Photo's Courtesy of The CSS Hunley Club and as noted

singer torpedo.jpgsinger torpedo
Posted: 8-Mar-2002 by myk0704  - Resolution: 278 x 480

Singer's Torpedo.jpgSinger's Torpedo
Posted: 8-Mar-2002 by myk0704  - Resolution: 480 x 217

friction type.jpgfriction type
Posted: 17-Mar-2002 by myk0704  - Resolution: 480 x 340

percussion type.jpgpercussion type
Posted: 17-Mar-2002 by myk0704  - Resolution: 394 x 480

percussion 3.jpg

percussion 4.jpg  percussion 2.jpgCONFEDERATE
Posted: 17-Mar-2002 by myk0704  - Resolution: 480 x 333

percussion fretwell singer.jpgpercussion fretwell singer
Posted: 17-Mar-2002 by myk0704  - Resolution: 266 x 480

percussion brooke.jpgpercussion brooke
Posted: 17-Mar-2002 by myk0704  - Resolution: 302 x 480


Torpedo Warfare. [The North American review. / Volume 127, Issue 264, September - October 1878]

Part 1

View bibliographic information


Page images are mounted at Cornell University Library.
This text was generated from the page images by optical character recognition (OCR).
Corrections have been applied by George W. Penington



 THOUGH the invention of the submarine torpedo dates back
to 1775, there is no implement of warfare that has made so little
progress, considering its destructive power, or about which there
are so many conflicting opinions. It is only since the year 1861
that it has been generally adopted as an engine of war, a tardiness in great measure due to the false sentimentality which, until a recent period, banned the torpedo as an inhuman and unchristian means of destroying an enemy. This sentimentality, it may
be remarked, has never prevented Christians from mowing down
an enemy with grape-shot and canister, or setting fire to his ships
in order to roast as many of their crews as possible; hence it is
difficult to see the consistency of such humane scruples.
 Among the arguments urged against the introduction of the
torpedo was that its use would not foster the bravery and chivalry which have characterized the naval profession, more especially that of Great Britain; and Great Britain, having the most powerful navy of the world, and claiming the title of Mistress of
the Seas, did not deem it prudent to encourage a mode of warfare which would tend to place her on an equality with weaker nations. Were it not for this obvious reason, she would no doubt have given particular attention to so effectual a means
of destroying an enemy, and would long ago have brought the
torpedo to perfection, since, at the date of its invention, she was
the leading nation in the mechanical arts, and her inventors
would soon have overcome the difficulties which stood in the
way of practically using this arm. Now that she sees every nation adopting the torpedo, and her splendid fleet of iron-clads
imperiled, she is with characteristic energy making every effort
toward the improvement of this most terrible engine of war, and
will doubtless bring it to a greater state of perfection, both for
offense and defense, than it has yet attained. As the torpedo
has now become a vital necessity to Great Britain, she will lose
no time in adapting it to all operations of naval warfare; and
as it is generally adopted among the navies of the world, she will
provide effectual means of resisting it when sent against her fleets.
 Whatever prejudices sentimental or otherwise may once
have existed against the torpedo, they have all vanished before
the necessities of the time. Self-defense is the first consideration
with nations as with individuals; and it is now conceded that
governments sub serve not only their own interests, but those of
mankind, by using a weapon that will soonest decide the result
of war, and which will most effectually protect their coasts.
 On looking back to the War of 1812, when eighteen and
twenty-four pounders were the largest guns we possessed, we
wonder that nations could ever have relied on such feeble engines, or expected great results from their use. In recent years monster rifled guns have been invented, throwing upward of two thousand pounds weight of metal, and mounted on huge
floating batteries almost impervious to shot and shell. One such
vessel might have destroyed all the fleets Nelson ever commanded, and have bid defiance to the works of a Vauban; it would heed the forty-two-pounders of the past about as much as an iceberg would a volley of peas.
 There is no human invention that is not susceptible of improvement. This seems to be a law of Nature, by which mans inventive faculties are kept ever on the alert, and nations are advanced in the arts of war as well as of peace.
 It may seem a strange thesis to maintain, that the torpedo is
a beneficent invention, yet all peace-loving men should approve
of it, inasmuch as it tends to preserve peace and to prevent powerful nations from trampling on their weaker neighbors. Nations are not half so apt to go to war to-day as they were a few years ago when the torpedo was considered a doubtful auxiliary,
