The Confederate Navy and the Argentine Hydrographic survey:
Time of the Spar Torpedo


Dr Eduardo C. Gerding

Published in The Buenos Aires Herald, Sunday, December 14, 2003-Focus-8.

        The history of the hydrographic survey of the main Argentine rivers is closely related with the life of two former officers of the Confederate navy: Commodore Thomas Jefferson Page and Commander Hunter Davidson. This last was to be the first chief of the Argentine Torpedoes Division. Their remarkable task took place many years before the Argentine Naval Hydrographic Service was created (1879) and no doubt helped as well to update our coast defense concept.

Commodore Thomas Jefferson Page (1808-1902)
Former Commander of the CSS Stonewall

On November 4th, 1852 Page was appointed as commander of the fully equipped Water Witch in which he explored the Argentine rivers Paraguay and Bermejo. His son John who took part in such expedition was to join years later the Argentine navy as Frigate Lieutenant participating in the campaign of Pavón.

Thomas Jefferson Page
Thomas J. Page was born on January 4th, 1808 in Shelley ( Gloucester district ) in the southern state of Virginia  (USA). His father was a lawyer and his mother was Elizabeth Nelson daughter of General Thomas Nelson who was a signatory of the Independence Act. Page applied to the Naval School at Gosport ( Norfolk ) and had an intense training at the corvette Erie while navigating the Antilles. In Haití, a yellow fever epidemic involved 80 per cent of the crew but young midshipman Page. After this exciting voyage, the young Virginian and other 39 officers applied to the Commodores´ board examination, Page ranking first in his promotion.
        Page showed an early aptitude for the hydrographic surveys which he applied in the research of the New York coast. He was later appointed to the astronomic observatory in Washington which at that time was lead by Matthew Fontaine Maury a worldwide authority on hydrography , astronomy, physics and inventor as well of the Maury-Holmes torpedo.
        In 1848 , Page was appointed commander of the corvette Plymouth which navigated the dangerous China Sea and the Sea of Japan. He was later transferred to the brig Dolphin engaging in combats with local pirates.
        After repairing his vessel in Honolulu he navigated to the island Juan Fernandez. Navigating through Cape Horn in the midst of a terrible maelstrom put to test Page´s seafaring skills. He finally arrived to the Brooklyn arsenal on June 27, 1851 after three years of an intense training abroad.
        On November 4th, 1852 Page was appointed as commander of the fully equipped vessel Water Witch in which he explored the Argentine rivers Paraguay and Bermejo. The Bermejo river flows southeast 1,045 km into the Paraguay river on the border of Paraguay and Argentina. The abundant silt it carries in suspension is the source of its name ( bermejo= reddish ). It is navigable for small craft along its central course, known as the Teuco river.
        At that time General Justo José de Urquiza had proclaimed the free navigation in all Argentine rivers thus allowing Page to explore the natural resources of Paraguay. Page ended his first commission in May 1856 but returned for a second exploration on 1859.
        Being a citizen of Virginia, when the Civil War began in 1861, Page didn't hesitate to join the Confederate navy . That same year he took part in the defense of Gloucester Point at the York river. Page's final test came as commander of the Stonewall monitor.
        Page set sailed from France in the CSS Stonewall aiming to arrive to some American southern port in due time. He was caught by a heavy maelstrom in the Bay of Biscay and forced to look for shelter in the port of Ferrol.


CSS Stonewall

CSS Stonewall, a 1390-ton ironclad ram, was built in Bordeaux, France, for the Confederate Navy. Embargoed by the French government in February 1864, prior to her launching, she was subsequently sold to Denmark. Upon completion of her construction in late 1864, the Danish government would not accept delivery and her builder secretly resold her to the Confederates. (Reference: US Naval Historical Center-Washington

