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

Part 2

 

Notes:

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Corrections have been applied by George W. Penington

 

 From this time forward we heard more of torpedoes, but, as
stringent regulations were issued regarding them, no mishap of
consequence occurred; but vessels ascending small rivers always
carried in advance a long pole bearing a deep net, with which to
scoop up any torpedoes that might be in the way.
 About May, 1864, a new description of Confederate torpedo
was brought to my notice. By assiduous watching of small boats
crossing the Mississippi, I succeeded in capturing a package of
dispatches which fully explained the organization of a corps of
Confederate torpedo-setters, together with the names of the par-
ties concerned, and their commissions signed by Mr. Mallory,
Secretary of the Navy. This old sea-dog, not having any vessels wherewith to operate on the ocean, except the one commanded by Semmes, his 1ieau-id~al of an incendiary, organized a body of horse-marines to patrol the shore, who were directed to sink,
burn, and destroy every Union vessel on the Mississippi and its tributaries by means of the new style of infernal machines. In order to circumvent these machinations, I appointed a corps of detectives to travel in all merchant-steamers, and win the confidence of the rebel operators. Some of the latter ended their career very suddenly. The general order which I thought necessary to issue at that time recites the reckless character of the
people with whom we had to deal; who, not withstanding their diabolical warfare, would under other circumstances have been sufficiently tender-hearted if called upon to use only eighteen-pounders. One very valuable vessel was destroyed by these infernal machines. She was used as a wharf-boat, or store-ship, at the Mound City Navy-Yard, was six hundred feet long and sixty wide, and filled with stores for the fleet. Notwithstanding the greatest vigilance was exercised, a torpedo resembling a lump of coal was introduced on board, and the vessel was destroyed by the fire which took place after the explosion. At the time of this occurrence, my flag-ship, the Black Hawk, was made fast to the wharf-boat, and the first notice I had of her danger was a slight explosion, when the whole vessel was immediately wrapped in flames. Here was a torpedo beneath the notice of the Bushnell’s and Fulton’s, yet sufficiently effective in its particular line.
 It would perhaps require a subtle casuist to determine how
far such contrivances are justifiable in war. My own reason and
experience have taught me that the most prompt and harassing
measures are the best; and if ever war is made so dangerous that
every combatant will to a certainty be killed, then there is an end
of the business, and the Peace Society can put up their shutters.
I had rather an exciting time with some of the explosive land-
torpedoes operated by Secretary Mallory’s horse-marines. In the
fall of 1864 I was at Dutch Gap, on James River, making arrangements for the government of the naval forces left to take care of the obstructions in that stream, and to prevent the rebel fleet coming down while I was absent at Fort Fisher. General
Butler came up soon afterward in a swift steamer called the Greyhound, and, as he desired to see me on some public business, I started to accompany him in that vessel to Fortress Monroe. Dutch Gap was then the rendezvous for all kinds of people who were working on the famous canal; many of them their own mothers would not have recognized, and, a thing that could hardly have been prevented, emissaries from the enemy’s camp frequently visited the place. As we steamed down the river I drew General Butlers attention to several rough-looking fellows on deck, and he ordered the vessel rounded-to at Bermuda Hundred, and turned the strangers over to a guard. We then continued on our way, but in about half an hour an explosion took place in or near the furnaces, and the vessel was almost immediately in flames amidships. The crew jumped overboard, and we in the after-part lowered a boat and just managed to escape from the flames. It was my belief that the men we had set on shore had deposited some of their infernal machines among the coal; at the proper time they exploded, and the result was the loss of a beautiful steamer, with a fine lot of horses belonging to the general.
The work of these incendiaries was so thoroughly done that in
ten minutes from the time of the fire breaking out not a vestige