quite as likely to prove disastrous to the operator as to the enemy. We have seen the caution with which England and Russia watched each other during the crisis of the Eastern Question, and the wily game both played. Time was when Britannia would
have struck a blow first and treated afterward; but, since her last great naval wars, which gave her victory at almost every
step, new elements have been imported into warfare afloat elements which, as a rule, meet with no particular favor among naval officers generally.
 Space would fail me to describe here the various forms of the
torpedo, as it has been successively modified and improved; and
all that I can attempt to do within the limits of this article is to
note the principal stages of its development.
 As far as can be ascertained, to David Bushnell, of Connecticut, belongs the credit of the original invention of the submarine
torpedo. A diving-machine, in which a man could reach the
bottom of a vessel, and which he could easily maneuver under
water, carried a magazine with its appurtenances, so arranged
that it could be cast off from the diving-machine, and ascend
till it reached the bottom of a vessel, to which it would attach
itself by means of a special contrivance. As the torpedo was arranged to go off by clock-work, time was given the occupant of the diving-machine to get out of the way. The machine, or boat device, was very perfect: the operator could swim so far
below the surface that he could approach a vessel at night without
fear of discovery, could ascend and descend, and visit any part
of a vessels bottom with certainty and safety. In 1776 Bushnell
made an attempt to blow up the Eagle, an English sixty-four-gun
ship lying off Governors Island, in the harbor of New York.
After procuring, with great difficulty, a suitable operator, he sent
his machine under the ships bottom at night, but the operator,
not being skilled in the management of the boat, became con-
fused, and in endeavoring to change his position to a part of the
hull more suitable for his work, missed the ship, and had to
come to the surface at some distance from her, and day breaking
he was obliged to abandon the attempt. As it was blowing fresh
at the time, the operator cast adrift the magazine to facilitate his
escape, and, at the end of an hour the time for which the clock
was regulated the torpedo exploded with force sufficient to have
blown the Eagle to atoms had it been under her bottom. Bushnell made another attempt in 1777, from a whale-boat against the Cerberus frigate, off New London, endeavoring to throw a machine against the ships side by means of a line. This machine
accidentally came in contact with a schooner lying astern of the  
frigate, exploded, demolished the schooner, and threw overboard
the only man of her crew who was left alive. Among all of Bushnellís various devices, he does not appear to have invented anything that would follow an enemyís ship at sea. One of his last recorded exploits was his setting adrift, in December, 1777, on
the Delaware, a number of kegs filled with powder, for the purpose of annoying the enemyís vessels. Although they did no
harm, these infernal machines frightened the soldiers on the
wharves at Philadelphia, who opened fire on the intruders. The
event gave occasion to the poetical satire of Francis Hopkinson,
called The Battle of the Kegs. Mr. Bushnell was the great
torpedo genius of his day, but his contrivances would in our times be considered very primitive affairs, as they bear about the
same relation to the torpedoes now in use as the old Brown
Bess musket does to the Remington rifle.
 After these experiments of Bushnell the torpedo seems to
have been neglected till, in 1797, Robert Fulton claimed as his
invention a machine which would move under water, to a given
point, and there explode. Fulton first applied to the French
Government, and promised to furnish them with an agent by
which they could dispose of their British enemies in all parts of
the world. His schemes were considered chimerical, and he met
with no encouragement in France until Napoleon attained power,
when a commission was ordered to test his machine in 1801. It
was a submarine diver, many forms of which have since been
tried without much success. With his machine Fulton repeatedly descended to various depths, and moved in any desired direction under water, remaining there for four or five hours at
a time. After fitting a torpedo to this machine, his first experiment was on a small ship, to which he attached twenty pounds of
powder and blew her into fragments. Fultonís system was, how-
ever, merely an improvement on that of Bushnell; and it seems
strange that, with his knowledge of steam, he did not apply it
for propelling his machine. Had he hit upon some of the simple devices now familiar to all, he might have produced an engine that would have scattered any of the fleets of Europe, and the name of Fulton would have become even more famous than
it now is.
 The French Government failing to see the practicability of
Fultonís submarine devices, the inventor left in disgust, and, repairing to England in May, 1804, held out to the British ministry the same inducements by which he had endeavored to influence that of France, showing them how they could dispense with
their fleets! John Bull, however, had a great partiality for his
navy, and delighted in gaining victories at sea. The naval authorities were therefore indisposed to encourage Yankee innovations, but Fulton succeeded in interesting Mr. Pitt, the prime-minister, in his enterprise, and in impressing that statesman with
the belief that the torpedo principle, when fully reduced to practice, would do away with all the navies of the world. The first experiments were carried on in presence of Mr. Pitt, Lords Mulgrave, Melville, and Castlereagh, Sir Joseph Banks, Mr. Cavendish, Sir Home Popham, Major Congreve, and Sir John Rennie.
On this commission, which was to decide the fate of navies, there was but one naval officer, Admiral Sir Home Popham, which is an evidence that it was constituted ofi much the same principle as like commissions in this country, viz., that of appoint-
ing as judges men the least likely to know anything of the matter
in hand. Mr. Pitt was favorably impressed with Fultonís experiments, and so were some others who witnessed them; but Admiral the Earl St. Vincent remarked that it was foolish for Pitt to encourage that gimcrack, for so he was laying the foundation
for doing away with the navy on which depended the strength
and prestige of Great Britain. The commission acted in accordance with this idea, and adjudged Fultonís plans to be impracticable. Mr. Pitt still adhered to his own opinion, and caused an experiment to be made, on October 15, 1805, on an old Danish
brig, which was blown to pieces by one hundred and seventy pounds of powder, a result which could now be effected with twenty pounds of gun-cotton on the end of a pole. Not withstanding this success Fulton gained no encouragement. England was already mistress of the seas, and looked with little favor on an instrument of warfare which, if successful, would place weaker nations on an equality with her. English authorities, however,
saw the importance of Fultonís invention, and, it is said, offered him a large sum of money to suppress it, but he declined. Fulton returned to New York in 1806, and made propositions to the United States Government, which were accepted, and, after many unsuccessful efforts, he finally blew up a vessel which had been prepared for the purpose. A midshipman, nowadays, at our torpedo-school in Newport, would consider himself disgraced if he failed to destroy a ship-of-the-line in ten minutes, with less explosive power, especially if the ship lay at anchor and gave him every opportunity to operate upon her. Fulton again petitioned Congress for assistance to develop his invention,
and five thousand dollars was in 1810 appropriated for that purpose. He seems never to have doubted his final success, although his numerous failures prevented his most ardent admirers from placing full faith in his promises. In fact, when we consider the crudeness of his ideas, and his repeated mishaps, it seems strange that Fultonís applications should have continued to receive attention. The United States brig Argus was prepared for Fultonís final experiment, which totally failed, for, by order of Commodore
Rodgers, the vessel had been so protected with spars and netting,
reaching to the bottom, as to be unassailable. Fulton acknowledged himself to have been foiled by the commodores ingenuity, but argued that a system then in its infancy, which compelled a hostile vessel to guard herself by such extraordinary means,
could not fail of becoming a most important mode of warfare.
 Commodore Rodgerís successful effort to baffle Fultonís torpedo caused a strong reaction against the inventors plans. Fulton became disheartened, and, in a characteristic letter to the Secretary of the Navy, rather intimates a want of fair-play as well as
of due consideration for an invention of such importance to a small naval power like that of the United States. He then de-
voted his attention to the subject of steam-navigation, which has given him so great a reputation. Although Fultonís experiments in torpedoes were not as successful as might have been expected from the talents of the man, yet his efforts were in the right direction, and, had he been liberally patronized, he might have changed the whole face of modern warfare; but naval men seventy years ago, whether in this country or abroad, saw no prospect in the success of Fultonís schemes but the destruction of the service which was their pride and glory, and it is hardly to be wondered at that all plans to destroy ships by other means than the legitimate eighteen-pounder were looked upon with disfavor. So
the torpedo slept for many years; but in time it reappeared, invested with such deadly attributes that no nation could afford to disregard its claims as the most destructive implement of naval warfare yet devised.
 In a remarkable letter to Joel Barlow, dated New York, August 22, 1807, Fulton says, after describing his celebrated steam-voyage up the Hudson:

 However, I will not admit that it (steam-navigation) is half so important as the torpedo system of defense and attack; for out of this will grow the liberty of the season object of infinite importance to the welfare of America and every civilized country.
But thousands of witnesses have now seen the steamboat in rapid movement, and they believe; but they have not seen a ship-of-war destroyed by a torpedo, and they do not believe. We cannot expect people in general to have knowledge of physics or power to
reason from cause to effect; but, in case we have war, and the enemyís ships come into our waters, if the Government will give me reasonable means of action, I will soon convince the world that we have surer and cheaper modes of defense than they are
aware of. Fulton must have been zealous indeed for the torpedo when
he could consider it of more importance than the invention of
the steamboat, that has given quick and cheap transportation to
our merchants, has opened up the treasures on the banks of innumerable rivers, has instituted commerce with every portion of the world, and has given us the power, if we knew how to wield it, to establish great lines of ocean-steamers, which would make
us at least the equal of any nation on earth.  But we must turn from Fulton and his plans, to consider more modern inventions, which have established the importance
of torpedo warfare beyond cavil. During the War of 1812 many attempts were made to blow up the British vessels-of-war by means of improvised torpedoes, powder-vessels, etc., but none of these had much effect on the enemy. The principal result was
to cause retaliatory measures on the part of the British, as the
latter considered all such methods of making war barbarous, and
inconsistent with modern civilization. Besides, these attempts
were mostly unauthorized by our Government, and disapproved
by the navy, who preferred the more chivalric method of sinking