        The Unionist minister in Madrid requested the Spanish authorities that the Stonewall be considered not as a belligerent vessel but as a pirate ship ! At La Coruña, every movement displayed by Page was carefully watched by the Unionist frigates Niagara and Sacramento. We presume that the Stonewall´s 300-pounds Armstrong cannon and the rest of his artillery must have imposed certain respect on her foes as there was no combat engagement.
        When the Civil War ended, Pager refused to surrender his ship to the Union forces so he entered the port of La Habana where he stroke the Confederate jack. In July 1865, the Spanish delivered Stonewall to the United States Government. She was laid up at the Washington Navy Yard, D.C., for the next two years, and then sold to Japan. In Japanese service, she was initially named Kôtetsu and, after 1871, Azuma.
        Having ended his career in the navy, Page came to Argentina with his two sons Philip Nelson and Frederick. Here he met President Bartolomé Mitre and later got in touch with General Urquiza with whom he had a good relationship.  Urquiza offered him lands and means to cultivate them.
        Page proposed to the Argentine government a naval defense system which involved Buenos Aires, the island Martín Garcia and the surroundings of Ensenada. He suggested as well the building of twin ironclads and two corvettes able to navigate our rivers. They were to be equipped with electric torpedoes very much like the ones used during the American Civil War. Such proposal was finally accepted during the presidency of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.
        Page was commissioned by the Argentine government to supervise in Great Britain the construction of the monitors El Plata and Los Andes and two gunboats Paraná and Uruguay. While in Paris, Page acted as counselor of Minister Dr Manuel R. Garcia regarding warships constructions which were then authorized by the Law Nş 498 ( May 1872 ).

Monitor Los Andes

The monitor Los Andes was built at the Cammell shipyard in Birkenhead ( UK ) and launched in 1875. The crew who brought it to Argentina was fully British and it was commanded by former Royal Navy Captain Frederick Hallower. The Los Andes joined the Argentine squad on July 18, 1875. (Reference: Arguindeguy, Pablo E-Apuntes sobre los buques de la Armada Argentina-Tomo IV-Estudio Nş 13.01, pág 1199-Monior Los Andes )

        At the beginning of 1873 Page got in contact with Hunter Davidson and this last informed him on the creation of a torpedo station in Argentina. Page considered the Mac-Evoy as the most advanced torpedo; an opinion that was not shared by Davidson.
        In 1881 during the presidency of Julio A. Roca the Argentine navy received the ironclad Almirante Brown, the ram torpedo ship Maipú, four Yarrow type torpedo ships and two Thornycroft torpedo boats. Only the Almirante Brown and the transport Villarino were oceanic units but lacked of support units. Conflicts with the Chilean border forced the government to update the fleet.
        In 1882 Page tried unsuccessfully to get the Argentine Minister of War and Navy interested in a new torpedo ship designed by Swedish-American J. Ericsson.
        Page died in Rome in 1902 when he was 94 years old. Minister General Martin de Gainza acknowledge the great contributions made by Page referring that, while in duty in Europe, this brave Virginian received a fee from the Argentine government which barely satisfied his expenses.

Hunter Davidson
Hunter Davidson was born in the district of Columbia in 1827. He joined the Naval School in Virginia in 1841 and graduated in 1847 obtaining his rank as Lieutenant in 1855. In April 1861 he joined the Confederate navy , served in the Norfolk Navy Yard and in the boat Patrick Henry. From March to May 1862 he was appointed to the ironclad Virginia. Lieutenant Davidson commanded the boat patrol Teaser and was in charge of the Submarine Battery which mined the river James.

Hydrographic Engineer Hunter Davidson
Former Commander of the CSS City of Richmond
First Chief of the Argentine Torpedoes Division

Davidson made a thorough survey of the Rio de la Plata and the rivers Uruguay and Guazú .He draw the first nautical chart of the island Martin Garcia and helped to install the submarine cable for the telegraph thus establishing a communication between the island and Buenos Aires.

        On April 9,1864 Davidson attacked with the small torpedo boat Squib the Union frigate Minnesota in Newport News. As a result of this bold action he was promoted to Commander. His last assignment during the Civil War was as commander of the City of Richmond.

Seal of the Argentine Torpedoes Division. The word torpedoes was printed as in English.

