Infernal Devices, Greek Fire and Bioterrorism


Coal Torpedo
Coal Torpedo

As the war wound down in April of 1865, 2100 paroled Union POWs assembled at a camp near Vicksburg, Mississippi to await transport home by steamer. On April 24th, they crowded aboard the Sultana for the ride home. About 2:00 in the morning on April 27th, the boat’s three boilers exploded, scalding many of her crew and passengers. Scattered embers immediately set the ship ablaze and those who had not been flayed alive by steam were forced into a cold and flooded Mississippi to perish from hypothermia. About an hour later, another ship came upon the burning wreck and managed to rescue some of the survivors, while others were pulled from the water as they drifted past Memphis. Many of these would later die in hospitals of their wounds and burns. In all, deaths are believed to be in the range of 1800 – more than the Titanic’s 1512 – making the Sultana the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.

For a time the Sultana disaster was blamed on faulty maintenance – an accident. But the deathbed confession of Robert Louden, Confederate secret agent, later called this into question when he claimed to have sabotaged the boat with a “coal torpedo.” This refers to a four pound iron shell disguised as a large lump of coal, painted black and covered with coal dust, filled with gunpowder. When shoveled into a steam engine coal-box, the shell would soon explode, triggering a catastrophic rupture which would release scalding steam and scatter burning coal to start fires. These devious devices were the invention of Thomas Courtenay, who planned to seed them among Union vessels and even to have decoy coal barges confiscated by blockaders, who would then transfer the booby-trapped coal into their own bins.

Louden may have in fact been responsible for sabotaging several Unionist boats on the Mississippi – whether his claim of sinking the Sultana is true will probably never be known, but he was the right guy in the right place at the right time, and he had done it before. Other ships which may have been the victims of coal torpedoes were the Chenango, stricken on her maiden voyage from New York to Virginia in 1864, killing thirty of her crew and crippling the ship for the duration of the war. In November of 1864, Ben Butler’s headquarters on the James, the Greyhound, burned after its boiler was blown by Confederate “visitors” who had slipped a torpedo into the coal supply.   Altogether, the coal torpedo may have damaged over fifty ships, killing thousands of Yankee soldiers and sailors and a good number of civilians as well.

One of the most spectacular demonstrations of Confederate ingenuity came in August of 1864 at City Point, Grant’s vast supply depot supplying his army on the Petersburg line. A Confederate named John Maxwell snuck a “horological torpedo” – a time bomb – aboard a Union munitions ship. When the ship went up, the detonation destroyed a huge section of the waterfront, wharves and associated warehouses. Forty soldiers were killed and many others wounded, including some of Grant’s staff. The blast was heard in Petersburg, ten miles away.

On a more modest level, the Confederates deployed improvised land mines – 8 and 10 inch shells with a percussion fuse covered by foil. When a horse hoof struck the fuse …   First used at the siege of Yorktown to delay McClellan’s pursuit, by 1864 thousands had been deployed around Richmond’s forts. By then many were command–detonated with a long cord, the original Claymore. The ethics of employing these devices were questionable in the Victorian age, but there is no doubt they were effective. Eventually the Yankees had Confederate prisoners walking in front of the Union troops to either point them out or clear them the hard way – so much for ethics in wartime.

Even more effective were the Confederate submersible torpedoes – mines. Two brothers named Rains were geniuses in this field, churning out designs that actually worked. As early as 1862, the Federal navy had to proceed cautiously to avoid the mine threat, which blunted the fleet’s effectiveness and sapped morale. In December of 1864, command-detonated mines destroyed seven of twelve ships sent up the Roanoke River to take a fort in North Carolina. The U.S. navy lost more ships from mines than all other causes combined. At Mobile, Admiral Farragut’s famous quote, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” refers to the very real threat presented by these keel-splitting monsters. The first “torpedo” as we think of it in a modern sense was the Confederate submarine Hunley, which unfortunately delivered its warhead via manpower. In February of 1864, she sank the Housatonic in Charleston harbor, but was herself lost, ultimately killing more of her own crew than Yankee sailors.

Sultana Disaster, from Harper's Weekly
Sultana Disaster, from Harper’s Weekly

Dirty tricks were aimed at the North’s civilian populace as well. The Confederate secret service and sympathetic Copperheads came up with a scheme to burn down New York in November 1864. Agents set fire to thirteen Manhattan hotels and also some prominent public buildings such as P.T. Barnum’s museum. This was done with vials of a mysterious substance called “Greek fire.” When poured out and exposed to the air for a time, this would spontaneously combust. The concoction was spread on beds and linen and in stairwells, but the resulting fires were small and slow, and were soon extinguished. The conspirators fled to Canada; one, Robert Kennedy, was caught reentering the country and was hanged in New York just before war’s end in late March 1865.

Biological warfare was old by the Civil War – the British gave Indians “gifts” of blankets infected with small pox during the French and Indian War. Confederate agents attempted the same thing with clothing which had been worn by yellow fever victims. Although virtually unknown in the U.S. today, yellow fever killed hundreds of thousands in the 18th and 19th centuries; in 1793, an epidemic in Philadelphia killed 5,000 out a population of 45,000.   A Southern physician who specialized in yellow fever, Dr. Luke Blackburn, travelled to Bermuda to assist that important Confederate ally with an outbreak. Before leaving, he filled trunks with the clothing of yellow fever victims. He planned to travel to Canada and on to the United States to distribute the clothing for resale in Northern cities and Washington, believing that this would spark epidemics in those cities. He set aside the finest shirts with a mind towards making these a special gift for Lincoln. But the U.S. consul in Bermuda discovered the plot and Blackburn had to flee without his cargo. It would not have worked anyway – yellow fever, like malaria, is spread by mosquitoes.

Of course, the Yankees had some dirty tricks of their own. In the New Mexico territory in February of 1862, a Captain Graydon devised a sort of primitive “smart bomb.”   This plot involved two worn out old mules which were loaded with 24-pounder howitzer shells and then released to head for their fellows in the corral of a Confederate encampment, lit fuses trailing. When the mules started popping, the shell bursts stampeded the Confederate herd, many of which were later captured by Union pickets along the Rio Grande. The next day, as the battle of Valverde opened, the Confederates were short 150 mules.

But for the most part the Yankees had no need for such gimmicks. They had numbers, brute force and industrial might. Custer and Sherman could get by without Greek fire – they had cavalry and plenty of torches. The Swamp Angel and other Yankee guns could pulverize downtown Charleston with no imagination at all. In the end, all the Confederate ingenuity in the world was no answer to brute force.

Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are always welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.           

Sources: Confederate Bio-warfare: Dr. Blackburn and the Yellow Fever Plot, http://www.oddlyhistorical.com/2014/02/03/confederate-bio-warfare-dr-blackburn-yellow-fever-plot/; Paddy Graydon’s Mule Bombs, http://www.desertusa.com/desert-people/paddy-graydon.html; The Confederate Plot to Burn New York, http://history1800s.about.com/od/civilwar/a/Confederate-Plot-To-Burn-New-York.htm; The Coal Torpedo – The Confederacy’s Own Improvised Explosive device, http://militaryhistorynow.com/2014/01/13/dirty-trick-the-confederacys-top-secret-coal-torpedo/

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