Confederate Torpedo Boats
One of the innovative weapons that the Confederate forces used to attack the Union blockading ships with the torpedo boat. The Confederates neither had the financial strength nor the shipbuilding facilities to combat the Union Navy. In order to defend their ports, they turned to using torpedo boats to attack the much larger Union warships.
During the course of the war, the Confederates built and operated a series of torpedo boats referred to as the David class. Generally, the David class boats were semi-submersible with only a few inches of their hulls above water. The David class boats were 50 feet long with a beam of 6 feet and a draft of 5 feet. They were steam-powered and use smokeless anthracite coal to mask their approaches. On a dark, moonless a David Class torpedo boat was virtually invisible.
The David class torpedo boats delivered their explosive by means of a spar torpedo. The cask of black powder was attached to a 20 foot long spar with a barb on the end that pierced the hull of the enemy ship. The torpedo boat then backed off and detonated the charge using either a mechanical switch or an electric charge.
The CSS David was built with private funds in 1863 in Charleston, South Carolina and put under the control of the Confederate States Navy. On the night of October 5, 1863 the David under the command of Lieutenant William T. Glassell sailed out to attack the ironclad USS New Ironsides. At 50 yards from their target, the David was spotted and came under small arms fire. The Confederate ship plunged ahead and detonated its spar torpedo under the starboard quarter of the New Ironsides.
The huge column of water from the explosion put out the David’s boiler. Glassell and two crewmen abandoned her while the pilot, who could not swim, remained on board. One of the other men swam back and the two managed to get the boiler relit. Glassell and the other seaman were captured but the David returned safely to port. The New Ironsides sustained only minor damage.
On March 6, 1864, the David carried out an unsuccessful attack against the USS Memphis on the North Edisto River. On April 18, 1864, she tried to sink the USS Wabash but was unsuccessful. A number of torpedo boats were captured after Charleston was captured in February 1865. The David may have been one of them.
The CSS Midge and the CSS St.Patrick were other torpedo boats in this class. The St.Patrick was privately constructed in Selma, Alabama in 1864. She was used in Mobile Bay under the Confederate Army’s control but with a Confederate Navy commanding officer. On 28 January 1865, she attacked USS Octorara in Mobile Bay. Her torpedo misfired and the Union ship was not damaged. The Confederate ship was able to escape the return fire and return to Mobile.
The Confederates had a second class of torpedo boats named the Squib class. We know of at least four that were built: the class namesake CSS Squib, the CSS Hornet, the CSS Wasp and the CSS Scorpion. The Squib class boats were 46 feet long with a 6 foot 3 inch beam and 3 foot 9 inch draft.
The CSS Squib was stationed in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. We have one documented attack that took place on the night of April 9, 1864 when the she exploded a torpedo against the USS Minnesota, causing minor damage to the Union blockade ship.
The CSS Hornet was stationed on the James River in Virginia. She was one of three torpedo boats were at the Battle of Trent’s Reach on January 23-25, 1865 but did not take an active role in the fighting. The other two were the CSS Wasp and CSS Scorpion. The Scorpion ran aground on January 24th and was abandoned by her crew. The Hornet sank on January 28th after colliding with the flag-of-truce steamer William Allison which caused the downing of her commanding officer, Lieutenant Aeneas Armstrong.
At the end of 1864, the Confederates started to build a large “David” but it was never completed. It was 160 feet long and was intended for use as a blockade runner. It was able to carry 250 to 300 cotton bales. This large “David” was captured in February 1865 when Charleston was captured and taken to Washington Navy Yard.
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