Sunday, April 02, 2006

Torpedo boats like 'David and Goliath'

By Scott Boyd
April 01, 2006

This Confederate David-type torpedo
boat was found abandoned after the
fall of Charleston, S.C., to Union forces.

Civil War scholars take a broadside at U.S. naval history.

"PROPERLY PLACED, a torpedo could sink the largest ship in the world," asserts Ed Wiser, a Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University, in his presentation "Civil War Torpedo Boats--Ingenuity Under Fire."

Wiser was the first speaker at the third annual Civil War Naval Symposium, sponsored by the National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus in Columbus, Ga. As museum director Bruce Smith put it, "Rather than settle on one topic, we decided to do 'A Broadside of Civil War Naval History.''' This aptly describes the varied and interesting presentations given.

In the Civil War, the term "torpedo" meant an explosive device consisting of a metal or wooden case filled with gunpowder intended for detonation below an enemy vessel's waterline. There were two types: the static or fixed torpedo, anchored underwater and detonated with a contact fuse or by electric current from an observer ashore (something we would today call a naval mine); and a torpedo attached to a spar (a wooden or iron pole) at the bow of a ship for ramming underneath an enemy vessel's waterline prior to detonation.

The Union Navy made only one torpedo attack during the war, Wiser said. It was the daring night-time attack on the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle on the night of Oct. 27-28, 1864, by a small steam launch carrying a spar torpedo and commanded by Lt. William B. Cushing. The surprise attack sank the Albemarle.

The real work and experimentation with torpedoes was carried out by the Confederates, however, as Wiser explained. The best-known Confederate torpedo boat was the CSS David (as in "David and Goliath"), built in Charleston, S.C. The David was a small, cigar-shaped steam launch, very low in the water, which depended on stealth for success. The David attacked the ironclad USS New Ironsides at night on Oct. 5, 1863. The New Ironsides was damaged, but not sunk. The attack, however, instilled a fear of attack by torpedo boats into every Union captain blockading Charleston. Numerous Davids were subsequently built in Charleston and other Southern ports.

A number of Confederate ironclads carried a spar torpedo on their bows later in the war, but none was ever successfully used in battle against Union warships, Wiser pointed out. The Confederate submarine CSS H.L. Hunley used a spar torpedo, though, and made history when it rammed and detonated it into the hull of the USS Housatonic, becoming the first submarine to ever sink an enemy ship.

"The best documentation of Confederate torpedo boats came from U.S. Navy observers after the war," Wiser said. A number of Davids were captured and photographed.

When building their ironclads, Confederate naval engineers always struggled to borrow or build steam engines powerful enough to propel their armored ships. This was not a problem for the North, with its superior industrial capability. Former Port Columbus museum curator (1973-2005) Bob Holcombe discussed this aspect of the naval war.

"The CSS Atlanta was the only operational ironclad with a foreign-made engine," Holcombe noted about the armored warship that was converted from the hull of and used the engines of the British blockade runner Fingal. "She was the best-engined of any Confederate ironclad, and the fastest."

The next presentation began with a limerick, and the reassurances of its author that it would not offend sensitive ears:

There once was a Yankee named Tift

Who had some quite marvelous gifts.

The man could make money

And build ships but: Funny,

They all wound up as "what ifs?"

After the audience laughed, Maurice Melton, professor of history at Albany (Ga.) State University, discussed Connecticut-born Charleston, S.C., resident Nelson Tift, who when the war began was eager to help the Confederacy.

The CSS Mississippi, the largest Confederate ironclad ever de-signed, was conceived by Tift and his brother Asa and was under construction in New Orleans when the Crescent City fell to Union flag officer David G. Farragut's fleet in April 1862. The brothers reportedly watched and cried as their huge, unfinished ironclad was burned to prevent its capture by the advancing Union forces, according to Melton.

Relocating to Savannah, the brothers Tift were tasked with converting the blockade runner Fingal into the ironclad CSS Atlanta, which they did successfully. After some false starts and the replacement of a timid commander with the brash, young Cmdr. William Webb, the Atlanta finally ventured into Wassaw Sound, near Savannah, where two powerful Union monitors were waiting.

"I fault Webb for having a poor battle plan," Melton lamented. Webb intended to attack and sink both Union ships and then retire to Savannah to wait for the completion of the next ironclad under construction there, the CSS Savannah. A better move, Melton explained, would have been to keep moving after defeating the Union ships, and proceed up the coast to attack the vital Union naval base at Port Royal, S.C.

"For naval officers, the worst fate is to go aground in the face of the enemy. That is exactly what Webb accomplished," Melton pointed out. The Atlanta was stuck on a sandbar, and this tilted the side of the ship facing the Union vessels in such a way that it could not bring its guns to bear. After some devastating shots from the 15-inch gun on the USS Weehawken, Webb surrendered.
So the Tift brothers had to live with the what-ifs alluded to in Melton's limerick: What if the CSS Mississippi had been completed and was present to face Farragut's wooden fleet? What if the CSS Atlanta had not been so badly handled and had broken out of Wassaw Sound?



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