more waiting on time and tide. The music of drum and fife had just ceased, and the nine o'clock gun had been fired from the admiral's ship, as a signal for all unnecessary lights to be extinguished and for the men not on watch to retire for sleep. I thought the proper time for attack had arrived.

The admiral's ship, “New Ironsides,” (the most powerful vessel in the world,) lay in the midst of the fleet, her starboard-side presented to my view. I determined to pay her the highest compliment. I had been informed, through prisoners lately captured from the fleet, that they were expecting an attack from torpedo boats, and were prepared for it. I could, therefore, hardly expect to accomplish my object without encountering some danger from riflemen, and perhaps a discharge of grape or canisier from the howitzers. My guns were loaded with buck-shot. I knew that if the officer of the deck could be disabled to begin with, it would cause them some confusion and increase our chance for escape, so I determined that if the occasion offered, I would commence by firing the first shot. Accordingly, having on a full head of steam, I took charge of the helm, it being so arranged that I could sit on deck and work the wheel with my feet. Then directing the engineer and fireman to keep below and give me all the speed possible, I gave a double-barrel gun to the pilot, with instructions not to fire until I should do so, and steered directly for the moniter. I intended to strike her just under the gang-way, but the tide still running out, carried us to a point nearer the quarter. Thus we rapidly approached the enemy. When within about 300 yards of her a sentinel hailed us: Boat ahoy! boat ahoy! repeating the hail several times very rapidly. We were coming towards them with all speed, and I made no answer, but cocked both barrels of my gun. The officer of the deck next made his appearance, and loudly demanded “What boat is that?” Being now within forty yards of the ship, and plenty of headway to carry us on, I thought it about time the fight should commence, and fired my gun. The officer of the deck fell back mortally wounded (poor fellow), and I ordered the engine stopped. The next moment the torpedo struck the vessel and exploded. What amount of direct damage the [232] enemy received I will not attempt to say.1 My little boat plunged violently, and a large body of water which had been thrown up descended upon her deck, and down the smoke-stack and hatchway.

I immediately gave orders to reverse the engine and back off. Mr. Toombs informed me then that the fires were put out, and something had become jammed in the machinery so that it would not move. What could be done in this situation? In the mean time, the enemy recovering from the shock, beat to quarters, and general alarm spread through the fleet. I told my men I thought our only chance to escape was by swimming, and I think I told Mr. Toombs to cut the water-pipes and let the boat sink.

Then taking one of the cork floats, I got into the water and swam off as fast as I could.

The enemy, in no amiable mood, poured down upon the bubbling water a hail-storm of rifle and pistol shots from the deck of the Ironsides, and from the nearest monitor. Sometimes they struck very close to my head, but swimming for life, I soon disappeared from their sight, and found myself all alone in the water. I hoped that, with the assistance of flood-tide, I might be able to reach Fort Sumter, but a north wind was against me, and after I had been in the water more than an hour, I became numb with cold, and was nearly exhausted. Just then the boat of a transport schooner picked me up, and found, to their surprise, that they had captured a rebel.

The captain of this schooner made me as comfortable as possible that night with whiskey and blankets, for which I sincerely thanked him. I was handed over next morning to the mercy of Admiral Dahlgren. He ordered me to be transferred to the guard-ship “Ottowa,” lying outside the rest of the fleet. Upon reaching the quarter-deck of this vessel, 1 was met and recognized by her Commander, William D. Whiting. He was an honorable gentleman and high-toned officer. I was informed that his orders were to have me put in irons, and if obstreperous, in double irons. I smiled, and told him his duty was to obey orders, and mine to adapt myself to circumstances — I could see no occasion to be obstreperous. [233] I think Captain Whiting felt mortified at being obliged thus to treat an old brother officer, whom he knew could only have been actuated by a sense of patriotic duty in making the attack which caused him to fall into his power as a prisonrr of war. At any rate, he proceeded immediately to see the admiral, and upon his return I was released, on giving my parole not to attempt an escape from the vessel. His kindness, and the gentlemanly courtesy with which I was treated by other officers of the old navy, I shall ever remember most gratefully. I learned that my fireman had been found hanging on to the rudder-chains of the Ironsides and taken on board. 2 I had every reason to believe that the other two, Mr. Toombs and Mr. Cannon, had been shot or drowned, until I heard of their safe arrival in Charleston.

I was retained as a prisoner in Fort La Fayette and Fort Warren for more than a year, and learned while there that I had been promoted for what was called “gallant and meritorious service.”