(Reference: Burzio, Humberto-Capitán de Navío (RS)-Historia del torpedo y sus buques en la Armada Argentina( 1874-1900)-Comando en Jefe de la Armada,1968 )

        Davidson got in contact with Thomas Page and acquire for our country the necessary vessels and elements to create a torpedo unit. On the beginning of 1875 the Argentine Torpedo Division was created. It was placed aboard the Fulminante on the Lujan river.
        Davidson who was the first chief of the Argentine torpedo Division made a thorough survey of the Rio de la Plata and the rivers Uruguay and Guazú .He draw the first nautical chart of the island Martin Garcia and helped to install the submarine cable for the telegraph thus establishing a communication between the island and Buenos Aires.
        In 1877 he went to the Alto Uruguay and Misiones in a most sacrificed recognition task. On April 29, 1879 he was appointed as chief of the scientific exploration of the Alto Paraná till its confluence with the river Paraguay.

Spar torpedo used in the American Civil War

Its a well known fact that while the Union had a strong navy, the Confederates created an amazing torpedo division whose small units ( called David ) targets were the Union Goliaths to be sunk with the "unchristian " rebel spar torpedo. (Reference: Burzio, Humberto-Capitán de Navío (RS)-Historia del torpedo y sus buques en la Armada Argentina

( 1874-1900)-Comando en Jefe de la Armada,1968 )

The 1883 expedition to the Iguazú river (1883)

From left to right: Lieutenant Adolfo Arana, Second Lieutenant Manuel Domecq Garcia, Engineer Hunter Davidson, Naturalist and former Lieutenant of the Norwegian navy Olaf Storm and a soldier The Iguazú river ( "Big Water" in Guaraní language) has its source in Serra do Mar at 1300m above sea level. As it meanders its sinuous course, it forms a U-shaped curve up to 1.5 km wide before it drops down at the Devil's Throat over the Paraná river at 176m above sea-level. The Iguazú river hosts a large number of islands where lush vegetation thrives; these in turn, are the abodes of a variety of reptiles and colorful birds. Some of them are designated to be on the verge of extinction by the World Wildlife Fund. Among them, the Black Crested Eagle, the Widow. (Reference: Departamento de Estudios Históricos Navales)

        On March 11, 1882 Davidson made an hydrographic survey of the Alto Paraná with two bomber boats the Pilcomayo and the steamboat Talita. The survey was made in three steps: a) From Apipé to Corpus, b) From Corpus up to the Barras del Iguazú and c) From this last point up to the bar of San Antonio Guazú. In that same year he made the hydrographic survey of the Bahía Blanca estuary.
        Hydrographic Engineer Hunter Davidson left the Argentine Navy in September and was named as an honorary member of the Argentine Naval Center ( Centro Naval ). Davidson died on February 16, 1913 when he was 86 years old.

The Fulminante

        The 620 tons steamboat Fulminante , designed by Hunter Davidson, was built in 1874 at the British shipyard Harrow & Hedley .Its service was considered of an utmost importance for the Argentine government and as such it was subordinated not to the squad commander but directly to the Ministry of War Dr Adolfo Alsina. This situation created certain animosity from the Argentine navy officers appointed at the Rio Lujan.
        On October 4th, 1877 the Fulminante magazine exploded first at 12 PM and later at 5 PM. The shock wave was so intense that all windows in San Fernando were shattered to pieces. In that very moment Davidson was in the Minister of Defense's antechamber. A national uproar ensued which involved President Nicolas Avellaneda. The indictment couldn't establish a punctual cause for the sinister. However, the Fulminante´s American commander Captain Mason Damon was accused of inaction between both explosions. The quartermaster was put under arrest for 15 days. Midshipman Santiago Borzone was submitted to 30 days arrest for not telling the whole true to his superior officers but when the sanction ended he was congratulated by his courage displayed during the disaster. The crew received medical assistance from the surgeon of the Italian gunboat Confianza. Citizen Juan Gamba could save the ensign flag minutes before the blast . The Fulminante's biggest auxiliary boat, which was not affected by the explosions, was later used for the cadets training at the vessel General Brown.

(Reference: Burzio, Humberto-Capitán de Navío (RS)-Historia del torpedo y sus buques en la Armada Argentina( 1874-1900)-Comando en Jefe de la Armada,1968 )

I'm grateful to the authorities of the Departamento de Estudios Historicos Navales and to Mrs Anahí Cabezas Librarian of the Argentine Naval Hydrographic ____________________________________________________________________________

Dr Eduardo C. Gerding is a Gastroenterologist and Occupational Medicine specialist who works at the Health Division of the Argentine Naval Hydrographic Service.

This Page last updated 01/02/04