Exhibition - Undersea Mines in the Civil War

Monday, Aug 31, 2020

Keyport, WA 98345

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New technology and weapons used in the Civil War added aspects of modern warfare to traditional combat. The Confederate States pioneered a new tactic, the use of underwater mines, to defend its many waterways. Although at that time mines were only experimental devices, a few visionary inventors recognized that their properties suited Southern needs and capabilities. The Confederacy introduced improved mines on a large scale and became the first nation to wage modern mine warfare.

During the Civil War, people referred to mines as torpedoes, after the torpedo fish (ray) that gives an electric shock. The self-propelled torpedoes we think of today were not invented until after the war. To avoid confusion, this exhibit uses the term mine.

Moral Implications

The introduction of true mine warfare raised serious moral debate. For most of the war, the Union rejected mine warfare as a dishonorable, immoral practice. Because the Confederate Navy was desperate to protect their extensive waterways, the Confederate Secretary of War assented to their use in defensive capacities.

Defensive Weapons

Much of the Civil War was fought in the South, forcing the Confederates to protect thousands of miles of coastline with few resources. Mines offered the most effective tactic: they cost little to produce, worked well as defensive weapons, and could sink or damage large, costly Union ships.

Confederates planted mines in Southern rivers as early as July 1861 and continued to use mines defensively through the end of the war. Southern inventors also developed offensive mines, but these proved less successful because they had a lower chance of encountering targets.

Improved Technology

The Confederacy did not invent underwater mines or use them first. American inventors David Bushnell, Robert Fulton, and Samuel Colt had experimented with underwater mines leading up to the Civil War. Two Confederate individuals built on this work and significantly advanced mine design and technology.

Confederate Navy Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury evolved underwater mines that exploded from the shore by electricity. Army Brigadier General Gabriel J. Rains adapted land mines detonated by pressure into mechanical mines that worked underwater. Their innovations transformed mines from experimental devices to functional, effective weapons.

Standardized Production

Much of the South's success with mines came from standardizing their manufacture and distribution. In 1862, the Confederate Congress created two organizations that assumed authority over mine production and ended haphazard practices. Matthew Fontaine Maury and his protégé, Lieutenant Hunter Davidson, headed the Naval Submarine Battery Service while Gabriel Rains ran the Army Torpedo Bureau.

These professional services adopted standard procedures to methodically produce and plant underwater mines. They conducted research, recruited and trained mine specialists and technicians, standardized mine designs, and corrected flawed production methods. With the establishment of these systems, mine use grew in volume and effectiveness.

Effective Deterrents

Underwater mines did not change the outcome of any major Civil War battle, but they played important defensive and deterrent roles. Mined waterways slowed the Union Navy by damaging its ships or forcing sailors to clear the mines before advancing. These delays gave Confederate forces time to retreat safely or await reinforcements.

Confederates increased the effectiveness of mines by improving existing mine technology and standardizing mine production and deployment. Over the course of the war, their mines sank 29 Union vessels and damaged 14. In terms of damage done compared to effort expended, Southern mining efforts proved remarkably successful. Nations throughout the world took notice and adopted mines for their navies.

Common Types of Civil War Mines

Most Confederate mines served defensive purposes and were physically anchored to riverbeds or shores to deter the advance of Union ships. This approach worked more effectively than the deployment of offensive mines placed in waterways to drift into targets.

Inventors designed two types of detonating mechanisms that ignited black powder inside the mines. A mechanical mechanism triggered autonomously, usually when physical contact with a ship activated a chemical or mechanical reaction that generated a spark. An electrical mechanism received electric current through a cable when an operator on land manually closed an electric circuit.

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