of the steamer remained.
 During the Red River Expedition, in the spring of 1864, the
Confederates used every effort to give us a warm reception, and
torpedoes were planted all along the river, which we removed as
we passed up. On our return down the river, the Eastport, a
splendid and costly iron-clad ram, struck a torpedo, which apparently contained not more than twenty pounds of powder, and in five minutes the vessel sank in shoal water. I brought to the assistance of her commanding officer two heavy pump-boats, and
by pumping and bailing managed to get her two hundred miles farther down the river, where her progress was effectually stopped by a tremendous barrier of logs. Any attempt to force the iron-clad through this would have exposed the rest of the vessels to destruction, many of them being already badly cut up, so I ordered the Eastport to be blown up. This was the last vessel of my command that was sunk by torpedoes on the Western waters;
but had Mallory’s horse-marines shown common energy and intelligence in resisting, with their torpedoes, our advance up Red River, few if any of our vessels would have escaped.
 I mention these occurrences to show how very destructive a
small quantity of powder or gun-cotton can be made to an enemy
afloat; and, although Fulton was so violently opposed and ridiculed, he was not much out of the way in advocating a torpedo corps, to consist of a thousand boats, with their complement of officers and men, to attack the enemy’s vessels wherever they could be found at anchor or in a calm. In Fulton’s day such a notion received less encouragement than would now a scheme for transporting passengers to the Paris Exposition by a balloon. Of late years, so great has been the progress made in the sciences and mechanic arts that there is no longer room to question the success of this once dubious system of naval warfare.
 All told, we lost nearly twenty vessels from torpedoes during
the war of the rebellion. Most of the occurrences were simply
mentioned in the public dispatches of the time, and are, hence,
not familiar to the general reader. Persons unacquainted with a
sea-life are apt to imagine it a fine thing to be a naval officer,
roaming about the world in a noble ship, with all sail set a blow and aloft, and doubtless it is a privilege to serve ones country in so honorable a calling; but this is only the rose-colored view of the matter, and there are very many incidents in the profession
which would be exceedingly distasteful to a landsman among
them the liability to being blown to atoms when skimming over
the bosom of a summer sea. Who does not remember the fate
of the gallant Craven and his officers and men, when fearlessly
advancing in the Tecumseh to the attack on Mobile, how the ship
encountered a hundred-pound torpedo, and in thirty seconds after
the explosion went to the bottom, leaving but a few survivors to
tell the story? Here was a vessel, costing over a million dollars,
destroyed by a small torpedo which cost less than one hundred.
 The case of the Commodore Jones, a large gunboat that
was blown up at Deep Bottom, on James River, was a particularly painful one. This vessel was at the time employed in dragging for torpedoes, and was surrounded by row-boats employed in the same service. The captain having been notified by a Negro pilot that he was near sunken torpedoes, the gunboats engines were stopped and she commenced backing. Scarcely had she gathered stern-way, when suddenly and without any apparent cause she appeared to be lifted bodily, her wheels rapidly revolving in the air, and persons declared they could see the green grass of the river-bank beneath her keel. An immense fountain of foaming water shot to a great height, followed by a denser column thick with mud. The vessel absolutely crumbled to pieces, dissolved as it were in mid-air, enveloped by the falling spray, mud, water, and smoke. When the excitement of the explosion subsided, not a vestige of the vessel remained in sight,
except small fragments of her frame which came shooting to the surface. Nearly every one on board was killed or wounded.
This vessel was destroyed by a charge of about two thousand
pounds of powder contained in a tank and fired by electric wires.
It is needless to say that this catastrophe checked the advance
of the other vessels astern of the Jones, but measures were immediately taken to capture the torpedo-operators, who, to save their lives, pointed out the location of other infernal machines, and explained the secrets of their torpedo service.


