By Brian D. Kowell
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2021, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in October/November 2021.
On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) sank two Federal warships in Hampton Roads, Virginia. A third ship to be targeted was the USS Minnesota, which had run aground while steaming toward the enemy. After unsuccessfully bombarding the Minnesota, the ebbing tide and falling darkness forced the Virginia to return to her dock in the Elizabeth River. On the 9th, when she steamed out to finish off the Minnesota, the Virginia was confronted by the USS Monitor, and in their epic battle of ironclads, the Minnesota was saved.
When Norfolk Naval Yard was re-taken by the Federals, the crew of the Virginia blew up the ship, as she was unable to travel up the James River due to her deep draft. This left the James River open for Union gunboats to ascend the James and threaten Richmond. Most of the officers from the Virginia marched to Drewry’s Bluff to join the Confederate troops and sailors at Fort Darling, set to repel the U.S. Navy’s attempt.
One of these officers was Lieutenant Hunter Davidson. Once the Federal attempt to reach Richmond failed at Drewry’s Bluff, Lieutenant Davidson was assigned to command the CSS Teaser, a converted tug, to lay torpedoes (mines) in the James. The Teaser was also used to deploy the Confederate hot-air balloon, becoming the Confederate’s first “aircraft carrier”!
On July 4, 1862, while laying torpedoes, the Teaser encountered the U.S. ships Monitor and Maratanza near Turkey Point on the James River. Proving no match for the Union vessels, Davidson ordered the Teaser abandoned, saving most of her crew just before a shell struck her boiler. The ship, dead in the water, was soon captured. Davidson was not censured for the loss of the Teaser and continued his work in the Torpedo Bureau or Submarine Battery Service.
Born September 20, 1826 in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Davidson joined the U.S. Navy as a teen and later entered the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in its second class. He had served for nearly 20 years before joining the Confederacy in April 1861. He was commissioned a lieutenant and given command of the CSS Patrick Henry, but was soon transferred as a gun battery commander on the CSS Virginia. After serving on the Virginia in her epic battles in Hampton Roads, Davidson worked under Captain Matthew Fontaine Maury in the construction and implementation of torpedoes. In June 1862, Maury was sent to Europe, and Lieutenant Hunter Davidson was appointed his successor.
Davidson was an able successor, as he began to develop and deploy torpedoes activated electrically rather than simply by contact with a vessel. He is credited with the sinking by electrical torpedoes of the USS Commodore Barney on August 5, 1863 and the USS Commodore Jones on May 6, 1864 in the James River.
Following the successful attack by a David-class ship against the powerful USS New Ironsides in Charleston, South Carolina, Davidson was assigned the David-class CSS Squib and given the assignment to singlehandedly attack the Federal fleet at Hampton Roads.
The Squib was a 40-foot-long cigar-shaped steam launch covered with iron to make her invulnerable to small arms fire. She was six feet in beam and drew approximately three feet of water. The propeller shaft ran underneath the boiler to a two-blade screw which turned in a housing forward of the rudder. Her streamlined shape and powerful engine made her quite maneuverable and capable of speeds over 10 knots. First Lieutenant William H. Parker, commandant of the Confederate Naval School wrote:
“The engine was built in Richmond. I made several trips in this little boat and when she was running at about half or three-quarter speed the engine made absolutely no noise.”
Previously utilized as a flag-of-truce boat, the Squib was outfitted with a winch that could raise or lower an 18-foot spar with a 53-pound torpedo attached. It was detonated by a chemical fuse on contact – called the Lee fuse after its inventor.
Besides Davidson, she carried a crew of six chosen by the lieutenant. Two of the six were Acting Master’s Mates John A. Curtis and George W. Smith. Smith was the senior of the two and was second in command. In charge of the engine was First Assistant Engineer Henry X. Wright, and he was assisted by First Class Fireman Charles Blanchard. Boatswain Thomas Gauley and Master William B. Hines completed the crew. Hines served as the pilot.
Davidson was now ready for his mission, but he lacked one essential item – a supply of smokeless anthracite coal. There was none available in Richmond, but someone suggested to Davidson that a quantity of anthracite coal might be salvaged along the Richmond waterfront. When the coal was plentiful before the war, some might have spilled overboard from loading ships. Divers were sent down to the river bottom, and enough coal was salvaged to fill the small bunker on the Squib.
In early April 1864, to conserve her coal supply, the Squib was towed (probably by the CSS Torpedo) 100 miles down the twisting James River toward Hampton Roads. She traveled by night, hiding in various creeks by day to maintain the element of surprise. Approximately 15 miles below City Point, Virginia, she cast off and under her own power arrived just above Newport News on April 8.
Davidson wasted little time surveying the Union fleet before he chose his target – an old adversary, the 265-foot frigate USS Minnesota. Captained by J.H. Upshur (who had been a classmate of Davidson at Annapolis), the Minnesota was now the flagship of Rear Admiral S. P. Lee. Weighing 3,400 tons and carrying 47 heavy guns, she was anchored with the fleet surrounding her.
After darkness fell, Davidson’s engineer and fireman built up steam, and Davidson checked the operation of the spar. All seemed well. It was shortly after midnight when the Squib moved slowly out of the river using the shadows on the south bank of the James to conceal her approach from the Union shore batteries. It was a dark but starlit sky as Davidson softly ordered the throttle to be opened, and he steamed the Squib into Hampton Roads toward the outline of the fleet.
As he began to maneuver between the Union ships, he throttled back the engine. He was hailed a few times but never seriously challenged. The Union lookouts who did spot the craft paid little attention, as she looked like the unarmed flag-of-truce boat they had seen before.
