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Davis and Davidson. [from the N. Y. sun, Feb. 28, 1897.] a chapter of war history concerning torpedoes. The correspondence that passed between Jefferson Davis and Captain Davidson in relation to the services of the latter officer.

A letter from Captain Hunter Davidson, formerly of the Confederate naval service, dated Villa Rica, Paraguay, December 14, 1896, places at the disposal of the Sun, a fragment of personal experience during the Civil War, which is also, in its way, a contribution of value to the literature relating to that period. It was originally published in the Buenos Ayres Herald, but will of course find an incomparably greater circle of readers in this country.

Captain Davidson entered the navy with Admiral Luce in 1841, and they were together at the Naval Academy, Annapolis, twenty years later, while their friendship was renewed after the Civil War. As to the correspondence with Jefferson Davis, it speaks for itself, although it should be added that Captain Davidson considers that Mr. Davis was somewhat prejudiced against the navy, and that he attributes the particular omission of mention which he discusses, to Mr. Davis' having been informed of his criticism of the latter's [285] prejudices, Mr. Davis' history thus ignoring events discussed in many works on torpedoes.

Buenos Ayres, December 5, 1881.
Hon. Jefferson Davis,
Sir,—I write to ask that you will do an act of justice.

On pages 207-8, 2d vol. of your ‘Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,’ you say: ‘This led to an order placing General G. P. Rains in charge of the submarine defences. * * * The secret of all his future success. * * * The torpedoes were made of the most ordinary material generally, as beer barrels fixed with conical heads. * * * Some were made of cast iron, copper, or tin, and glass demijohns were used. There were three essentials to success, viz: the sensitive fuse primer, a charge of sixty pounds of gunpowder, and actual contact between the torpedo and the bottom of the vessel.’

You have thus gone into detail on the subject of torpedoes, and you continue at some length on the two following pages.

The inference to be drawn from reading your remarks on this subject, in days when you and I have passed away, and when it will be too late to correct errors, is that General Rains commanded the submarine defences of the South.

To him is due the success of this means of warfare. His ‘sensitive fuse primer’ was ‘essential to success.’

As President, you could not be expected to know much of the details of torpedo operations during such a terrible war as that of our second revolution; but whatever may come from your pen will be received by the world as the highest authority, even upon torpedoes.

I know it is too late to correct, unless a second edition be published; but you can answer my letter, and my children will have it to read.

The facts of the case are briefly these, so far as I am personally concerned: In the summer of 1862 I relieved Commander M. F. Maury, in command of the submarine defences around Richmond, by written order of the Secretary of the Navy, the result of which was the organization of a department, the application of an electric battery of convenient size and sufficient strength to the explosion of submarine mines; the construction of a large number of wrought iron mines (at the Tredegar Works), holding 1,800 pounds of gunpowder, which were placed at a depth of seven fathoms; the importation of insulated cable to connect the mines and the electric batteries; the manufacture of the plantinum or quantity fuse, which alone [286] was used in the electrical defences around Richmond, and in those at Charleston.

The department was completely organized before the 1st of January, 1863, both in personnel and material, and occupied nine well-constructed stations on the James River alone, connected by telegraph, and with the office of the Secretary of the Navy.

The effective work of this organization consisted in the partial destruction of the Commodore Barney, a gunboat, and the loss of many lives in August, 1863, and the complete destruction of the Commodore Jones, a large gunboat, and nearly all her crew in May, 1864.

These were the first vessels ever injured in war by any system of electrical defences.

In a long letter from the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Mallory, to me after the war, he says: ‘The destruction of the Commodore Jones, the leading vessel of Admiral Lee's fleet, which was ascending the James river to co-operate with General Butler in the attack on Drewry's Bluff by causing the retirement of that fleet, undoubtedly saved Drewry's Bluff, the key of Richmond.’

Again he says: ‘I always regarded the sub-marine department under your command as equal in importance to any division of the army.’

About the same time I received the most flattering letters from General Robert E. Lee, Admiral Buchanan and others on the subject of my services in command of the submarine defences; and it is with painful surprise I find you have forgotten a long letter of the same nature written me by yourself, as you do not even allude to any act of mine in your work.

In March, 1864, I ran down the James river from Richmond to its mouth in a small steam launch, and attacked the flagship Minnesota with a ‘spar torpedo,’ doing her considerable injury, and returned to Richmond without the slightest loss of any kind.

This was the only instance during our war, and the first, of course, where the ‘spar torpedo’ was used with effect and without the loss of the attacking party, and therefore the only instance to establish the efficiency of the method. On this occasion the Russian sulphuric acid, &c., fuse was used, the same that Captain Glassell used against the ‘ironsides.’

I commanded the submarine defences as a regularly organized electrical system in all its details and requirements until near the end [287] of the war under the orders of the Secretary of the Navy only, and never heard of any of General Rains' work, but in two instances.

Once, when told that he had placed a self-acting ‘torpedo’ in the river, I immediately complained to the Minister of the impropriety of this act, as it would close the river to our vessels and seriously affect the management of my electrical submarine defences. By authority of the Minister I had the ‘torpedo’ dragged for and removed.

The second instance was toward the close of the war, when some of these self-acting torpedoes of General Rains were again placed in the James river, and the Confederate steamer Shultz went down the river loaded with Federal prisoners to be exchanged at ‘City Point.’ Fortunately for the South there was not another pretext for the cry of murder and assassination against it. The Shultz passed the Rains torpedo going down and delivered the prisoners safely, but when returning she struck it and was destroyed.

During the years that I commanded the electrical submarine defences not a friendly skin was broken to my knowledge, and it must be remembered that I had to experiment and bring the system to perfection. I never met or communicated with General Rains or any one attached to his ‘submarine defences’ during the war or since.

If your memory still fails you, there are four well-known officers living who can testify to the exactness of all I have here written, viz: Captains W. H. Parker, J. Pembroke Jones, John M. Brooke, and J. Taylor Wood.

I have therefore to request that as an act of simple justice you will answer this letter and correct the mistakes referred to.

Very truly and respectfully yours,

Sir—Yours of the 5th December (in duplicate) has been received and opens with a call on me to do you justice. If you were surprised at not finding in my book your name mentioned in connection with torpedoes, I was certainly not less so at your arraignment of me as having done you an injustice by the omission.

If you will refer to the preface of the book you will see in the first [288] paragraph the announcement of the purpose for which it was written; and on the seventh page the reason for numerous omissions of events entitled to consideration, as well as the expression of the hope that such omissions would be more than supplied by the reports and contributions of the actors in those events.

The motive which impelled me to an unwonted labor, that of writing a book, was from historical data to vindicate the cause of the Southern people, and to show that their conduct was worthy of their cause; a brief narration of military, naval, and civil affairs was annexed; but the reader was notified that I did not attempt to give an accurate account of all the important transactions of the war. Your letter indicates that you feel aggrieved because of General G. J. Rains being alone mentioned in connection with torpedoes. You infer that it will hereafter be supposed he was awarded the whole credit for that means of defence. I do not see that the text justifies such a conclusion, for on the page to which you refer me—207, Vol. 2—I wrote of torpedoes as a means known but undeveloped, adding: ‘It remained for the skill and ingenuity of our officers to bring the use of this terrible instrument to a perfection.’

At a date long before this perfection had been attained General Rains is named incidentally with the order putting him in charge of submarine defences and the first rudely constructed torpedo at ‘Drewry's Bluff.’

He had previously been distinguished by first using sub-terra shells with sensitive primers. See page 97, Vol. 2.

On page 102, Vol. 2, you may see to what I attributed the repulse of the enemy's fleet at Drewry's Bluff, and that the enemy, like myself, thought it was our artillerists and riflemen who disabled and drove off the fleet.

It seems to me that the remark ‘the secret of all his (Rains') future success consisted in the sensitive primer,’ is by no means a denial that success was obtained by other persons employing different methods. The description of the simple torpedoes employed by him was evidently not intended to apply to the large mines with electrical batteries of others, or to the various forms of torpedo vessels.

To our embarrassed condition I thought and think the small percussion torpedoes were best adapted, because an electric station, unless adequately protected, was liable to capture by a boat's crew, which would render the mine useless, and also because the mine with its battery was expensive, and had on an important occasion proved a failure. [289]

If you read the ‘Southern Historical Papers,’ you must have observed how frequent are the contributions in regard to events of the war, and it has been my ardent wish that all who acted the patriots' part in our conflict, should publish in papers of the Society, a full account of whatever was specially known by them, so that its files should be a reservoir of facts for the use of the future historian.

If I had kown of the success mentioned by you, especially the daring feat of attacking the flagship Minnesota in a steam launch, I should doubtlesa have found space for an act of devotion like that of Glassell, but I should not have given to the narrative the graphic effect, which you, as the actor, can throw into it, nor have shown as you may the efficiency of the spar torpedo.

I hope that many officers that performed good service with torpedoes, may not think themselves treated with injustice because not named by me, but the rather find themselves included in the general notice quoted above, and sympathizing in the desire for a complete record, will do what I could not in contributing full reports of their services.

When I undertook the task of defending our cause, it was with the expectation of hostile criticism from our adversary, and with the readiness to encounter that.

My former letter to you, which you wish me to remember, was written from a desire to serve you and evinced my esteem for you as an officer, and my regard for you as a man.

Regretting the dissatisfied tone of your communication to which this is a reply, I am respectfully,


Sir—Your letter of the 25th of January is at hand. It was not my intention to continue this correspondence beyond your answer to my first letter, but that answer is such an aggravated repetition of the injustice you have done me in your book that I cannot refrain from calling your attention to the repeated historical mistakes you make. You say: ‘On page 102, Vol. 2, you may see to what I attribute the repulse of the enemy's fleet at Drewry's Bluff, and that the enemy, like myself, thought it was our artillerists and riflemen who disabled them and drove off the fleet.’

The attack to which you thus refer occurred in the early part of [290] 1862, before the system of electrical torpedo defences had been perfected by me.

The ‘contemplated attack on Drewry's Bluff’ to which I referred in my first letter to you, and concerning which I quoted from the letter of the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Mallory, occurred in 1864, as clearly shown in my letter and in Mr. Mallory's words, which I here repeat: ‘The destruction of the Commodore Jones, the leading vessel of Admiral Lee's fleet, which was ascending James river to co-operate with General Butler in the attack on Drewry's Bluff, by causing the retirement of that fleet, undoubtedly saved Drewry's Bluff, the key to Richmond.’

How widely different in date and nature are the two circumstances, and yet you, of all persons, confuse them, and to my injury!

On the same page of your letter you express the opinion that percussion torpedoes were best adapted to our (the Confederate) condition, and you add that ‘on an important occasion’ the electrical system ‘proved a failure.’

Thus you ignore the fact I called to your attention in my first letter that percussion torpedoes closed our own channel ways against ourselves and completely destroyed one of our flag of truce boats, just after she had delivered a large number of prisoners of war, and you further make the assertion that electrical torpedoes failed on an important occasion, leaving to your readers the inference that my department made the failure, when I am satisfied you will know the failure was at Charleston and not under my command, and occurred during the absence of the drunken electrician, who afterward found the torpedo could not be exploded at all. Moreover, that he used the uncertain agent of frictional electricity, which never had any part in the regular system of electrical defences.

In fact, in every case of torpedo warfare during our Southern struggle, however insignificant, if not to my credit, such as the use of ‘beer barrels, glass demijohns,’ the exact weight of ‘sixty pounds gunpowder,’ and a ‘sensitive fuse,’ altogether exceptional in its application, and which achieved its triumph in blowing up our own ships; or in the case where a great electrical failure is made, the inference being that I made it, your memory is remarkably retentive; but where the case concerns me—such as compelling the retreat of a large fleet in the James river, and preventing its co-operation with the army at a moment of great danger to our cause, and the complete destruction of the enemy's leading ship by the electrical torpedo defences, devised and perfected under my command, and the [291] first success of that system of torpedo defences, now adopted in its more developed form by the whole world, when your friend General Rains' ‘beer barrel, demijohns and sensitive fuses’ have long passed into oblivion, you persist in being wholly oblivious.

These letters will be published both in England and the United States, and I will use whatever means I am possessed of to give them all possible publicity.

Yours very respectfully,

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