Electronic Detonation of Mines and Torpedoes in the U.S. Civil War

Electronic Detonation of Mines and Torpedoes during the U.S. Civil War

Prior Developments

During the American Revolution, David Bushnell, who was an American inventor and graduate of Yale, created a keg torpedo. He filled kegs with gunpowder and floated them down the Delaware in hopes that they would collide with British ships and explode.1 Other siting’s of torpedoes were seen by the Russians during the Crimean War and in Canton, China in 1857-58. Other experiments with torpedoes were seen in other parts of the world but few people took them seriously except for the inventors.2

Use During the Civil War

The first real enhancement and development of torpedoes took place during the American Civil War, namely with Matthew Fontaine Maury. Maury, who was a native Virginian, charted the ocean currents and wrote several books about the geography of the sea. When the outbreak of the Civil War occurred, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy and joined the Confederacy, being placed on the advisory council for recommendations for the protection of the Confederate waterways.3 He was a major advocate in defending the southern waterways from the Federal Navy.

Maury assisted Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown and Major General Leonidas Polk in defending the Mississippi River. He proposed that setting electric torpedoes along the river would be the best defense. They planned to place the electric mines on the bluffs of Columbus, Kentucky, to defend the Mississippi from “Cairo to New Orleans”. This was the first combat electric mine station in America and probably the world. Maury designed 50 pound, 3-foot long cylindrical containers that could be buoyed across the river. Insulated wire connected them to galvanic batteries and “telegraph key contacts hidden in caves along the thickly wooded bluffs”. Other mines were planted on land to prevent Federal troops from coming ashore. Although land and water mines were both electrical, the land mines were laid with squat iron castings with lids that had handles. The lids were fastened by eight bolts, beneath them smaller wooden boxes were placed in order to protect the holes through which the wires from the batteries passed. 4-pound artillery shells filled with canister, grapeshot, and two bushels of gunpowder were placed inside of the cylindrical containers. Six wires then ran from the clusters of mines to a nearby cave or hill.

Maury experimented with tiny cans of powder and a large washtub filled with water. He decided to detonate the mines using a percussion trigger connected with a rope lanyard. This was successful, however he wanted something better- an electric torpedo fired by a spark passing through a long, insulated cable.4 Despite his desire, the cables were not to be had. He dispatched a Southern agent to go to New York, the closest source, to buy telegraph wire from the enemy. This attempt proved to be unsuccessful. It is believed that the agent was picked up by the Union Secret Service in Philadelphia. Moreover, the Confederates made an effort to ask for donations of Indian rubber coats and overshoes from its citizens in order to waterproof the wire. Many answered the call. Despite the generous donations, not enough was received to wrap more than a few hundred feet of cable, when many thousands would be needed for extensive mine laying.

Being that electrical science was still in its infancy; Maury combined efforts with the South’s leading expert, Dr. (Major) William Norris, chief signal officer. Norris was originally opposed to the idea, but eventually provided advice and additionally a supply of Federal telegraph cable to Maury. The cable had been washed ashore by a storm and retrieved by the Confederates on Virginia’s coast. Despite the wire being frayed and broken from the Atlantic floor, the wire proved to be a “God-send”. Being backed by Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Navy Secretary Mallory, Maury began some experiments with the electric mines. For waterproof tanks, or “magazines”, several old iron locomotive and steamboat boilers were collected, cleaned, and repaired. The boilers were then filled with gunpowder. A Wollaston battery was used because it was the only one available. It consisted of “banks of cells in which were eighteen pairs of 10 by 12 inch zinc plates immersed in thirty-six gallons of sulphuric acid; it could generate enough current to explode a single charge only a few hundred feet away.”5 Because this method worked poorly, a second system of torpedoes were better accommodated for this primitive equipment. They employed “iron magazines of 70 to 160 pounds each, anchored in clusters, or as Maury designated them, “ranges””.6


Milton F. Perry, Infernal Machines: The Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare, (Louisiana State University Press, 1965) pp 6-15

A.A. Hoehling, DAMN THE TORPEDOES! Naval Incidents of the Civil War, (Winston-Salem, John F. Blair) pp 123-31