The Man Whose Torpedoes Farragut Damned

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017-2018, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2017 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

One of the most famous quotes in U.S. naval history purportedly occurred at the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, when Union Admiral David Farragut famously ordered, or maybe did not order, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Whether or not Farragut actually said these exact words, this quote has become one of the most esteemed wartime quotes in U.S. history, because it embodies the qualities of bravery and determination to press on even in the face of life-threatening danger. Farragut certainly deserves much credit for making this decision and for stating his decision in such forceful and memorable language. However, Farragut does not deserve all of the credit for this superb quote. In fact, some of the credit for this quote should go to a Confederate general. It may not be clear why a general in the Confederate army deserves some of the credit for something that was said by a Union admiral in a naval battle. The reason is that, without this Confederate general, there would not have been any torpedoes for David Farragut to damn, because it was a Confederate general, Gabriel J. Rains, who was chiefly responsible for the torpedoes in Mobile Bay and in other places that the Confederacy protected with torpedoes. (Gabriel Rains’ younger brother, George, also made an indispensable contribution to the Confederate war effort by implementing and overseeing the production of gunpowder. George Rains is the focus of the October 2017 history brief, which is titled The Chief Chemist of the Confederacy.)

Gabriel Rains during his service in the U.S. Army

Gabriel Rains was born on June 4, 1803 in New Bern, North Carolina. He entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1822 and graduated 13th in his class in 1827. Among Rains’ classmates were Leonidas Polk, Philip St. George Cooke (a Union cavalry commander and the father-in-law of JEB Stuart), and Napoleon Bonaparte Buford (the half-brother of Gettysburg hero John Buford, who, like John Buford, was a general in the Union army, but who, despite his more militarily grandiose name, did not distinguish himself to nearly the level as his half-brother). In 1839 Gabriel Rains served in the Seminole War in Florida as commander of an infantry company. During one clash with Indians, Rains was shot through the body and wounded so severely that reports of his death were published. However, he recovered and later served in the Mexican-American War. When the Civil War began, Rains resigned his commission in the U.S. army and joined the Confederate army as an infantry commander. He was assigned to command a division in John B. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula, which was opposing George McClellan’s advance up the York-James Peninsula. After Magruder’s army was assimilated into Joseph E. Johnston’s army, Rains continued as a division commander.

Gabriel Rains

Gabriel Rains, who was an expert in explosives, first showed his true worth to the Confederacy in the aftermath of the Battle of Yorktown. In early May 1862, Joseph Johnston decided to execute one of his tactical withdrawals and evacuated the Yorktown defenses. During this retrograde movement, Gabriel Rains’ unit was part of the rear guard. While Rains was moving westward, he buried some artillery shells in the roads and essentially used these shells as land mines. He also left buried shells in the Confederate earthworks around Yorktown. Rains had first dabbled with land mines during the Seminole War and found them to be quite useful. After the Battle of Yorktown, when Union troops, particularly Union cavalry, pursued the retreating Confederate army, some Union troops detonated Rains’ land mines and became some of the first ever battlefield casualties due to land mines. One Union soldier wrote in a letter dated May 7, 1862, “We passed through the Rebel fortifications near us shortly after leaving our camp & on our way a shell which they set as a trap hurt & killed one man & wounded six.” Although the total number of Union casualties from Rains’ land mines was not especially large, the fear that the land mines instilled in the Union soldiers caused them to pursue the Confederates with great caution and resulted in a slow pursuit.