vessels with eighteen and twenty-four pounders, or mowing down
their crews with grape and canister.
 In 1829 the torpedo was again revived by Samuel Colt, the
inventor of the pistol which bears his name, who commenced his
experiments by exploding an iron torpedo by means of galvanism,
destroying, at the first trial, the old gunboat Boxer, off the Battery at New York. On the 20th of August, 1842, in presence of the cabinet and citizens of Washington, he utterly destroyed a schooner off Alexandria, Virginia, while stationed five miles from
her. Congress was so much impressed with Colts experiments
that they voted him seventeen thousand dollars to perfect his
apparatus. Mr. Colt was much abused by the humanitarians of
his day, among whom was John Quincy Adams, who denounced
him in unmeasured terms for his dishonest and cowardly sys-
tem of warfare. Colt and Fulton that Guy Fawkes afloat
were spoken of as men who would discredit the glorious traditions of our navy, and substitute a set of catamarans for the noble frigates that had carried our flag to victory, and were the pride of the nation. Those who object to the torpedo are about as
consistent as the Quaker who in battle refused to assist in fighting
the guns, but who, when the enemy attempted to board, collared
the leader, and pitched him into the sea, saying, Friend, thee
has no business here. Colts last and most remarkable effort
was in blowing up a vessel of five hundred tons, while under sail
and going five knots an hour on the Potomac River; but the
naval and military authorities discountenanced further proceedings toward the development of Colts system; and the inventor having turned over to the Government all his plans and methods of working his galvanic batteries, which seem at this time very
simple devices, devoted himself to the more lucrative business
of manufacturing the revolver, which has quite revolutionized
the system of small-arms then in use. Colts plan for harbor-
defense is somewhat similar to that which is now in use. His
torpedoes were arranged in groups, but the present plan of firing
is much more simple and efficient.
 One of Fultonís ideas was to fire his torpedoes by electricity;
but the subject was not so well understood then as now, and he
never succeeded in arranging a battery that would insure ignition
of the fuses.
 The torpedo was not again heard of in active operations until
the Crimean War, when the Russians employed these submarine
contrivances very extensively in defense of their ports; but they
showed little enterprise in using them against their enemies, and
far less knowledge of the subject than previous operators had
shown. However, the Russians no doubt meant mischief, and
this is the first instance we have where the humanitarian principle
was wholly disregarded, and the torpedo openly made use of by a
nation for offensive and defensive purposes. The arrangements
for firing the Russian torpedoes were much superior to anything
that had gone before. In their mixtures for fuses, white sugar
in certain proportions was found to aid combustion, and by so
employing sugar these new humanitarians showed a disposition
to make the pill as sweet to their enemies as possible! Admiral
Napier, while commander-in-chief in the Baltic, was unmercifully
ridiculed for the respect he showed the enemyís torpedoes, though
really he only exercised the caution which every good commander
should exhibit under the circumstances; but as he did not gratify
the British public by having half a dozen of his ships blown up,
Russian torpedoes were generally characterized as phantasms, existing only in the admirals imagination. Admiral Dundas, who relieved Kapier, had a practical illustration of the effects of the torpedo. He raised a number of the Russian machines, and found
that they would prove formidable obstacles in an attack on Cronstadt. While reconnoitering the forts, two of his vessels came
near being destroyed by the explosion of torpedoes. Bulkheads
were thrown down, girders and beams broken, ships sides bulged
in, and the contents of the hold mixed together in utter confusion, besides which the vessels were nearly dismasted.
 From this time torpedoes began to command the respect of
the naval and military authorities of Europe, and to be considered
worthy of being numbered among the defensive resources of nations; and humanitarians have ceased to condemn them as more unchristian than shot or shell.
 In 1861 a new era in naval warfare was inaugurated. The ingenuity of Ericsson brought forth the famous Monitor, and the energy of the Southern naval officers who had joined the Confederacy rendered the Merrimac almost invincible. These were then the most powerful vessels in the world; and the people of this country will never forget the peculiar sensation they experienced when it was announced that the huge Merrimac had broken loose, was destroying everything in her track, and threatening
to proceed to Washington and hoist the rebel flag on the Capitol.
This sudden onset of so terrible an adversary at once induced
our Government to devote attention to the subject of torpedoes,
which they had so long neglected; and in this they were stimulated by the action of the Confederate naval authorities, who, owing to our superiority in ships, had devoted all their energy and ingenuity to this method of warfare. Being well informed
of the number of iron-clads we were building, and seeing the hopelessness of contending against such odds, even by the purchase of ships abroad, the Confederates were forced to adopt new modes of defense. They were aware that our iron ships were
practically impenetrable to the most improved artillery, and determined to meet us with a new element of war, which they felt would outweigh the power of any vessels we could bring against it. No matter how strong an iron-clad may be made, or how difficult to penetrate with shot or shell, the bottom of the ship is always
a point of weakness, and is actually more vulnerable than that of
a wooden vessel, having less elasticity and less resisting power
under water. To this part of our vessels, then, the Confederates
determined to pay particular attention, with what success will
appear in the history of the torpedo warfare which they mangurated. With such a great extent of sea-coast open to the attack of our cruisers, and with the numerous navigable rivers which traverse the South, the Confederates had extensive facilities for
