Torpedoes, submarine, air force and aircraft carrier in the Civil War era

Torpedoes, submarine, air force and aircraft carrier in the Civil War era

The Civil War produced many new inventions. When ironclad USS Monitor clashed with CSS Virginia (former USS Merrimack), all wood warships became obsolete. The fight established the first world record of a sea battle between steel or steel-plated warships. Do you know the Civil War also produce the first torpedoes, submarine, air force and aircraft carrier?

The North had a strong industrial base and that translated into production of large fleet of warships for attack and for blockading. What could the South do? Her answer was: to build torpedoes (mines) for her defense. North Carolina had two brothers who could fill the bill. Older brother Gabriel James Rains would build and improve his torpedoes. His "Rains Patent" mines could be used both on land and in water. Younger brother George Rains made gunpowder, from saltpeter (potassium nitrate) mixed with sulfur and charcoal. He even collected content of chamber pots (extracted the nitrate) to supplement the South's deficient mineral resource. Both were nicknamed the "bomb brothers." There were several types of torpedoes. The "horological" torpedo had an inner clock, set to explode at a specific time. A "keg" torpedo was equipped with buoyant and anchored underwater for a passing ship to bump on one of its primers, setting off the explosion. A "friction" torpedo submerged underwater, and would be detonated from the land by yanking a lanyard. Gabriel Rains also made a "coal lump" torpedo. An unwitting Union engineer would shuffle the "coal" to the furnace and the boiler of the ship would explode. It was how Sultana exploded and sank in April 27, 1865, by the work of the bomb brothers, planted by secret agent Robert Lowden (code name: Charles Dale). Commanding USS Hartford, Union Rear Admiral David Farragut's famous utterance,"Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" made Gabriel's torpedoes famous. Hartford escaped sinking because the torpedoes had submerged in sea water too long. The Confederate torpedoes had disabled, destroyed and sank 40 Union ships and that established the first record of successful and massive use of torpedoes.

The first generation of the Confederate submarine was the "David" class torpedo boat, a cigar-shaped metal vessel which submerged most of its body in water, leaving a low silhouette above water, and made it hard for Union lookouts to detect. Shortly after, the Confederate constructed the second generation torpedo boat, a true submarine that could totally submerged under water, moved forward and changed directions, christened CSS H.L. Hunley for one of her builder, Horace L. Hunley (or Hundley) [McClintock was the other builder]. Hunley was about 30 feet long, 5 feet high, and 4 feet wide, propeller-driven and guided by a rudder. She had no engine but powered by the muscle of an eight-man crew that turned cranks positioned along the drive shaft. Ballast tanks filled with water would lower the sub just below the water surface, and the horizontal fins on the sides were adjusted to lower or raise her when in motion. To bring her all the way up, force pumps ejected the water from the tanks. In case of emergency, her iron keel could be jettisoned in sections by disengaging the bolts that held it on, causing her to lift upward cork-like to the surface. A glass port in the forward hatch enabled the captain to see where she was going when submerged, and the interior lighting was lighted by candles. Trial dives showed that she could stay under water for up to two hours before the crew ran out of air. She could tow a percussion-fused mine at the end of a 200-foot rope, passing completely beneath an Union ship, and continued moving until the mine made contact with the target-ship and exploded it. Alternatively, the Confederate could install a torpedo on her bow, fit with a 20-foot spar with a torpedo and ram the target. In fact, she used the later method to bomb and sank USS Housatonic in Feb 17, 1864, near Sullivan's Island at Charleston harbor. This was the first world record of a successful submarine attack on a warship.

The Union established their first air force. Thaddeus Lowe demonstrated his hydrogen balloon Enterprise and ascended in the air near the White House with President Lincoln watching, on 6/17/1861. Lowe provided the most dramatic proof of the usefulness of his air force, raising new dimension of reconnaissance: aerial telegraphy, and providing concurrent military intelligence for the Union army. He was assigned to serve Gen. George B. McClellan. In 9/24/1861, he ascended in Intrepid to an altitude of more than 1,000 feet near Arlington, Virginia. Securely cabled to the earth, and with telegraphic equipment in hand, he soon transmitted the presence and position of the Confederate infantry plus the heavy artillery at Falls Church, more than three mile away. In fact, in the mid-1862 Battle of Fair Oaks, Lowe's balloon reconnaissance again helped the Union narrowly avert a disaster. Professor Lowe established the world record of being first hydrogen-powered balloon to telegraph intelligence in a battle. A lesser known contemporary balloonist John LaMountain, from Troy, New York, was the first person observing an actual enemy disposition in 8/13/1861, by making two successful balloon (Atlantic) ascension, and discovered the Confederate encampment near Newmarket Bridge, Virginia. His patron was Gen. Ben. Butler, then, stationing at Fort Monroe. He asked Butler for 60 gallon of sulfuric acid and four tons of metal, to make his hydrogen. LaMountain also broke another world record of free floating travel in a hydrogen-powered balloon dated 10/4/1861, over Washington D.C., and crossing the Potomac. Believe it or not, the Confederate also had an air force. On 4/13/1862, twenty-one years old captain John Randolph Bryan, aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder, ascended in a crudely-constructed balloon, consisting of cotton cloth pieces made marginally air-tight, reinforced by a coating of vanish, filled with hot air, near Yorktown, Virginia. He used semaphore to signal the ground crew. On his subsequent ascension, one of his men accidentally got tangled in the balloon's tether line. Facing the danger of being dragged up in the air, a quick thinking soldier severed the line with an axe, and Bryan found himself free floating. Thus, Bryan broke the record of first free flight in a hot air balloon during war time.

The Civil War also produced the world first aircraft carrier. Professor Lowe ascended in his balloon from the deck of the USS G.W. Parke-Custis, on Potomac river, on 11/11/1861, the first balloon flight from a ship.

(Source came from books and magazines.)

Correction by a reader:
Subj: "Torpedoes, submarine, air craft and air craft carrier in the Civil War era"
Date: 8/1/01 4:01:46 PM Eastern Daylight Time

To: Mr. Kwok, I read your interesting essay on torpedoes in the Civil War, and I would like to offer a correction. The coal torpedo was invented not by Gabriel Raines, but by my great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay. You can read more about the torpedo on my web site, although the article on Courtenay himself needs to be updated to reflect new research.

Here is a citation which includes a letter from Courtenay to Col. Clark discussing the torpedo.

"Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion." United States. Naval War Records Office. and United States. Office of Naval Records and Library. Series I, Volume 26, pp. 184-187.

As you might guess, I periodically search the web for the coal torpedo, hoping for new bits of information, new sources, or to find other people who are interested in it.

You might also be interested in a forthcoming article on the Sultana disaster to appear in the October issue of "North and South." Robert Lowden's claim that he destroyed the Sultana with a coal torpedo has long been discounted by "serious" scholars. The article is a re-examination and includes details on Lowden (also Louden) and his activities as a saboteur all through the war. Both he and Courtenay lived in St. Louis prior to the war and if they didn't know each other, they certainly knew had common acquaintances.

Thanks ,
Tom Thatcher

{Webmaster's reply:
Hello Mr. Thatcher, Thank you very, very much for the correction. I will put the correction email at the end of my article, instead of correcting the article itself. Your explanation is superb. I subscribed the N&S magazine and read the Sultana article. But since my article was published prior, I decided not to change it. Again, thank you very much for caring and spending your time to read my article and writing me. Gordon Kwok}

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Author and Webmaster, Gordon Kwok

First posted on March 2, 2001
Uploaded on the current server: March 19, 2009