What all the consequences of this torpedo attack upon the enemy were is not for me to say. It certainly awakened them to a sense of the dangers to which they had been exposed, and caused them to apprehend far greater difficulties and dangers than really existed should they attempt to enter the harbor with their fleet. tIt may have prevented Admiral Dahlgren from carrying out the intention he is said to have had of going in with twelve iron-clads on the arrival of his double-turreted monitor to destroy the city by a cross-fire from the two rivers. It certainly caused them to take many precautionary measures for protecting their vessels which had never before been thought of. Possibly it shook the nerve of a brave admiral and deprived him of the glory of laying low the city of Charleston. It was said by officers of the navy that the iron-clad vessels of that fleet were immediately enveloped like women in hoop-skirt petticoats of netting, to lay in idle admiration of [234] themselves for many months. The Ironsides went into dry-dock for repairs.

The attack also suggested to officers of the United States Navy that this was a game which both sides could play at, and Lieutenant Cushing bravely availed himself of it. I congratulate him for the eclat and promotion he obtained thereby. I do not remember the date of my exchange again as a prisoner of war, but it was only in time to witness the painful agonies and downfall of an exhausted people, and the surrender of a hopeless cause.

I was authorized to equip and command any number of torpedo boats, but it was now too late. I made efforts to do what I could at Charleston, till it became necessary to abandon that city. I then commanded the iron-clad “Fredericksburg” on James river, until ordered by Admiral Semmes to burn and blow her up when Richmond was evacuated. Leaving Richmond with the admiral, we now organized the First Naval Artillery Brigade, and I was in command of a regiment of sailors when informed that our noble old General, R. E. Lee, had capitulated. Our struggle was ended.

All that is now passed, and our duty remains to meet the necessities of the future. After the close of the war I was offered a command and high rank under a foreign flag. I declined the compliment and recommended my gallant old commander, Commodore J. R. Tucker, as one more worthy and competent than myself to fill a high position.

In conclusion let me say: I have never regretted that I acted in accordance with what appeared to be my duty. I was actuated by no motive of self-interest, and never entertained a feeling of hatred or personal enmity against those who were my honorable opponents. I have asked for no pardon, which might imply an acknowledgment that I had been either traitor or rebel. No amnesty has been extended to me.

Bear in mind, loyal reader, these facts: I had been absent nearly two years. No one could have lamented the beginning of the war more than I did. It had been in progress nearly six months when I came home from sea. I had taken no part in it, when on my arrival in Philadelphia, only because I could not truthfully swear that I felt no human sympathy for my own family and for the friends of my childhood, and that I was willing to shed their blood and desolate their homes; and because I would not take an [235] oath that would have been a lie, I was denounced as a traitor, thrown into prison for. eight months, and then exchanged as a prisoner of war.

I may have been a fool. I supposed or believed that the people of the South would never be conquered. I hardly hoped to live through the war. Though I had no intention of throwing my life away, I was willing to sacrifice it, if necessary, for the interests of a cause I believed to be just. I was more regardless of my own interests and those of my family than I should have been. A large portion even of my paper salary was never drawn by me. Nearly every thing I had in the world was lost-even the commission I had received for gallant and meritorious conduct, and I possess not even a token of. esteem from those for whom I fought to leave, when I die, to those I love.

But the time has arrived when I think it my duty to grant pardon to the government for all the injustice and injury I have received. I sincerely hope that harmony and prosperity may yet be restored to the United States of America.

1 Pilot Cannon states that the injuries were of so serious a nature that extra steam-pumps were found necessary to keep her afloat — that she was towed by tug-boats to Port Royal, where they lightened and tried to repair her, but without success; thence she was towed to Philadelphia, and finally sold for old iron . H. H. Davis, a northern writer, makes a statement which entirely contradicts the above.-Y. S.

2 Pilot Cannon states, that not being able to swim, when the fires were extinguished he jumped overboard and clung to the unexposed side of the “David.” The boat gradually drifted away from the “Ironsides,” without being materially injured, though a bull's-eye lantern afforded a mark to the Federal cannoneers. After drifting about a quarter of a mile, Pilot C. got aboard. Seeing something in the water he hailed, and heard, to his surprise, a reply from Engineer Toombs. Toombs got aboard, caught up the fires with the light from the lantern, got up steam, and started for the city. They were fired at several times.while passing the Federal monitors and picket-boats, but escaped them unhurt, and reached Atlantic wharf at 12P. M.--Y. S. t Pilot Cannon states, that after the war, while acting as pilot for the United States fleet, Admiral Dahlgren asserted that such was his intention, and that the attack on the Ironsides prevented its execution.-Y. S.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
October 5th, 1863 AD (1)
1862 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: