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Chapter 27:

  • Naval affairs
  • -- organization of the Navy Department -- experiments for floating batteries and rams -- the Norfolk Navy yard -- abandonment by the enemy -- the Merrimac frigate made an ironclad -- fleet of the enemy -- Captain Buchanan -- Resolves to attack the enemy -- Sinks the Cumberland -- Burns the Congress -- Executive officer Jones takes command -- appearance of the Monitor -- the Virginia attacks her -- cheers of English man-of-war -- importance of the Navy yard -- order of General Johnston to evacuate -- stores saved -- the Virginia burned -- harbor defenses at Wilmington -- harbor defenses at Charleston -- Fights in the harbor -- defenses of Savannah -- Mobile harbor and capture of its defenses -- sub-terra shells placed in James River; used in Charleston harbor; in Roanoke River; in Mobile harbor -- the Tecumseh, how destroyed.

The organization of the Navy Department comprised under its general supervision a bureau of orders and details, one of ordnance and hydrography, one of provisions and clothing, and one of medicine and surgery. The grades of officers consisted of admirals, captains, commanders, surgeons, lieutenants, and midshipmen. Of the officers at the close of the first year there were one admiral, twelve captains, thirty commanders, and one hundred twelve first and second lieutenants. All of the principal officers had belonged to the United States Navy. Owing to the limited number of vessels afloat, many of these officers were employed on shore duties.

The vessels of the navy may be reduced to two classes: those intended for river and harbor defense, as ironclads, rams, floating batteries, or river steamboats transformed into gunboats; sea-going steamers of moderate size, some of them of great speed, but not having been designed for war purposes, were all unsuited for a powerful armament, and could not be expected to contend successfully with ships of war.

Early in 1861 discussions and experiments were instituted by the Navy Department to determine how floating batteries and naval rams could be best constructed and protected by iron plates. Many persons had submitted plans, according to which cotton bales might be effectively used as a shield against shot. Our deficiency in iron, and also in rolling-mills to prepare it into plates, caused cotton to be sometimes so employed; [164] though the experiments had satisfied the Navy Department that, instead of cotton being rendered impenetrable by compression, it was really less so than in looser condition, and that iron must needs be of great thickness to resist the direct impact of heavy shot at short ranges. An officer of the navy, as skillful in ordnance as he was in seamanship, and endowed with high capacity for the investigation of new problems— Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones—had conducted many of these experiments, and, as will be seen hereafter, made efficient use of his knowledge both in construction and in battle.

After Virginia had seceded from the United States, but before she had acceded to the Confederate States—on April 19, 1861—General Taliaferro, in command of Virginia forces, arrived at Norfolk. Commodore McCauley, United States Navy, and commandant of the navy yard, held a conference with General Taliaferro, the result of which was ‘that none of the vessels should be removed, not a shot fired except in selfdefense.’ The excitement which had existed in the town was quieted by the announcement of this arrangement; it was soon ascertained that the Germantown and Merrimac, frigates in the port, had been scuttled, and the former otherwise injured. About midnight, as elsewhere stated, a fire was started in the navy yard, which continued to increase, involving the destruction of the ship houses, a ship of the line, and the unfinished frame of another; several frigates, in addition to those mentioned, had been scuttled and sunk; other property destroyed, to an amount estimated at several million dollars. The Pawnee, which arrived on the 19th, had been kept under steam, and, taking the Cumberland in tow, retired down the harbor, freighted with a great portion of valuable munitions and the commodore and other officers of the yard.1 In the haste and secrecy of the conflagration, a large amount of material remained uninjured. The Merrimac, a beautiful frigate in the yard for repairs, was raised by the Virginians, and the work immediately commenced, on a plan devised by Lieutenant Brooke, Confederate States Navy, to convert her hull, with such means as were available, into an ironclad vessel. Two-inch plates were prepared, and she was covered with a double-inclined roof of four inches thickness. This armor, though not sufficiently thick to resist direct shot, sufficed to protect against a glancing ball, and was as heavy as was consistent with the handling of the ship. The shield was defective in not covering the sides sufficiently below the water line, and the prow was unfortunately made of cast iron; when all the difficulties by which we were surrounded are remembered, [165] and the service rendered by this floating battery considered, the only wonder must be that so much was so well done under the circumstances.

Her armament consisted of ten guns, four single-banded Brooke rifles, and six nine-inch Dahlgren shell-guns. Two of the rifles, bow and stern pivots, were seven inch; the other two were six and four-tenths inch, one on each broadside. The nine-inch gun on each side, nearest the furnaces, was fitted for firing hot shot. The work of construction was prosecuted with all haste, the armament and crew were put on board, and the vessel started on her trial trip as soon as the workmen were discharged. She was our first ironclad; her model was an experiment, and many doubted its success. Her commander, Captain (afterward Admiral) Franklin Buchanan, with the wisdom of age and experience of sea service from his boyhood, combined the daring and enterprise of youth, and with him was Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, who had been specially in charge of the battery, and otherwise thoroughly acquainted with the ship. His high qualifications as an ordnance officer were well known in the ‘old navy,’ and he was soon to exhibit a like ability as a seaman in battle.

Now the first Confederate ironclad was afloat, the Stars and Bars were given to the breeze, and she was rechristened the Virginia. She was joined by the Patrick Henry, six guns, Commander John R. Tucker; the Jamestown, two guns, Lieutenant-commanding John N. Barney; the Beaufort, one gun, Lieutenant-commanding W. H. Parker; the Raleigh, one gun, Lieutenant-commanding J. W. Alexander; the Teaser, one gun, Lieutenant-commanding W. A. Webb.

The enemy's fleet in Hampton Roads consisted of the Cumberland, twenty-four guns; Congress, fifty guns; St. Lawrence, fifty guns; steam frigates Minnesota and Roanoke, forty guns each. The relative force was as twenty-one guns to two hundred four, not counting the small steamers of the enemy, though they had heavier armament than the small vessels of our fleet, which have been enumerated. The Cumberland and the Congress lay off Newport News; the other vessels were anchored about nine miles eastward, near Fortress Monroe. Strong shore batteries and several small steamers, armed with heavy rifled guns, protected the frigates Cumberland and Congress.

Buchanan no doubt felt the inspiration of a sailor when his vessel bears him from the land, and the excitement of a hero at the prospect of battle, and thus we may understand why the trial trip was at once converted into a determined attack upon the enemy. After the plan of the Virginia had been decided upon, the work of her construction was [166] pushed with all possible haste. Her armament was on board, and she was taken out of the dock while the workmen were still employed upon her—indeed, the last of them were put ashore after she was started on her first experimental trip. Few men, conscious as Flag Officer Buchanan was of the defects of his vessel, would have dared such unequal conflict. Slowly—about five knots an hour—he steamed down to the roads. The Cumberland and the Congress, seeing the Virginia approach, prepared for action, and from the flagship Roanoke signals were given to the Minnesota and St. Lawrence to advance. The Cumberland had swung so as to give her full broadside to the Virginia, which silently and without any exhibition of her crew, moved steadily forward. The shot from the Cumberland fell thick upon her plated roof, but rebounded harmless as hailstones. At last the prow of the Virginia struck the Cumberland just forward of her starboard forechains. A dull, heavy thud was heard, but so little force was given to the Virginia that the engineer hesitated about backing her. It was soon seen, however, that a gaping breach had been made in the Cumberland, and that the sea was rushing madly in. She reeled, and while the waves engulfed her, her crew gallantly stood to their guns and vainly continued their fire. She went down in nine fathoms of water, and with at least one hundred of her gallant crew, her pennant still flying from her masthead.

The Virginia then ran upstream a short distance, in order to turn and have sufficient space to get headway, and come down on the Congress. The enemy, supposing that she had retired at the sight of the vessels approaching to attack her, cheered loudly, both ashore and afloat. But when she turned to descend upon the Congress, as she had on the Cumberland, the Congress slipped her cables and ran ashore, bows on. The Virginia took position as near as the depth of water would permit, and opened upon her a raking fire. The Minnesota was fast aground about one mile and a half below. The Roanoke and the St. Lawrence retired toward the fort. The shore batteries kept up their fire on the Virginia, as did also the Minnesota at long range, and quite ineffectually. The Congress, being aground, could but feebly reply. Several of our small vessels came up and joined the Virginia, and the combined fire was fearfully destructive to the Congress. Her commander was killed, and soon her colors were struck, and the white flag appeared both at the main and spanker gaff. The Beaufort, Lieutenant-commanding W. H. Parker, and the Raleigh, Lieutenant-commanding J. W. Alexander, tugs which had accompanied the Virginia, were ordered to the Congress to receive the surrender. The flag of the ship and the sword of its commander were [167] delivered to Lieutenant Parker, by whom they were subsequently sent to the Navy Department at Richmond. Other officers delivered their swords in token of surrender, and entreated that they might return to assist in getting their wounded out of the ship. The permission was granted to the officers, and they then took advantage of the clemency shown them to make their escape. In the meantime the shore batteries fired upon the tugs, and compelled them to retire. By this fire five of their own men, our prisoners, were wounded. Flag Officer Buchanan had stopped the firing upon the Congress when she struck her flag, and ran up the white flag, as heretofore described. Lieutenant Jones in his official report, referring to the Congress, writes: ‘But she fired upon us with the white flag flying, wounding Lieutenant Minor and several of our men. We again opened fire upon her, and she is now in flames.’ The crew of the Congress escaped, as did that of the Cumberland, by boats, or by swimming, and generously our men abstained from firing on them while so exposed. Flag Officer Buchanan was wounded by a rifle ball, and had to be carried below. His intrepid conduct won the admiration of all. The executive and ordnance officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, succeeded to the command. It was now so near night and the change of the tide that nothing further could be attempted on that day. The Virginia, with the smaller vessels attending her, withdrew and anchored off Sewell's Point. She had sunk the Cumberland, left the Congress on fire, had blown up a transport steamer, sunk one schooner, and had captured another. Casualties reported by Lieutenant Jones were two killed and eight wounded. The prow of the Virginia was somewhat damaged, her anchor and all her flagstaffs were shot away, and her smokestack and steampipe were riddled; otherwise the vessel was uninjured and, as will be seen, was ready for action on the next morning. The prisoners and wounded were immediately sent up to the hospital at Norfolk.

During the night the Monitor, an ironclad turret-steamer, of an entirely new model, came in and anchored near the Minnesota. Like our Virginia she was an invention, and her merits and demerits were to be tested in the crucible of war. She was of light draught, and very little save for the revolving turret was visible above the water, was readily handled, and had good speed; also like the Virginia, she was not supposed by nautical men to be capable of braving rough weather at sea.

The Virginia was the hull of a frigate, modified into an ironclad vessel. She was only suited to smooth water, and it had not been practicable to obtain for her such engines as would have given her the requisite [168] speed. Her draught, twenty-two feet, was too great for the shoal water in the roads, and the apprehension which was excited lest she should go up to Washington might have been allayed by a knowledge of the deep water necessary to float her. Her great length, depth, and want of power caused difficulty in handling to be anticipated. In many respects she was an experiment, and, had we possessed the means to build a new vessel, no doubt a better model could have been devised. Commander Brooke, who united much science to great ingenuity, was not entirely free in the exercise of either. Our means restricted us to making the best of that which chance had given us.

In the morning the Virginia, with the Patrick Henry, the Jamestown, and the three little tugs, jestingly called the ‘mosquito fleet,’ returned to the scene of the previous day's combat, and to the completion of the work, the destruction of the Minnesota, which had, the evening before, been interrupted by the change of tide and the coming of night. The Monitor, which had come in during the previous night, and had been seen by the light of the burning Congress, opened fire on the Virginia when about the third of a mile distant. The Virginia sought to close with her, but the greater speed of the Monitor and the celerity with which she was handled made this impracticable. The ships passed and repassed very near each other, and frequently the Virginia delivered her broadside at close quarters, but with no perceptible effect. The Monitor fired rapidly from her revolving turret, but not with such aim as to strike successively in the same place, and the armor of the Virginia therefore remained unbroken. Lieutenant-commanding Catesby Jones, to whom Buchanan had entrusted the ship when he was removed to the hospital, soon discovered that the Monitor was invulnerable to his shells. He had a few solid shot, which were intended only to be fired from the nine-inch guns as hot shot, and therefore had necessarily so much windage that they would be ineffective against the shield of the Monitor. He therefore determined to run her down, and got all the headway he could obtain for that purpose, but the speed was so small that it merely pushed her out of her way. It was then decided to board her, and all hands were piped for that object. Then the Monitor slipped away on to shoal water where the Virginia could not approach her, and Commander Jones, after waiting a due time, and giving the usual signals of invitation to combat, without receiving any manifestation on the part of the Monitor of an intention to return to deep water, withdrew to the navy yard.

In the two days of conflict our only casualties were from the Cumberland as she went down valiantly fighting to the last, from the men [169] on shore when the tugs went to the Congress to receive her surrender, or from the perfidious fire from the Congress while her white flags were flying. None were killed or wounded in the fight with the Monitor.

As this was the first combat between two ironclad vessels, it attracted great attention and provoked much speculation. Some assumed that wooden ships were henceforth to be of no use, and much has been done by the addition of armor to protect sea-going vessels; but certainly neither of the two which provoked the speculation could be regarded as seaworthy, or suited to other than harbor defense.

A new prow was put on the Virginia, she was furnished with bolts and solid shot, and the slight repairs needed were promptly made. The distinguished veteran, Commodore Josiah Tatnall, was assigned to the command of the Virginia, vice Admiral Buchanan, who was temporarily disabled. The Virginia, as far as possible, was prepared for battle and cruise in the Roads, and, on April 11th, Commodore Tatnall moved down to invite the Monitor to combat. But her officers kept the Monitor close to the shore, with her steam up, and under the guns of Fortress Monroe. To provoke her to come out, the little Jamestown was sent in and pluckily captured many prizes, but the Monitor lay safe in the shoal water under the guns of the formidable fortress. An English man-of-war which was lying in the channel witnessed this effort to draw the Monitor out into deep water in defense of her weaker countrymen, and, as Barney on the Jamestown passed with his prizes, cut out in full view of the enemy's fleet, the Englishmen, with their national admiration of genuine ‘game,’ as a spectator described it, ‘unable to restrain their generous impulses, from the captain to the side-boy, cheered our gunboat to the very echo.’ I quote further from the same witness: ‘Early in May, a magnificent Federal fleet, the Virginia being concealed behind the land, had ventured across the channel, and some of them, expressly fitted to destroy our ship, were furiously bombarding our batteries at Sewell's Point. Dashing down comes old Tatnall on the instant, as light stepping and blithe as a boy. . . . But the Virginia no sooner draws into range than the whole fleet, like a flushed covey of birds, flutters off into shoal water and under the guns of the forts’—where they remained. After some delay, and there being no prospect of active service, the commodore ordered the executive officer to fire a gun to windward and take the ship back to her buoy. Here, ready for service, waiting for an enemy to engage her, but never having the opportunity, she remained until the tenth of the ensuing month.

The Norfolk Navy Yard, notwithstanding the injury done to it by [170] conflagration, was yet the most available and equipped yard in the Confederacy. A land force under General Huger had been placed there for its protection, and defensive works had also been constructed with a view to holding it as well for naval construction and repair as for its strategic importance in connection with the defense of the capital, Richmond. On the opposite side of the lower James, on the Peninsula between the James and York Rivers, we occupied an entrenched position of much natural strength. The two positions, Norfolk and the Peninsula, were necessary to each other, and the command of the channel between them essential to both. As long as the Virginia closed the entrance to the James River, and the entrenchment on the Peninsula was held, it was deemed possible to keep possession of Norfolk.

On May 1st General Johnston, commanding on the Peninsula, having decided to retreat, sent an order to General Huger to evacuate Norfolk. The Secretary of War, General Randolph, having arrived just at that time in Norfolk, assumed the authority of postponing the execution of the order ‘until he [General Huger] could remove such stores, munitions, and arms as could be carried off.’ The Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Mallory, was there also, and gave like instructions to the commandant of the yard. To the system and energy with which General Huger conducted the removal of heavy guns, machinery, stores, and munitions, we were greatly indebted in our future operations both of construction and defense. A week was thus employed in the removal of machinery, etc., and the enemy, occupied with the retreating army on the Peninsula, did not cross the James River above, either to interrupt the transportation or to obstruct the retreat of the garrisons of the forts at Norfolk and its surroundings. When our army had been withdrawn from the Peninsula, and Norfolk had been evacuated, and the James River did not furnish depth of channel which would suffice for the Virginia to ascend it more than a few miles, her mission was ended. It is not surprising that her brilliant career created a great desire to preserve her, and that it was contemplated to lighten her and thus try to take her up the river, but the pilots declared this to be impracticable, and the court which subsequently investigated the matter sustained their opinion that ‘the only alternative was then and there to abandon and burn the ship.’ The statement of Commodore Tatnall shows that the Virginia could not have been taken seaward, and that such was the opinion of her first commander. He said: ‘I consulted Commodore Buchanan on the character and power of the ship. He expressed the distinct opinion that she was unseaworthy, that she was not sufficiently buoyant, and that in a [171] common sea she would founder.’ She could not, it therefore appears, ascend the river, was unseaworthy, and was uncovered by the retreat of the troops with whom she had cooperated. So, on May 10th, the Virginia was taken to Craney Island, one mile above, and there her crew were landed; they fell in and formed on the beach, and, in the language of the eye-witness heretofore quoted, ‘then and there, on the very field of her fame, within sight of the Cumberland's top-gallant-masts, all awash, within sight of that magnificent fleet still cowering on the shoal, with her laurels all fresh and green, we hauled down her drooping colors, and, with mingled pride and grief, we gave her to the flames.’2

At Wilmington, North Carolina, the Southwest bar was defended by Fort Caswell, and New Inlet bar by Fort Fisher. The naval defenses consisted of two ironclads, the North Carolina and the Raleigh. The former could not cross any of the bars in consequence of her draught of water. Her steam-power hardly gave propulsion. She sank during the war off Smithville. The Raleigh's services were almost valueless in consequence of her deep draught and her feeble steam-power. She made one futile trip out of New Inlet, and after a few hours attempted to return, but was wrecked upon the bar.

The brave and invincible defense of Fort Sumter gave to the city of Charleston, South Carolina, additional lustre. For four years that fort, located in its harbor, defied the army and navy of the United States. When the city was about to be abandoned to the army of General Sherman, the forts defending the harbor were embraced in General Hardee's plan of evacuation. The gallant commander of Fort Sumter, Colonel Stephen Elliott, Jr., with unyielding fortitude refused to be relieved, after being under incessant bombardment day and night for weeks. It was supposed he must be exhausted, and he was invited to withdraw for rest, but on receiving the general order of retreat he assembled his brave force on the rugged and shell-crushed parade-ground, read his instructions, and, in a voice that trembled with emotion, addressed his men in the glowing language of patriotism and unswerving devotion to the Confederate cause. The cheers, which responded to the utterances of their colonel, came from manly and chivalric throats. Yielding to the inevitable, they claimed for the Stars and Bars a salute of one hundred guns. As it was fired from Sumter, it was reechoed by all the Confederate batteries, and startled the outside blockaders with the idea that a great victory had been won by the Confederacy. [172]

The naval force of the Confederacy in Charleston harbor consisted of three ironclads. Their steam-power was totally inadequate for the effective use of the vessels. In fact, when the wind and tide were moving in the same direction, it was impossible for the vessels to advance against them, light though the wind might be. Under such circumstances it was necessary to come to an anchor. On one occasion the ironclads Palmetto State and Chicora ran out of Charleston harbor under favorable circumstances. The Palmetto State assaulted the Mercideta, commanded by Captain Stellwagen, who unconditionally surrendered. But the ironclad being under orders to follow her consort in chase of the enemy, and having no boats to which to transfer her prisoners, the parole of the officers and men was accepted, with their promise to observe the same until its return. The surrender was accepted, and an honest parole was the consideration for not being sunk on the spot. Captain Stellwagen abided but a short time, when, getting up steam, he broke his plighted word and ran off with the captured vessel. The deficiency of speed on the part of the Confederate ironclads frustrated their efforts to relieve the city of Charleston from continued blockade.

The harbor defenses of Savannah were entrusted to Commodore Tatnall, who defended the approach to the city with a small steamer of one gun, an inefficient floating battery and ironclad, which had been constructed from a blockade runner. Several attempts were made to attack the enemy's vessels with the ironclad, but these were frustrated by the delay in opening a passage through the obstructions in the river when tide and opportunity were offered. Her draught was too great for the depth of water, except at high tides, and these were at long intervals. The ironclad was armed with a battery of four guns, two seven-inch and two six-inch. Her force consisted of some twenty-one officers and twenty-four men, when she was fully furnished. Another vessel was under construction and nearly completed, and Commodore Tatnall, notwithstanding his well-known combative instincts, was understood to be unwilling to send the Atlanta alone against the enemy's blockading vessels. Lieutenant Webb, who had been lately placed in command of the Atlanta, took her to Warsaw Sound to deliver battle singly to the two ironclads Weehawken and Nahant, which awaited her approach. The Atlanta got twice aground—the second time, inextricably so. In this situation she was attacked and, though hopelessly, was bravely defended but was finally forced to surrender.

Mobile harbor was thought to be adequately provided for, as torpedoes obstructed the approach, and Forts Morgan and Gaines commanded the [173] entrance, aided by the improvised fleet of Admiral Buchanan, which consisted of the wooden gunboats Morgan and Gaines, each carrying six guns, and Selma, with four guns, and the ram Tennessee of six guns —in all, twenty-two guns and four hundred seventy men. On August 4, 1864, Fort Gaines was assaulted by the United States force from the sea side of the beach. The resistance made was feeble, and the fort soon surrendered. On the next day Admiral Farragut stood into the bay with a force consisting of four monitors, or ironclads, and fourteen steamers, carrying one hundred ninety-nine guns and twenty-seven hundred men. One ironclad was sunk by a torpedo. Admiral Buchanan advanced to meet this force, and sought to run into the larger vessels with the Tennessee, but they avoided him by their superior speed. Meanwhile the gunboats became closely engaged with the enemy, but were soon dispersed by his overwhelming force. The Tennessee again stood for the enemy and renewed the attack with the hope of sinking some of them with her prow, but she was again foiled by their superior speed in avoiding her. The engagement with the whole fleet soon became general, and lasted an hour. Frequently the Tennessee was surrounded by the enemy, and all her guns were in action almost at the same moment. Four of their heaviest vessels ran into her under full steam, with the purpose of sinking her. While surrounded by six of these heavy vessels which were suffering fearfully from her heavy battery, the steering gear of the Tennessee was shot away, and her ability to manoeuvre was completely destroyed, leaving the formidable Confederate entirely at the disposal of the enemy. This misfortune, it was believed, saved the greater part of Farragut's fleet. Further resistance becoming unavailable, the wounded admiral was under the painful necessity of ordering a surrender. His little fleet became a prey to the enemy, except the Morgan, which made good her escape to Mobile.

This unequal contest was decidedly creditable to the Confederacy. The entire loss of the enemy, most of which is ascribed to the Tennessee, amounted to quite three hundred in killed and wounded, exclusive of one hundred lost on the sunken ironclad, making a number almost as large as the entire Confederate force. On August 22d Fort Morgan was bombarded from the land, also by ironclads at sea, and by the fleet inside. Thus Forts Powel, Morgan, and Gaines shared the fate of the Confederate fleet, and the enemy became masters of the bay. On this, as on other occasions, the want of engines of sufficient power constituted a main obstacle to the success which the gallantry and skill of the seamen so richly deserved. [174]

The system of torpedoes adopted by us was probably more effective than any other means of naval defense. The destructiveness of these little weapons had long been known, but no successful modes for their application of the destruction of the most powerful vessels of war and ironclads had been devised. It remained for the skill and ingenuity of our officers to bring the use of this terrible instrument to perfection. The success of their efforts is very frankly stated by one of the most distinguished of the enemy's commanders—Admiral Porter.3 He says:

Most of the Southern seaports fell into our possession with comparative facility; and the difficulty of capturing Charleston, Savannah, Wilmington, and Mobile was in a measure owing to the fact that the approaches to these places were filled with various kinds of torpedoes, laid in groups, and fired by electricity. The introduction of this means of defense on the side of the Confederates was for a time a severe check to our naval forces, for the commanders of squadrons felt it their duty to be careful when dealing with an element of warfare of which they knew so little, and the character and disposition of which it was so difficult to discover. In this system of defense, therefore, the enemy found their greatest security; and, notwithstanding all the efforts of Du Pont and Dahlgren, Charleston, Wilmington, and Savannah remained closed to our forces until near the close of the war.

In 1862, while General McClellan was in command of the enemy's forces below Richmond, it was observed that they had more than a hundred vessels in the James River, as if they were about to make an advance by that way upon the city. This led to an order placing General G. J. Rains in charge of the submarine defenses; on the James River opposite Drewry's Bluff the first submarine torpedo was made. The secret of all his future success consisted in the sensitive primer, which is unrivaled by any other means to explode torpedoes or sub-terra shells.

The torpedoes were made of the most ordinary material generally, such as beer barrels fixed with conical heads, coated within and without with rosin dissolved in coal tar; some were made of cast iron, copper, or tin; glass demijohns were also used. There were three essentials to success: the sensitive fuse-primer, a charge of sixty pounds of gunpowder, and actual contact between the torpedo and the bottom of the vessel.

There were one hundred twenty-three of these torpedoes placed in Charleston harbor and Stono River. It was blockaded by thirteen large ships and ironclads, with six or seven storeships, and some twenty other vessels. The position of each one was known, and they could be approached within a half-mile, which made it easy to attack, destroy, or disperse them at night by floating torpedoes, connected together by twos by a rope one hundred thirty yards long, buoyed up and stretched [175] across the current by two boats, which were to be dropped in ebbing tide to float down among the vessels. This plan, says General Rains, was opposed by General Gilmer of the engineer corps on the ground that ‘they might float back and destroy our own boat.’ One was sent down to go in the midst of the fleet, and made its mark. An act of devoted daring was here performed by Commander W. T. Glassell, Confederate States Navy, which claims more than a passing notice. While the enemy was slowly contracting his lines around Charleston, his numerous ships of war kept watch-and-ward outside of the harbor. Our few vessels, almost helpless by their defective engines, could effect little against their powerful opponents. The New Ironside, the pride of their fleet, lay off Morris's Island. This Glassell resolved to attack with a steam launch carrying a torpedo spar at the bow. With an engineer, pilot, and fireman, he steered for the Ironsides under cover of a hazy night. As he approached, he was hailed by the lookout, and the next moment struck the Ironsides, exploding the torpedo about fifteen feet from the keel. An immense volume of water was thrown up, covering the little boat; pieces of timber falling in the engine, it was rendered entirely unmanageable, so as to deprive Commander Glassell of the means of escape on which he had relied. A rapid fire was concentrated upon him from the deck of the ship, and there remained no chance except to attempt an escape by swimming ashore. To secure liberty to his country he risked and lost his own, and found, for the indignity to which he was subjected, compensation, inasmuch as the famous New Ironsides was long rendered useless to the enemy.

One hundred one torpedoes were planted in Roanoke River, North Carolina, after a flotilla of twelve vessels had started up to capture Fort Branch. The torpedoes destroyed six of the vessels and frustrated the attack.

Every avenue to the outworks or to the city of Mobile was guarded by submarine torpedoes, so that it was impossible for any vessel drawing three feet of water to get within effective cannon range of the defenses. Two ironclads attempted to get near enough to Spanish Fort to take part in the bombardment. They both struck torpedoes, and went to the bottom on Apalachie bar; thenceforward the fleet made no further attempt to encounter the almost certain destruction which they saw awaited any vessel which might attempt to enter the torpedo-guarded waters. But many were sunk when least expecting it. Some went down long after the Confederate forces had evacuated Mobile. The Tecumseh was probably sunk, says Major General D. H. Maury,4 on her own torpedo. While [176] steaming in lead of Farragut's fleet she carried a torpedo affixed to a spar, which projected some twenty feet from her bows; she proposed to use this torpedo against the Tennessee, our only formidable ship; while passing Fort Morgan, however, a shot from that fort cut away the stays by which the torpedo was secured; it then doubled under her and, exploding fairly under the bottom of the ill-fated ship, she careened and sank instantly in ten fathoms of water. Only six or eight of her crew of a hundred or more were saved. The total number of vessels sunk by torpedoes in Mobile Bay was twelve: three ironclads, two tinclads, and seven transports. Fifty-eight vessels were destroyed in Southern waters by torpedoes during the war; these included ironclads and others of no mean celebrity.

1 See Annual Cyclopedia, 1861, p. 536.

2 ‘The Story of the Confederate Ship Virginia,’ by William Norris, Colonel Signal Corps, Confederate Army.

3 See ‘Torpedo Warfare,’ North American Review, September-October, 1878.

4 Southern Historical Society Papers, January, 1877.

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Jamestown (Virginia) (Virginia, United States) (4)
Charleston Harbor (South Carolina, United States) (4)
Fort Morgan (Alabama, United States) (3)
Atlanta (Georgia, United States) (3)
Sewell's Point (Virginia, United States) (2)
Roanoke (United States) (2)
Patrick Henry (Virginia, United States) (2)
North Carolina (North Carolina, United States) (2)
New Inlet (Virginia, United States) (2)
Fortress Monroe (Virginia, United States) (2)
Fort Gaines (Georgia, United States) (2)
Big Lick (Virginia, United States) (2)
Beaufort, S. C. (South Carolina, United States) (2)
Warsaw Sound (Georgia, United States) (1)
Stono River (South Carolina, United States) (1)
Spanish Fort (Alabama, United States) (1)
Selma (Alabama, United States) (1)
Pawnee City (Nebraska, United States) (1)
Morris Island (South Carolina, United States) (1)
Mobile Bay (Alabama, United States) (1)
Hampton Roads (Virginia, United States) (1)
Germantown (Tennessee, United States) (1)
Fort Johnston (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Fort Gaines (Alabama, United States) (1)
Fort Fisher (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Fort Caswell (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Drewry's Bluff (Virginia, United States) (1)
Craney Island (Virginia, United States) (1)
Charleston (South Carolina, United States) (1)

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