using the torpedo, and a reasonable prospect of success in driving
us from their inland waters.
 Without entering into details, I will state that, a short time
after the design was formed of using the torpedo extensively, a
torpedo corps was established by the Confederates, which had exclusive control of this arm of defense. Competent officers who had served in the United States Navy were mostly in command of the parties; and, as far as I can learn, the system was first employed in the channels of approach to Wilmington and Charleston, and later in the harbor of Mobile. Besides their forts, these places were defended by sunken torpedoes, which were protected from any interference by the batteries near at hand. There is no end to the shapes and characters of these Confederate infernal
machines, which are graphically described in the excellent work
on Torpedoes by Lieutenant-Commander J. S. Barnes, U. S. N.
 Most of the Southern seaports fell into our possession with
comparative facility; and the difficulty of capturing Charleston,
Savannah, Wilmington, and Mobile, was in a measure owing to
the fact that the approaches to these places were filled with various kinds of torpedoes, laid in groups, something on the plans of Fulton and Colt, and fired by electricity. The introduction of this means of defense on the side of the Confederates was for a
time a severe check to our naval forces, for the commanders of
squadrons felt it their duty to be very careful when dealing with
an element of warfare of which they knew so little, and the character and disposition of which it was so difficult to discover. In this system of defense, therefore, the enemy found their greatest security; and, notwithstanding all the efforts of Du Pont and
Dahlgren, Charleston, Wilmington, and Savannah remained sealed
against our naval forces until near the close of the war. Many
acts of heroism were performed, and the lives of gallant officers
and men sacrificed, to remove these formidable obstructions; but
as fast as the infernal machines were taken away by our forces,
fresh ones were put in their places, backed by piles and other
obstructions, and directly under cover of the enemyís heavy
guns. There was never an occasion when the utility of torpedoes was so fully illustrated as during our blockade of these Southern ports. They kept our ships out, and allowed the blockade-runners to pass in with impunity, supplying the enemy with
the sinews of war until near the end of the contest, when the last
of these strongholds, Fort Fisher, was captured. The Confederates did not use torpedoes at the forts below New Orleans when they were captured by the naval forces, otherwise it might have been a more difficult operation. The wonder is that they were not used, as the place offered many facilities for planting and firing them as our fleet passed up, or floating them down on the ships anchored in the stream below the forts, where for many
days they offered fair objects for this kind of enterprise. I am confident that with our present knowledge of the subject no fleet could pass those forts.  When I took command of the Mississippi squadron in 1862, I was almost immediately called upon to assist the army in the attack on Vicksburg, and heard for the first time that the Yazoo River, where the army under General Sherman intended to disembark, was filled with torpedoes. I at once sent a force in that direction, under Captain Walke, to clear the river of obstructions.
The duty was a dangerous one, and officers and men were much exposed while dragging the river, cutting the wires, and bringing the torpedoes ashore. The machines would sometimes explode, but, thanks to careful handling, no material damage was done.
Officers and men had already learned to respect those little lumps of iron, which, without warning, could send a whole ships crew to destruction. All the time our people were at work at this dangerous duty, they were fired upon by sharp-shooters from rifle-
pits along the river-banks; but these were finally driven away by grape and canister from the gunboats, which were as obnoxious to the Confederates as their torpedoes were to us. The river had been dragged for a distance of eighteen miles, and there was a
fair prospect of removing all the torpedoes without loss, when one exploded under the bow of the iron-clad Cairo, Lieutenant-Commander Selfridge, and in less than three minutes that fine vessel went to the bottom. Fortunately, there was no loss of life,
the officers and crew being picked up by surrounding boats. This was a great success for the enemy, for, with a fifty-dollar torpedo, they had succeeded in destroying an iron-clad costing three or four hundred thousand. However, the Yazoo River was for a
time completely freed of torpedoes, and General Sherman landed his army at the best point on the river without being molested by the Confederates.
 The next accident I had from torpedoes occurred on the same
river later in the war. Lieutenant-Commander J. G. Walker had
been sent in the iron-clad Baron de I{alb, a sister vessel to the
Cairo, to destroy the enemyís navy-yard at Yazoo City. When
our force arrived off the town, the enemyís troops opened fire
with artillery on the iron-clad and her consorts, and Walker,
steaming rapidly ahead, returned the fire. In a moment the bow
of his vessel was blown into the air by the explosion of a sub-
merged torpedo, and all hands were swimming in the river, but
were rescued by the boats of the accompanying vessels, while
their own vessel went to the bottom a total loss. This catastrophe did not prevent those gallant fellows from pushing ahead and capturing the town, destroying the navy-yard and two powerful iron-clad rams on the stocks, and filling their remaining
vessels with ordnance and other valuable stores captured from
the enemy. Thus it will be seen that the torpedoes in no wise
demoralized our men. When the Baron de Kalb was afterward
examined, it was found that the three nine-inch bow guns were
thrown upon their backs, and the vessel and engine completely
knocked to pieces. Yet the torpedo that did the mischief was
simply a three-gallon demijohn filled with powder and ignited by
a friction-fuse, a more primitive machine than Fulton had ever experimented with.






Hit Counter

Comments and questions may be directed to webmaster: mistergwp
Please sign guest book and thanks for visiting.