While Rains’ land mines were effective at impeding the Union pursuit, Rains’ superiors were not entirely supportive of his land mines. This is because opinion, both Union and Confederate, was that the use of land mines violated the rules of engagement. For example, George McClellan characterized the land mines as “the most murderous and barbarous conduct.” James Longstreet, Rains’ wing commander, ordered Rains to cease using land mines, which Longstreet did not consider a “proper or effective method of war.” Rains’ land mines were viewed in much the same way as improvised explosive devices are viewed nowadays. To settle the issue, input was obtained from Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph, who was Thomas Jefferson’s grandson. Necessity being the mother of approval, Randolph stipulated that land mines were permissible in certain situations, specifically “in parapet to repel assault, or in a road to check pursuit,” but not permissible “merely to destroy life and without other design than that of depriving the enemy of a few men.” With authorization from the War Department to employ land mines in certain situations, Rains made improvements to the crude land mines that he had used at Yorktown, in particular a superior mechanical detonator that was protected from rainfall. By 1864 the approaches to the Confederate capital, Richmond, were protected by over 1,300 land mines.

David Farragut

After the Battle of Seven Pines, in which Rains participated as an infantry commander, he was removed from field command and focused his efforts on water defenses in Confederate ports and rivers. In this capacity Rains oversaw the construction and deployment of what were then called torpedoes, that is, stationary explosive devices that were submerged in water. Eventually Rains was placed in charge of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. Torpedoes had been used for decades prior to the Civil War, but Rains made significant improvements to them. As with the land mines, Rains improved the mechanical detonators and also developed torpedoes that were detonated from shore with a wire. He also made design improvements to the devices, themselves. Rains’ torpedoes were deployed in many rivers, such as the James River, and in many ports, such as Charleston, Savannah, and Mobile, which is where David Farragut damned them. Rains claimed that his torpedoes sank over 50 Union vessels, and it is estimated that Rains’ torpedoes inflicted greater loss of enemy ships than all other causes combined. At the Battle of Mobile Bay, the Union warship Tecumseh was sunk by a torpedo, and the only reason that there was not greater loss of Union naval assets in that battle was because the torpedoes in Mobile Bay had become corroded by prolonged submersion in water. In fact, according to accounts of the battle, men on board the Union warships claimed to hear the bottoms of their vessels scraping against the submerged torpedoes. The torpedoes presumably did not detonate because they had become corroded due to their lengthy submersion in the waters of Mobile Bay. If not for that, David Farragut might be remembered not for a bold quote, but for a reckless one.

Thomas Courtenay

Another component of Gabriel Rains’ Confederate Torpedo Bureau was a nefarious device known as a coal bomb or coal torpedo. The coal bomb was invented by Belfast-born Thomas Courtenay, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1842 and sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War. Sometime in late 1863, Courtenay went to Richmond to present his device to the Confederate authorities. As with land mines and waterborne torpedoes, coal bombs were not met with universal approval by members of the Confederate hierarchy, because coal bombs were considered by some to violate the rules of engagement. But at the time that Courtenay showed his invention to the Confederate government, the fortunes of the Confederate war effort were declining. Consequently, desperation and necessity became the determining factors, and by early 1864 coal bombs were being made in Richmond. (Because almost all of the records of the Confederate Secret Service were burned by Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin just before the evacuation of Richmond, very little is known about the Confederacy’s use of coal bombs or, for that matter, the Confederacy’s use of land mines or waterborne torpedoes. Consequently, it is not known with certainty how many Union vessels were attacked with coal bombs. The Confederacy’s records regarding coal bombs, land mines, and waterborne torpedoes were burned because all of these devices were viewed with such disapproval that it was feared that the information regarding their use would lead to retribution for anyone connected to them.) Coal bombs, as the name suggests, were hollow cast iron shells that were manufactured to resemble a lump of coal. The coal bombs were filled with a few ounces of gunpowder, closed with a threaded plug, and then coated with wax and coal dust to give them the appearance of a lump of coal. The plan was to smuggle them into loads of coal that were to be used by Union ships. Although the amount of gunpowder in a coal bomb was not sufficient to destroy a ship, if the coal bomb was shoveled into a ship’s firebox, it would explode and cause an explosion of the ship’s boiler, which would disable or perhaps destroy the ship.

