Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 02/July/Electrical Torpedoes as a System of Defence

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 2, Number 1  (1876)  by Hunter Davidson
Electrical Torpedoes as a System of Defence
Southern Historical Society Papers, July 1876


Vol. II.
Richmond, Va. January, 1876.

Electrical Torpedoes as a System of Defence.


New York Hotel, New York, May, 1874.

I have but recently returned from South America, and had an opportunity of reading two works on torpedoes, or submarine mines; one by Major R. H. Stotherd, R. E., and the other by Commander Fisher, R. N.

It is now nine years since the close of our civil war, and considering how rapidly things change in this fast age, and that we too must soon pass away, it is about time at least to commence to vindicate the truth of history; for much of the history of that conflict exists only in the memory of the actors therein, and if they die without recording their experiences the truth is lost.

At this day I think that my letter may be fairly read and considered, and that the impartial historian will give to my statements their due weight, the object being to establish my claim to having made the first successful application of electrical torpedoes or submarine mines as a system of defence in time of war, which system is now generally adopted in some modified form by all nations for the defence of harbors, rivers, &c., and their approaches, as well as for the approaches by land to any fortified position.

I do not know that I should ever have taken this step, but that the authors of the books to which I allude, as well as Colonel Chesney, R. E., in his "Essays in Military Biography," page 345, seem to turn their backs, with such a studied air, upon the practical source of electrical torpedo defences—defences which they do not conceal are becoming the chief reliance of all nations for the purposes above named.

The works of Major Stotherd, R. E., particularly the last edition, are valuable alike to the general reader, the officer of whatever service of his country, and to the young torpedoist; whilst those of Commander Fisher are rather elementary and wanting in practical information to be sure; but both of those authors would doubtless have it inferred that to England belongs the merit, whatever it amounts to, of having devised, without material assistance, an efficient method of torpedo defence. The fact is, however, that there is not a matter of any practical importance treated of by Major Stotherd in his late work on this subject, that was not understood and practiced where necessary in my torpedo department during the late war, except as to the new explosives; and I assert that he could easily have ascertained these facts by making the ordinary inquiries that every author should make in order to place before his readers a correct and impartial work; also that the facts already at his hand should have induced him to do so, for he quotes from the pamphlet on torpedo warfare, by Captain E. Harding Steward, R. E., whose constant mention of my name in connection with the first and only success of electrical torpedoes in war, showed Major Stotherd very clearly where the system originated.

And now for the evidence. First, let me say, that I purposely avoided entering into detail, until forced to do so, as to what was done, by the use of E. torpedoes during our civil war, not wishing to recall unpleasant scenes, but that I write now in gratification of a natural and proper ambition, recording the truth.

The first idea of using torpedoes on the Confederate side, originated I believe with the Hon. S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy, and he directed the distinguished Captain M. F. Maury, LL. D., to make experiments with a view to their general employment if practicable.

I was selected as his immediate assistant.

His work commenced in the spring of 1862, and continued for a few months only with electrical torpedoes.

He had arrived at no definite conclusion from his experiments, in any particular when he left the Confederacy for Europe, and I was ordered to take charge, subject to orders from the Navy Department only, and remained so until near the closing scenes of the war, when I was relieved in command by Captain J. Pembroke Jones.

The means used in my electrical torpedo defences differed in every essential particular from those used by Captain Maury in his experiments. The peculiar construction of the mines, the methods of fixing them in position and connecting them with the cables and batteries; the determination of the quantities of powder to use at different depths and the effective areas, the batteries used for firing, and also for testing the mines, as well as the organization and equipment of the stations from which the mines were controlled, all formed a complete system devised by myself.

The results of this system were that the first vessels ever injured or destroyed in war, by electrical torpedoes, were by the torpedo department operating under my immediate command, and I may add the only ones, that I am aware of.

Those who are not well acquainted with the history of our civil war will find ample proof of my statements on file in the Navy Department at Washington, as also by reference to Admirals Porter and S. P. Lee, and Commander W. B. Cushing, United States Navy, for the fact that an efficient system of torpedo defences did exist on the James river, during the war, and to the Hon. S. R. Mallory; Captain J. M. Brooke, inventor of the Merrimac, the Brooke Gun, and the deep-sea sounding apparatus; and also to Captain Wm. H. Parker, formerly Superintendent of the Confederate Naval School, that I organized and commanded these defences, and was the first to make them successful.

There are volumes of evidence to this effect that can be produced when necessary.

I hold letters from the three last named gentlemen, and from the late General R. E. Lee in reference to the efficiency of my torpedo department—also a letter from the Hon. S. R. Mallory, in which he says: "I regarded your service as equivalent to that of a well appointed fleet or army;" and this had reference only to the defences of Richmond.

In fact when the system was nearly completed and inspected in person by President Davis, General Lee, and Secretary Mallory, it was immediately decided to withdraw large numbers of troops from that quarter for offensive operations elsewhere, it being well understood that the Union armies could not advance without the assistance of the Federal squadron, which advance was for a long time effectually prevented by my system of submarine defences.

Many vessels were disabled or destroyed by mechanical or contact torpedoes, but such effect is known to be the result of mere chance, often as fatal to friend as foe, and produces no such demoralizing effect as the certain destruction which awaits any vessel attempting to pass electrical torpedoes.