 The Confederates took particular pains to defend the James
River by torpedoes, which had the effect of completely closing it
against the approach of the United States vessels. Our fleet
would have been destroyed in detail had it attempted to force its
way up against the concealed torpedoes protected by heavy batteries. In the early part of 1864 the Confederates had completed their system of defense throughout the South, and the difficulty of approaching their strongholds through their lines of torpedoes was almost insurmountable. The ideas of Fulton seemed to have taken possession of our humane friends at the South, and it would require a book to describe all the incidents connected with Confederate torpedo warfare, and to recite the damage we sustained in the latter part of the war, when the enemy had by means of blockade-runners imported hundreds of electric batteries, and tons of iron carcasses to be filled and distributed, as occasion required, through all parts of the Confederacy. Every
navigable stream within their jurisdiction was amply defended
by submarine batteries; and General Beauregard remarked concerning Charleston, that he attached more importance to one of his pet torpedoes for the defense of that place than to five ten-inch guns; and well he might, since our iron-clads were impervious to the latter, and entirely vulnerable to the torpedoes.
 The following is a list of our vessels destroyed or severely damaged after the Confederates had succeeded in getting their torpedo system in full operation. Some of the saddest episodes of the war were in connection with the loss of these vessels
Cairo, Baron de Kalb, Eastport, a wharf-boat, Commodore Jones, Tecnmseh, Otsego, Basely, Patapsco, Harvest Moon, Milwaukee, Osage, Rodolphe, Scioto, Ida, Althea, Housatonic to say nothing of injuries to vessels, destruction of boats, and a somewhat demoralizing effect temporarily produced on a navy which has never yet declined to attempt the most hazardous undertakings.
 If, after investigating the results of torpedo warfare since the year 1862, any one will undertake to decide against its efficiency, I should give him little credit for judgment. Had we established at the beginning of the war a torpedo corps superior to that of the Confederates, supplied with the modern appliances, we might successfully have fought torpedo with torpedo, and, if the Confederates blocked up the inside of rivers, we could have blocked up the outside channels with such contrivances that the blockade-runners would either have been blown up or kept out of the harbors, and the enemy would soon have been deprived of the sinews of war. In whatever shape torpedoes are employed, there are always two sides to the game,
and it must not be supposed that it will belong exclusively to
one party. We showed during the war either a want of intelligence in not using torpedoes, or an excess of humanity, and a rash confidence of easily overcoming a vigilant and energetic foe, a confidence which was not justified by our experience as the war went on. But since the close of the war we have paid particular attention to the subject, and at present are as well informed in all that relates to the torpedo, and as ready to discard our false notions of humanity, as any other nation, for at present
the naval powers of the world are acting as if they almost believed in Fulton’s prophecy, that the torpedo would finally revolutionize all naval warfare.
 Hitherto I have alluded principally to the torpedo as used for
the defense of rivers and harbors, but that is not the most formidable mode of employing it. Since the close of our war the torpedo-vessel has been successfully developed; and now that the nations of Europe have constructed great iron-clad fleets armed
with monster guns, the admiration of the world, behold there springs into existence this little ocean-scorpion, bristling with out-riggers and exploding tails, and endowed with a speed sufficient to overtake or escape from the strongest ships! A naval officer might almost stand aghast at the prospect of his ship being struck unawares by one of these stealthy and effective sea-devils. He will dread them in the future as the whale dreads the sword-fish: when once the enemy has struck, there is no hope of escape;
and the blockheads who have pooh-poohed the torpedo-vessel as a harmless affair will be the first to surround their ships with logs and nets, so as not to be blown into eternity while quietly eating their dinners.
 The Confederates were the first to use the torpedo-boat, and
began by launching several cigar-shaped vessels, each about fifty
feet long, propelled by steam, and carrying a torpedo on the end
of a boom, which could be run out, lowered under a ships bottom, and fired. These vessels were called Davids, in allusion, I suppose, to the story of David and Goliath. The Davids were rather crude affairs, and drowned their own people oftener
than those they were in pursuit of, but they kept our blockading
forces very uneasy, harassing them continually. On the night of
October 5, 1863, a David got alongside the iron-clad New
Ironsides,
off Charleston, and, exploding a torpedo against her
side, shook the ship terribly, and did considerable damage. On
the night of February 17, 1864, a David attacked the sloop-
of-war Housatonic, lying at anchor outside Charleston Harbor,
and blew a hole in the ships bottom, which caused her to sink
in a few moments. After the war it was discovered, on examination of the wreck of the Housatonic by divers, that the torpedo-boat which destroyed her had run partly into the opening made by the explosion, so that all on board the David found
a watery grave.
 Many of our vessels were at different times during the war
attacked by torpedoes fitted to steam-launches, which did great
damage, rendering the vessels useless, at least for the time being;
among the vessels lost in this way were the Minnesota and the
Wabash, two of our largest frigates. These torpedo-boats were
small affairs, mostly improvised for the occasion, with incomplete apparatus and insufficient charges; but they were a step in the right direction, and are the originals of the perfected torpedo- vessel which will in the future decide the issues of naval battles.
