Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Ragan: "CONFEDERATE SABOTEURS: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War"

[Confederate Saboteurs: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War by Mark K. Ragan (Texas A&M University Press, 2015). Hardcover, photos, maps, drawings, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:197/257. ISBN:978-1-62349-278-6 $35]

Close study of the Civil War will uncover many examples of Confederate attempts to use technological innovation to counteract gross disparities in manpower and resources. Many of these advances were developed and implemented by a small group of men led by Texan Edgar Collins Singer. The subject of Mark Ragan's Confederate Saboteurs: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War, the Singer Secret Service Corps was founded in early 1863 at Port Lavaca, Texas and was composed of a diversely skilled team of inventors and investors (perhaps 25-30 in number) drawn from Edgar Singer's Masonic lodge.

Singer, on detached duty from a Texas artillery battery, developed a spring loaded detonator for mines ("torpedoes") intended for both land and nautical uses. His demonstration to Confederate authorities successful, Singer and his group were contracted to produce torpedoes full-time, their Secret Service activities operating under the official military umbrella of the Engineer Department to prevent execution if any of the corps members were captured while deploying the devices. From isolated Port Lavaca, Singer Corps agents were distributed all the across the Confederacy, to New Orleans, Richmond, Charleston, Mobile, Selma, and other threatened places in need of their services.

Ragan notes many isolated successes in sinking Union vessels, including ironclads, but it should also be appreciated that the mere presence, and even rumor, of Singer torpedoes tended to keep enemy ships at a respectful distance from southern rivers, bays, and harbors that would otherwise have been indefensible. The biggest problem with the underwater mines lay with their relatively brief lifespan (one that was improved later in the war). It is likely that Admiral Farragut knew this and was confident that most of the mines were rendered harmless by extended immersion in the salt waters of Mobile Bay prior to his famous naval attack. While the ironclad Tecumseh was sunk immediately the rest of the Union fleet reported brushing against numerous mechanically inert contact mines. This would make Farragut's immortal order "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" more calculated risk than popularly believed.

Over a few weeks time in late 1863, Singer agents in Tennessee derailed eight Union supply trains with ingeniously designed land torpedoes. In most cases, repair crews were able to fix the damage in less than a day. In response, Union track patrols were quickly stepped up and the danger was largely eliminated. However, while railroad torpedoes at the limited scale used were regarded as little more than a nuisance by Union authorities, one wonders what the effect on the federal logistical system might have been had the Confederates devoted more resources to the project and operated over a much wider area. In addition to mining, other agents were involved in boat and bridge burning operations, the former of which became a serious disruption to transport assets along the Mississippi.

The Singer group not only designed and constructed static and floating mines of different varieties but also submarines and torpedo boats. Some of the technology was truly futuristic. Ragan uncovered evidence that self-propelled torpedoes (powered by some time of rocket) able to be launched underwater from tubes were under development. They even tried using an electric motor purchased in the North to propel a torpedo boat but found that these expensive engines generated insufficient power.

Of course, the most famous Singer Group project involved the submarine CSS Hunley and Ragan documents its design, construction, trials and ultimate demise. With the Hunley sinking the Housatonic and other successes by Singer torpedoes, the Confederate Secret Service attempted to ramp up operations in 1864 but suffered a crushing blow when one of its operatives carelessly allowed documents naming fifty agents and their locations to be captured. Copied and distributed to Union forces, knowledge of Confederate personnel and plans led to key arrests and severely disrupted Secret Service operations.

With many records burned (for obvious reasons) in the waning moments of the war, surviving Confederate Secret Service documentation is especially fragmentary, making it difficult for researchers to reconstruct timelines, connect the dots regarding operations, and discover information about personnel and projects. In the book, Ragan does an exceedingly fine job of taking what's known, including many recently uncovered sources by Ragan himself and others, and painting a more than reasonably coherent picture of the activities of the Singer group.

During the final weeks of the war, the group was putting the finishing touches on a massive steam powered ironclad torpedo boat at Buffalo Bayou near Houston. Unfortunately, the fate of the vessel (and that of a smaller new submarine that may or may not have actually existed) is tantalizingly unknown. Nine Union naval vessels (including five ironclads) were confirmed sunk by Singer torpedoes and there's little doubt that a number of unconfirmed kills exists among the dozens of other ships cited in federal records as being destroyed or damaged by underwater mines. The Singer group's critical role in defending ports and waterways gave the corps an impact and significance far beyond their meager numbers. Ragan is likely not exaggerating when he rates the achievements of the Singer Secret Service Corps equal to that of any ten Confederate infantry regiments. A skillfully crafted  in-depth study of a very difficult subject to research, Confederate Saboteurs is an important new addition to the naval and covert operations histories of the Civil War.

More CWBA reviews of TAMU Press titles:
* The Maltby Brothers' Civil War
* Misadventures of a Civil War Submarine: Iron, Guns, and Pearls
* Turmoil on the Rio Grande: The Territorial History of the Mesilla Valley, 1846-1865
* Tejanos in Gray: Civil War Letters of Captains Joseph Rafael de la Garza and Manuel Yturri
* Why Texans Fought in the Civil War
* Moss Bluff Rebel: A Texas Pioneer in the Civil War
* Frontier Defense in the Civil War: Texas' Rangers and Rebels
* Confederate Struggle For Command: General James Longstreet and the First Corps in the West
* Planting The Union Flag In Texas: The Campaigns of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in the West
* The Yankee Invasion of Texas
* Blood & Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest

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