As it happened, a Confederate agent was captured while he was carrying documents that described the plan, and as a result great vigilance and caution were exercised for loads of coal that were intended for Union warships. Nevertheless, there were some explosions on Union ships that were likely caused by coal bombs. For example, a ship named the Chenango, which was in service to the Union navy, experienced an explosion in April 1864 on a voyage from New York City to Hampton Roads. The explosion, which is thought to have been caused by a coal bomb, resulted in the deaths of almost 30 men by scalding, and the damage to the Chenango left her out of commission for almost ten months. There was also a deathbed confession by a man named Robert Louden, a Confederate saboteur, who claimed that he smuggled a coal bomb onto the Sultana, which exploded on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865 while it was transporting freed Union prisoners of war to the North. The explosion and subsequent fire resulted in an estimated 1,200 deaths. In spite of Louden’s confession, the specifics of the explosion on the Sultana are not consistent with a coal bomb explosion, and because of this it is thought that a coal bomb was not responsible for the sinking of the Sultana.

The Greyhound

The most well-known coal bomb incident occurred on a ship named the Greyhound. The Greyhound was another ship that was in service to the Union navy, and late in the Civil War she was being used by Union Major General Benjamin Butler as a floating headquarters on the James River. On November 27, 1864, Butler offered his vessel for transport of Union Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter to Fort Monroe, where Porter had been summoned to meet with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox. Porter had his own headquarters ship, but the Greyhound was faster and could transport Porter to Fort Monroe sooner. (Although it seems incongruous that an army general had a faster headquarters ship than a navy admiral, this was the situation that existed.) Shortly after the Greyhound passed Bermuda Hundred, there was an explosion in the engine room, and within minutes the Greyhound was engulfed in flames. Butler, Porter, and everyone else on board were able to abandon ship, and amazingly no one was killed. However, the Greyhound was destroyed, and Porter had to find alternate transportation to Fort Monroe. While the exact cause of the explosion was never determined definitively, Porter was convinced that the cause was a coal bomb. Many years after the Civil War, Porter wrote about the sinking of the Greyhound, “In whatever manner the Greyhound was set on fire, I am sure it was not one of the ordinary accidents to which all ships are liable. In devices for blowing up vessels the Confederates were far ahead of us, putting Yankee ingenuity to shame.” Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau that he headed were chiefly responsible for Porter expressing the opinion of Confederate superiority in producing explosive devices. (However, had Benjamin Butler been killed in the Greyhound explosion, Gabriel Rains, as head of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau, could have been reprimanded for assisting the Union war effort by eliminating the incompetent Butler. But although Butler was beyond ineffective, he has a pop culture distinction not held by any other Civil War general. Specifically, Benjamin Butler is the only Civil War general, Union or Confederate, whose image appeared in an episode of the television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus.)

After the war, Gabriel Rains lived for a time in Atlanta, and then, perhaps surprisingly in light of his important service to the Confederacy, he worked for a few years as a clerk in the Quartermaster’s Department of the U.S. Army in Charleston, South Carolina. Rains died on August 6, 1881 in Aiken, South Carolina at age 78. Years after the Civil War, Rains put into his own words the rationale that has been applied throughout history to overlook the brutality of certain weapons. Rains articulated this rationale when he stated that, in his view, the effectiveness of a particular weapon is a higher priority than any humanitarian concerns in determining whether or not a weapon is incorporated into the arsenal of war. Rains asserted, “Each new invention of war has been assailed and denounced as barbarous and anti-Christian. Yet each in its turn notwithstanding has taken its position by the universal consent of nations according to its efficiency in human slaughter.” Gabriel Rains is by no means a well-known Civil War figure. But Rains’ Civil War contributions certainly are well-known, especially his waterborne torpedoes, even if it is not widely known that Rains deserves much of the credit for these Confederate weapons. Moreover, Gabriel Rains has another Civil War accomplishment for which he deserves partial credit. David Farragut is known for his quote “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” but it’s damn time that Gabriel Rains receives his share of the credit for this quote.