Dirty Deeds Necessary for Confederacy to Surmount Union Advantages
Do to the many disadvantages the Confederacy had in relation to the Union they adopted some defensive novelties that were revolutionary and in some cases considered unworthy of the ethical standards of the period. Land and water torpedos, now referred to as mines, were used to protect their ocean ports and the river access to Richmond. The development of these “Infernal” devices required much ingenuity and inventiveness.
I recently came across the writings of R. O. Crowley of the Confederate Torpedo Service where he describes some of the development work, operational techniques and logistical problems the service encountered. Included in the material is some very interesting trivia which brightened my day. Crowley (whose full name I have not been able to discover) had been the secretary to the General Superintendent of the Westrn Union Telegraph Company in Atlanta and served as an electrician in the Torpedo Service in the war.
Crowley writes in the June 1898 issue of Century Magazine about his exploits. There was a need for a watertight fuse for electrical detonation. A simple solution involved a piece of goose quill about 1/2 inch long, filled with fulminate of mercury and containing a fine platinum wire running through, which was then sealed on each end with beeswax. The protruding wire was attached to insulated copper wire running to the battery. The fuse was wrapped in a flannel cartridge bag stuffed with rifle-powder. This device was inserted in a torpedo tank filled with cannon powder. Quite ingenious don’t you think?
A brief discussion of the amount of available supplies demonstrates the very limited capacity the Confederacy had and underscores their need for secrecy and diligence in the use of the materials they had. According to Crowley, the limited supplies in the Confederacy were: four to five feet of fine platinum wire and about five miles of insulated copper wire. Battery acid was available only from the stocks of local druggists when the war broke out and the South had no production capability. Oh, did I mention the shortage of powder? Not a good way to start a war.
The efforts of the Torpedo Service accompanied the efforts of the CS Navy in developing the submercible and semi-submercible vessels which ultimately sank the USS Housatonic outside Charleston Harbor. But did you know that the first submarine attack on an enemy warship where the attacking crew survived was the Confederate David on the USS Minnesota on 9 April 1864 in Newport News, Virginia. The Minnesota was the flag-ship of the Union force and the largest vessel in the fleet and was severly damaged in the attack.