It was 2:00 a.m. with an ebb tide when Davidson guided the Squib toward the looming man-of-war. He had the throttles opened to full, and the little craft sliced through the calm waters around the Minnesota’s consort, the tug Poppy, and headed directly for the frigate’s starboard side, 150 yards away. When she was spotted by lookouts aboard the Minnesota, the officer of the deck, Ensign James Bartwistle, shouted out, demanding to know the name of the approaching boat and to have her come to.
“Roanoke,” shouted Davidson, trying to buy time. Bartwistle shouted to the Poppy, which was lying astern, ordering her captain to run the unknown craft down, but the Poppy’s boiler was cold, and she could not move. The general call to battle stations brought the captain and crew of the Minnesota on deck. Marines and sailors armed with muskets opened fire on the Squib as artillery crews rushed to get their guns into action.
It was too late. The Squib’s spar, lowered below the water, rammed the torpedo into the Minnesota’s starboard side. In the next instant there was a deafening roar as the torpedo exploded. The Minnesota trembled from bow to stern as sailors went sprawling. Acting Master’s Mate John A. Curtis wrote, “I never beheld such a sight before. The air was filled with port shutters and water from the explosion, and the heavy ship was rolling to starboard.”
Sleeping aboard the Minnesota was medical officer John M. Bratton. He had recently joined the Navy, and this was his first night aboard the ship. Bratton recorded that he was rudely awakened by a loud noise, “I could not for the life of me tell from where it came or whither it had gone…it made the vessel tremble.” Alarmed, he quickly dressed and dashed up on deck to find the admiral, the captain, and other officers of the ship, trying to assess the situation.
On the Squib, Davidson ordered the engineer to reverse engine, but it caught on dead center and refused to budge. Thinking quickly, Assistant Engineer Wright grabbed an iron starting bar, thrust it into the flywheel, and gave a mighty heave. With a burst of steam, the engine came to life, and Davidson turned the boat away from the Minnesota. As the distance grew between the ships, one of the Minnesota’s heavy guns roared but the shot missed, splashing nearby as the speeding Squib vanished into the night.
Union ships that had steam up set out to pursue, but it was difficult to spot the Squib in the dark, and Davidson deceived his pursuers by heading toward the Nansemond River only to take a last-minute turn and disappear up the James River instead. Davidson was again met by the Torpedo and towed upriver. At Turkey Island he found a telegraph station and relayed his news to Secretary Mallory:
“Passed through the Federal Fleet off Newport News and exploded 53 pounds of powder against the side of the flagship Minnesota at 2:00 a.m., 9th instant. She has not sunk, and I have no means yet of telling the injury done. My boat and party escaped without loss under the fire of her heavy guns and musketry and that of the gunboat lying to her stern.”
The Minnesota was seriously damaged but did not sink. She was quickly towed to a dry dock, where it was found her bulkheads were sprung, her beams were shattered, and her broken hull plates had been blown inward. Three 9-inch gun carriages were disabled, and several elevating screws were bent, rendering them useless. Rear Admiral S.P. Lee was furious. The captain of the Poppy was soon relieved. Lee later sent word that if the Squib were ever used as a flag-of-truce boat again, she would be fired upon for he did not consider such a craft as “engaged in civilized or legitimate warfare.”
When Davidson returned to Richmond, Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory presented the lieutenant to President Jefferson Davis. He was shocked when Davis showed no enthusiasm and grumbled, “Why didn’t he blow her up?” (In Davis’ defense, he was suffering from one of his frequent headaches.) Davis soon changed his tone and joined Mallory in proposing that Davidson and his engineer be promoted “for gallant and meritorious conduct.” Mallory reported to the Confederate Congress that the “cool, daring, professional skill and judgement by Lieutenant Davidson in this hazardous enterprise merit high commendation and confer honor upon the service of which he is a member.” Davidson was promoted to the rank of commander, and Engineer Henry X. Wright was jumped two grades in rank.
Commander Hunter Davidson later captained the blockade runner City of Richmond, which was sent to supply and escort the new rebel ironclad ram CSS Stonewall from France to the Confederate States to help break the blockade. Unfortunately for Davidson, the war ended before they could get back to the Confederacy. With no country to return to, Davidson was invited by Argentina to direct that country’s Department of Torpedo Defense and Naval Construction, which he did for 12 years before retiring to Paraguay, where he died on February 16, 1913.
The Civil War, Chapter 17, Verses 1-51
Sources (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, OR Series 1, Volume 9, pp. 601, 603, 604, 626, and 806.
Confederate Veteran, June 1913, p. 307.
Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 24.
Hunters of the Night: Confederate Torpedo Boats in the War Between the States, R. Thomas Campbell, Burd Street Press, Shippensburg, PA, 2000, pp. 88-102.
Capital Navy, John M. Coski, Campbell: Savas Woodbury Publishers, 1996.
“The Confederate Torpedo Service,” R.O. Crowley, The Century Magazine, Volume 56, June 1898.
Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, Patricia L. Faust, ed. Harper and Row, New York, 1986, pp.206-207.
Marylanders in the Confederacy, Daniel D. Hartzler, Family Line Publications, Westminster, MD, 1986, p. 125.
Infernal Machines: The Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare, Milton F. Perry, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge and London, 1965, pp. 124-128.
The CSS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender, John V. Quarstein, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2012, pp. 74, 285, 311, and 345.
“Hunter Davidson and the Squib,” John Grady (https://www.civilwarmonitor.com/blogs/hunter-davidson-and-the-squib).