In regard to the efficiency of the torpedo defences employed by me during the war, as compared with those of the present day, I have to say that I have been almost constantly on torpedo duty ashore and afloat since our war, making the subject a study in several foreign countries and our own, and have not yet seen any material improvement or development of the original system, and if we were at war with any great naval power to-morrow, I should prefer to rely upon it when the hour of trial came.

There are several beautiful and ingenious methods devised by those who have had no practice in war, but my experience will not permit me to give them approval.

Now, if we are to consider practical success as the test of an invention, have I not a right to this? Am I not as much entitled to it as Morse to the telegraph? Howe to the sewing machine? Colt to the revolver? And as many other men to their inventions whose success did not carry with it the original conception of the necessity for the invention, nor the first attempts to carry out the idea, nor in whose inventions as patented is there one original scientific principle? It is the effect produced by art in combination, and this is the basis of ninety-nine out of a hundred patents.

And the first successful attempt to achieve an important physical object by original principles or art in combining those which are known, is the only test by which we can be governed in awarding a patent entitling one to an invention. If not, where shall we draw the line of distinction? How shall we proceed with a patent office?

In the year 1860, Congress adopted by an almost unanimous vote my invention for "lowering, detaching, attaching, and securing boats at sea," and directed the Secretary of the Navy to purchase the patent right for the use of the navy, which was done. The marine world had probably seen the necessity for such an invention since the days of Noah, and there is not one original mechanical principle in it. It is simply a combination. The invention was several years before the country, in scientific journals; was carefully examined and tested at sea in several ships by some of the best officers in the navy, and discussed during two sessions in Congress, yet I have never known any one to dispute my claim thereto.

The efficiency of electrical torpedo defences is so universally recognized at this day and they appear so simple to the initiated, that many of the "I know it" kind may exclaim, "Why I don't see any invention in the matter, for it has been long known that if a chance was got at a ship with so much powder under her, she was bound to go up."

But then if so simple, why did not Fulton or Bushnell, in the early history of our country, or the Russians during the Crimean war, stamp the fact upon the times, so as to render it, as it is now, a system of defence that no nation dares neglect.

And how did it become so?

I trust to history for the answer.

If any one had to contend with the abuse and sneers, and ridicule whilst in the performance of torpedo duty day and night, that fell upon me during the war, he would realize that as late as the summer of 1863, some of the ablest men of the day did not regard torpedo warfare as worthy of consideration, and the very attempts of Fulton and of Bushnell, and of the Russians, were used by those men in argument that my attempt would also be fruitless.

Much of the light has to struggle through mediums of darkness and resistance, and gradually breaks in upon us. Our theories rarely assume a practical form, but as in many other circumstances so in naval and military matters we are controlled by theory (nearly every association having one of its own) until the test, the practice comes, and then in war see how the mist vanishes and light appears! Some have made the lucky casts and win.

Can any one think of a war that did not cause him to wonder at his own want of forethought? How weapons, and methods are changed! How rank is capsized! How he came out of the struggle other rounds higher on the ladders of science and of art!

And every discovery of a new or improved weapon proves to be a step towards greater civilization and peace.

Apropos of the foregoing, I remember that a distinguished Admiral sent word to me when under a flag of truce during the war, that if I came down to his squadron again in a certain boat, (in which I had made the first successful attack with the "Lee—Spar—Torpedo") he would not respect the flag, as he did not acknowledge that I was engaged in civilized or legitimate warfare. This glanced from my armor as many a worse shot did from my own side, though for other reasons, for I felt that as he was the only sufferer then, he saw the matter from but one point of view, but that time would set it even as I replied in substance to the officer, ----------"respice finem." The end indeed was not far off, for the official reports of the day were that the admiral took up my torpedo mines as the territory was conquered, and turned them against us; and certain it is that his squadron was soon after armed with the "Lee—Spar—Torpedo."

To those who know me, I trust that this letter is unnecessary, but then there is the world beside, and who knows how many in it to set up a claim without having a knowledge of the facts? And those too who having that dangerous "little knowledge" may constantly employ it, as they have already done, until public opinion accepts it as its guide.

I cannot conclude without a few words more in reference to my ever kind and lamented friend Captain Maury. He went from the South to England, where he continued to make experiments in electricity applicable to torpedo warfare, and discovered a most ingenious method of arranging and testing torpedo mines, which I believe is his patent, and was shown me by him in the winter of 1864 and '65.

The fact that there was no practical result from his experiments the few months he carried them on in the South, is due simply to the want of time to organize his forces and collect material, though his experiments served to mark some of the shoals on the way, if not the channel to success. But even had he remained to develop the system, and given it the greater impress of his genius, no success in consequence could have added much to the world-wide fame he had already acquired.

To the Hon. S. R. Mallory, who always believed in the success of the undertaking from the first, and ever gave me a firm and kind support, and materially aided me with his advice; to Captain Jno. M. Brooke, then Chief of the Naval Bureau of Ordnance, and to my electrician, R. O. Crowley, I am in a great measure indebted for the success which I here claim entitles me to be known as having made the first successful application of electrical torpedoes, or submarine mines in time of war, and as a system of defence.

Hunter Davidson.