Torpedoes
By
General G. J. Rains, Chief of the Confederate Torpedo Service

        There is no fixed rule to determine the ethics of war -- that legalized murder of our fellow men for even mining is admitted with its wholesale destruction.
        Each new weapon, in its turn, when first introduced, was denounced as illegal and barbarous, yet each took its place according to its efficacy in human slaughter by the unanimous consent of nations.
        Gunpowder and firearms were held to be savage and anti Christian, yet the club, the sling, the battle axe, the bow and arrow, the balister or crossbow with the tormentum, javelin and spear, gave way to the matchlock musket, and that to the flintlock, and that to the percussion.
        The rifle is now fast superseding the musket, being of further range, more accurate in direction and breech loading.
        The battering ram and catapult gave way to the smooth bore cannon, chain, bar and spherical shot, which is now yielding, except in enormous calibre 15 inch and more, to rifle bores and elongated chilled shot, (yet, on account of inertia, rifle calibre should never exceed ten inches).
        Torpedoes come next in the catalogue of destructives, the modern ne plus ultra of warlike inventions.
        The world indeed is in throes of fire and marine monsters. While war is looming up between Russia and Turkey, other nations are striving in guns, iron clads and torpedo ships, for maritime supremacy. The powers of electricity in light giving and heat controlling to examine and blind an adversary by its glare at night, and fire -- torpedoes for his destruction at all times, and the capability of steel and iron with Professor Barff's superheated steam in endurance, offensive and defensive, will be called into action to resist the 100 ton guns of Italy and other formidable calibres, also torpedo boats like the Thornycroft of France, the Lightning of England, and the Porter Alarm of the United States.
        Iron clads are said to master the world, but torpedoes master the iron clads, and must so continue on account of the almost total incompressibility of water and the developed gasses of the fired gunpowder of the torpedo under the vessel's bottom passing through it, as the direction of least resistance.
        While other nations are pursuing the science of assault and defence theoretically and experimentally, the United States has had more practical experience with the torpedo, and better understands its capabilities, wisely discarding the iron and steel leviathans of the deep for models, as the Dreadnaught, Inflexible, Devastation, Alexandria, Iron Duke, Duillio, &c.
        During the war with the Confederacy, there were 123 torpedoes planted in Charleston harbor and Stono river, which prevented the capture of that city and its conflagration. There were 101 torpedoes planted in Roanoke river, North Carolina, by which, of twelve vessels sent with troops and means to capture Fort Branch, but five returned. One was sunk by the fire from the fort, and the rest by torpedoes. Of the five iron clads sent with other vessels to take Mobile, Alabama (one was tin clad), three were destroyed by torpedoes. There were fifty eight vessels sunk by torpedoes in the war, and some of them of no small celebrity, as Admiral Farragut's flagship the Harvest Moon, the Thorn, the Commodore Jones, the Monitor Patapsco, Ram Osage, Monitor Milwaukee, Housatonic and others. (Cairo in Yazoo river). Peace societies we must acknowledge a failure in settling national differences by arbitration, since enlightened nations go to war for a mere political abstraction, and vast armies in Europe are kept ready for action, to be frustrated, however, by this torpedo system of mining, carried out according to views.
        For three years the Confederate Congress legislated on this subject, passing each house alternately for an organized torpedo corps until the third year, when it passed both houses with acclamation, and 96,000,000 appropriated, but too late, and the delay was not shortened by this enormous appropriation. Could a piece of ordnance be made to sweep a battle field in a moment of time, there soon would be no battle field, or could a blast of wind loaded with deadly mephitic malaria in one night, sent like the destroying angel in Sanacherib's army, or the earth be made to open in a thousand places with the fire of death for destruction, as in the days of Korah, Dothan and Abiram, to which his system tends, then and then only may we beat the sword into the plough share, the spear into the pruning hook, and nations earn wars no more. The following will show who is the founder of this arm of service:

THE FIRST TORPEDO

        "In the experiments with the torpedo lately in the Florida channel", says an Eastern paper, "the country has been furnished with a more complete exhibition of the destructive capacities of this submarine projectile, than is now known to military and naval science." Admiral Porter, in his recent report, called particular attention to the torpedo as a defensive and offensive weapon, and urged upon the navy a thorough study of its powers as a destructive agent in warfare. He therefore congratulates the service upon the success of the torpedo exercises, believing that they will command the attention of all the navies in the world. Enthusiasts claim that naval warfare has been substantially revolutionized by its invention; and the exercises of the squadron during the closing days of February, prove that "this newfangled concern" is not to be despised, as the navy often learned to its sorrow during the protracted blockade of the Southern coast at the time of the recent war. The Wabash, Congress, Ticonderga, Canandaigua, Ossipee, Colorado, Brooklyn, Wachusett, Kansas, Lancaster, Alaska, Franklin, Fortune and Shenandoah, participated in the practice. This recalls to mind the following narration, well known to some of our readers: During the war with the Seminole Indians in Florida, April, 1840, the Seventh United States infantry was stationed at posts in the interior of the peninsula, and the country had been divided into squares of twenty miles each, and the headquarters located at Fort King, the former agency, which was commanded by Colonel Whistler, and Captain G.J. Rains commanded at Fort Micanopy, just twenty five miles distant.
        Though there was, and had been since the beginning of hostilities, an Indian town within sound of drum at Fort King; yet it was so surrounded by swamp that it had not been discovered, and some twenty miles journey was required to reach it, and the Indians so located their depredations in Micanopy square, that Colonel Whistler made representation that there the enemy was to be found and not at Fort King, and General Taylor changed the headquarters accordingly. The colonel's command, consisting of several companies of infantry and dragoons, was transferred Fort Micanopy, and Captain Rains and his command, one company with diminished numbers, to Fort King. Here the Captain soon discovered he was in a hornet's nest, and so reported, but was unheeded. The Indians perceived at once the disparity in numbers from their spies, and that their opponents were few at that post, and they became bold accordingly. Captain Rains' men were so waylaid and killed that it became dangerous to walk even around the post, and finally two of his best men were waylaid and murdered in full view thereof. Desperate diseases often require desperate remedies, and as the preservation of the lives of his command required it, the following was resorted to by the Captain. The clothing of the last victims was made to cover a torpedo invented by him, and it was located at a small hammock and pond of water in a mile or two of the post where the Indian war parties had to get water.
        Some day or two elapsed, when early one night the loud booming sound of the torpedo was heard, betraying the approach of a hostile party. Quickly Commander Rains and some dragoons who happened to be at the post rode to the spot; yet all was still and but an opossum found, which the Indians with tact, near where the torpedo had been, left to deceive. A yell indeed was heard, but the dragoons supposed it to be from the infantry which were arriving, and the latter thought it to come from the former. On returning to the post the facts of the yell appearing and the animal found, discovered to have been killed by a rifle bullet, early next morning Captain Rains with sixteen men, all which could be spared from garrison duty, for the dragoons had left, repaired to the hammock, some four or five acres in extent, and, spreading out his men as skirmishers, swept through it. The copse was surrounded by pines and was full of bushes and beds of needle palmettos, impenetrable except next to the roots, where lay concealed some hundred and more infuriated savages, all ready for action. They were passed undiscovered until the soldiers had reached the pond, a small one of five or six yards across, and were examining the spot of the torpedo, which gave evidences of its destructive effects.
        A little dog which had accompanied the command here became furious, barking in the thicket of bushes and needle palmettos. "What is that dog barking at?" said Captain Rains. "Nothing, sir," said one of the soldiers, "but a rabbit". Quickly he changed his place and again became furious, barking on the opposite side of the pond. "Sergeant Smith" said Captain Rains to his first sergeant near by, "see what that dog is barking at?" The poor fellow turned and advanced some four or five paces with the soldiers near him, and, shouting "Indians", he and his men fired their guns simultaneously with the enemy lying in covert.
        The whole hillock in a moment was alive with Indians, yelling and firing rapidly. The little party of soldiers was surrounded, and the captain shouted, "men clear the hammock, take the trees and give them a fair fight." No sooner commanded than executed. The sergeant came to his officer with blood running from his mouth and nose, and said, "Captain, I am killed." Too true; it was his last remark. He was a brave man, but his captain could do nothing then but tell him to get behind a tree near by.
        As the hammock was occupied by the foe and the military behind the trees at the end furthest from the post, the order was given to charge, and the men rushed into the thicket, driving the enemy right and left flying before the bayonet and getting behind trees outside the hammock, the troops passing through their centre. From the nature of the place on arriving at the other end of the thicket, the soldiers were much scattered, and the firing still going on, no little exertion was required for the captain to rally his men, and while thus engaged he was badly wounded, shot through the body, but continued his efforts until successful and the enemy driven from the ground. The captain was carried to the fort in the arms of his men.

FIRST SUBMARINE TORPEDO.

        We have thus numbered them, as all others before made were abortions. We remember the doggerel of the battle of the kegs of the revolution, and a more subsequent attempt to blow up British shipping blockading our ports in the war of 1812, which premature explosions rendered ineffective, and even Lord Admiral Lyon's flagship, at Cronstadt, which had her stern nearly blown out of water by a torpedo, set by the Russians during the Crimean war, was found in the dry dock at Liverpool not to have had a plank started. Our story of the first torpedo ended in the fighting of sixteen soldiers and an officer with some one hundred or more Indians, and among the casualties the wounding of the officer and his being carried to Fort King in the arms of his men. Another and second torpedo had been previously placed at the post by him, and soon after the fight a thousand or more troops were collected there, and it became such an object of dread to the whole army that a soldier guard was put over it until Captain Rains was able to go and take it in. "Suppose," said one officer to another, high in rank, "that the Captain had died of his wound, what would you have done?" "I thought," said he, "of firing at it with a six pounder at a safe distance, and thus knocking it to pieces." The occasion of the first submarine torpedo was as follows: Soon after the battle of Seven Pines (called in Northern prints "Fair Oaks") General R.E. Lee, commanding, sent for General Rains and said to him: "The enemy have upwards of one hundred vessels in the James river, and we think that they are about making an advance that way upon Richmond, and if there is a man in the whole Southern Confederacy that can stop them, you are the man. Will you undertake it?" "I will try," was the answer; and observing that ironclads were invulnerable to cannon of all calibre used and were really masters of rivers and harbors, it required submarine inventions to checkmate and conquer them. So an order was issued forthwith putting General Rains in charge of the submarine defences, and on the James river banks, opposite Drewry's Bluff, was the first submarine torpedo made -- the primogenitor and predecessor of all such inventions, now world renowned, as civilized nations have each a torpedo corps. And if, as has been asserted, that "naval warfare has been substantially revolutionized" by them, there is no doubt but that is the case on land, and the tactics of the world has been changed, perhaps, under the providence of God, making a vast stride to arbitration of nations and universal peace.

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NOTE. -- Having read the MS. of General Rains' valuable paper, I desire to say that the total number of vessels sunk by torpedoes in Mobile bay was twelve, instead of three, viz: three ironclads, two tinclads and seven transports.

Dabney Herndon Maury,
Late Major General C.S.A.

Source:  Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. III. Richmond, Va., May and June. 1877. Nos. 5 and 6

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