 The nations of Europe are now actively engaged in perfecting the torpedo-vessel, and the results are very encouraging.
Torpedo-boats of great speed and capacity for mischief have been designed; while England, with characteristic stubbornness, has so far done little in this direction, trusting more to her iron bulwarks and stout tars than to a mode of warfare which the conservative blue-jacket will still insist upon styling contemptible and cowardly, fit only for Chinamen and Feejee-Islanders. At this - moment no nation can afford to ignore the torpedo, either as an offensive or defensive weapon; to do so would be evidence that they had not observed the recent great improvements, or that observation had taught them nothing. When I hear a naval officer speak contemptuously of the torpedo, saying that it can be of no great use in time of war, II set him down as one whose opinion is of no consequence on that or any other professional subject, for he has either benefited nothing by experience or has never had any experience by which to benefit. It is true that the torpedo will not so change the character of naval war that great ships will be dispensed with; for, in proportion as this engine is developed, new contrivances for withstanding it will be invented. The nation that possesses the most powerful fleets will, as heretofore, dominate its adversaries on the sea, and we shall live to see perfected torpedo-vessels engaging other torpedo-vessels on the ocean, as we see the light-cavalry combats of two contending armies.
 The idea has got abroad among superficial observers that
large ships of the present type will disappear before the advent
of the new torpedo-boat, and that torpedoes planted in channels
will render forts and heavy guns unnecessary an opinion which
is not shared by experienced persons. Under the guns of a heavy
fleet torpedoes can be raised from a channel at night, by men
in submarine armor, or the machines can be made useless by cut-
ting the firing wires, or ships can use certain appliances which,
in many cases, will neutralize the effects of torpedo-boats. A
watchful commander will be always on the alert for these little
sea-devils, his nets ready for service, and his own  torpedo-launches on the qui vive. At night his electric lights should illuminate the surrounding waters, and his guns be ready to pour in grape on an approaching foe. It is true that torpedoes in channels at times stopped the advance of our naval forces during the late civil war, but we had not always a sufficient strength in ships and guns to overcome the forts which were always ready to drive away our boats when groping for the hidden enemy. The torpedo is a powerful adjunct in war, but nothing more. It cannot bombard an enemy’s forts, or lay his cities under contribution, nor can it cruise for, cut up, and destroy, a merchant marine.
It cannot transport troops to invade a foreign country; it is simply a most destructive and harassing machine, making war much more horrible while it lasts, but incapable of successfully operating unless backed by powerful ships, which will, as heretofore, doubt-less prove the chief naval strength of the various nations.  Every ship, large or small, can, in a measure, be converted into a torpedo-vessel, projecting the Whitehead torpedo from her sides, or operating the Lay torpedo from her deck; and the greater speed which, other things being equal, a large vessel must  as compared with a small one, would perhaps render the former more efficient in this mode of warfare than the latter. Torpedoes, in combination with rams, will so far change the character of naval warfare, that there will be no more sea-battles fought in extended lines, as of old, but fleets will fight in groups of three or four ships, with a combination including the gun-vessel, ram, and torpedo, so that each can support the other, and an intelligent commander can maneuver without danger of collision or breaking the line of battle.
 Some of the swiftest torpedo-boats yet constructed are on the
plan of Thornycroft, of England, but they hardly seem to deserve
the high estimate which some writers have put upon them, for
in a heavy sea-way they are useless. The torpedo-vessel, to be
thoroughly effective, should be able to keep the sea in any
weather, steam at the rate of seventeen knots, be wholly impervious to grape, and partly so to shot, and be fitted with all the improved torpedo devices.
 The United States have as yet done very little practically in
the way of using torpedoes. Our naval vessels are fitted with a
torpedo-spar which is now out of date, and should give way to
new contrivances. We have built one good torpedo-vessel, but
she is deficient in speed, without which no vessel of this kind
can be depended upon at sea; but she will answer very well for
harbor-defense, until improved machinery is provided to drive
her fourteen or fifteen knots. In other respects she is a formidable vessel. We have at Newport, Rhode Island, an excellent school for instruction in torpedo warfare, and some twenty young officers graduate there each year, carrying with them information
which in case of war will be of the greatest value. We possess
numerous torpedo inventions which have been practically tested
at Newport before boards of officers. Some of these contrivances
are very good, and others sufficiently primitive; but I hesitate to
particularize any of them, since, if I spoke doubtfully of some,
their inventors would consider it a special grievance.
 During the late war we never made but one serious attack on
the Confederates with the torpedo, but that affair was too remarkable to pass unnoticed here. The Government had sent to Hampton Roads three steam-launches fitted with torpedoes on the end of a pole, devised by Chief-Engineer Wood and Assistant Engineer Lay. The torpedo consisted of a copper case with a hollow tube through the center, at the bottom of which was fixed a cone for a fulminate cap; at the end was an iron ball to act as
a plunger and explode the cap, the ball being held by a safety-pin.
An inclined partition divided the interior of the torpedo into a
magazine and an air-chamber. The disposition of the charge
caused the torpedo to take position in the water with the chamber
uppermost, with the trigger-line attached to the pin to lead so as
to give a direct pull from the boat. The poles lay alongside the
boat, and when run out took an angular course under a ships bottom. Lieutenant Cushing having given personal attention to the fitting of these steam-launches, and having originally proposed the blowing-up of the Albemarle, by direction of the Department I sent him to execute this dangerous duty. He was fully equipped, and had instructions to proceed to the sounds of North Carolina, communicate with the commanding officer of the flotilla, Commander Macomb, and make all his dispositions to destroy the rebel ram (the Confederate iron-clad ram Albemarle), then lying off Plymouth, North Carolina, which vessel was bidding defiance to our flotilla of six or seven vessels, had disabled some of them, and kept all hands in a decidedly uncomfortable frame of mind. Everything worked well, and Cushing was not discovered by the enemy until he had come close along-side the Albemarle, on the night of October 27, 1864. The vessel was surrounded by logs and other obstructions. In pushing his pole over the logs, and forcing his boat partly through them, he exploded the torpedo, and the Albemarle was so much injured that she sunk while firing upon Cushing with great guns and small-arms. The torpedo-boat filled with water, and Cushing and some of his brave companions escaped by swimming; others were drowned, and the rest taken prisoners. As soon as Macomb received notice of Cushing’s success, he pushed up a back inlet as I had directed, and, taking the enemy in the rear, captured the town of Plymouth and the defenses, with some nine or ten heavy guns, together with a large supply of small-arms, stores, etc .all resulting from the performance of a little torpedo-boat with fifty pounds of powder on the end of a pole! This success gave us entire control of the sounds of North Carolina, which control we ever afterward maintained. History has done justice to this affair, and Cushing received the most enthusiastic commendation for his gallant conduct;
but success was also owing to Commander Macomb, who had all
the arrangements carried out, and performed so gallantly the
final coup by which the Albemarle fell into our hands, with
the other spoils of war. She was afterward raised, and found to
be unhurt, with the exception of a small hole in her bottom.
 Of all torpedo experiments this was the most interesting
that ever came under my observation. Here was a great iron-
clad, costing perhaps a million dollars, a vessel that had success-
fully resisted and inflicted great damage on a fleet carrying some
very heavy guns, and was only making a few additions to her
strength preparatory to capturing or destroying Macomb and all
his forces. The town of Plymouth, a valuable strategic point,
with all its guns, stores, etc., fell into our possession, through the
gallant action of a handful of officers and men, and the intelligent use of a small torpedo-boat. Macomb and Cushing have gone to their long home, but the memory of their bravery and good judgment I shall ever cherish.
 The sinking of the Albemarle so convinced me of the
value of the torpedo-vessel, that I have ever since been deeply
interested in the subject, and have constantly endeavored to improve upon the designs which have been presented to the public.
I am acquainted with the details of nearly forty automatic powder-torpedoes, and a number of others charged with gun-cotton and dynamite, and fired by electricity. Every one of the above, with very simple mechanism, would perform its work effectively,
but it would be impossible to give a name to these things, much less write a satisfactory description of them. The most widely- known torpedo at present, and the one most approved by authorities in Europe, is the Whitehead or fish torpedo, the invention of an Englishman named Whitehead. The details of its construction are not publicly known, being imparted only to certain persons in the Navies of Great Britain and Austria, each of which powers has paid the inventor twenty thousand pounds sterling for his secret.
 The Whitehead torpedo is cigar-shaped, propelled by an engine
using compressed air, and is discharged from a vessel or from the
shore, running at the rate of sixteen miles an hour. It can be set to run on the surface or at any required depth, and explodes on striking an object. Although the Whitehead has given better results than any other torpedo of its class, it has several eccentricities of character, sometimes turning about without notice and making for its friends, or exploding prematurely. The distance this torpedo can run is in proportion to the size of the motor which gives it its speed and direction. To show the unreliability of the Whitehead torpedo, I will refer to the engagement between the Peruvian iron-clad Huascar and two British men-of-war. The Shah, one of the latter, sent a fish-torpedo against the Huascar, which, seeing bubbles of air rising to the surface, avoided the machine, and it ran straight into a harbor near by; there, the compressed air being gradually expended, the torpedo rested quietly alongside a Dutch merchant-vessel at anchor, with no power to do harm. The Dutch captain, seeing what he supposed to be a live fish alongside, got out his fishing-tackle, but was disgusted at not getting a bite; only after several unsuccessful attempts with a harpoon did he discover the nature of his visitor. The Whitehead may, under certain circumstances, be a destructive instrument, but, owing to its erratic movements, it is liable in the heat of battle to prove dangerous to its friends.
 The torpedo-vessel will, in the end, I am convinced, prove a
most effective and certain means of offense, as its movements are
at all times under the entire control of its commander, who can
select his own time for attack and retreat.
 No detailed account of torpedoes could be given within the
limits of an ordinary article, and I have only attempted to deal
with general principles, referring for a more complete illustration
of this subject to the various works in which it has been treated.
D. D. PORTER.


AUTHOR
Admiral D. D. Porter, U.S. Navy


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