Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rains & Michie, ed. Schiller: "CONFEDERATE TORPEDOES: Two Illustrated 19th Century Works with New Appendices and Photographs"

[Confederate Torpedoes: Two Illustrated 19th Century Works with New Appendices and Photographs by Gabriel J. Rains and Peter S. Michie, edited by Herbert M. Schiller (McFarland [800-253-2187], 2011). Softcover, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages 220. ISBN:978-0-7864-6332-9 $39.95]

Most dedicated Civil War readers are familiar with the name of Confederate General Gabriel J. Rains in the context of his controversial advocacy of the use of land and water mines (torpedoes) and his leadership role in their development and production. However, the manual he created remains obscure to students of Civil War ordnance, currently residing in the manuscript room of Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy. Happily for scholars and readers, Herbert Schiller has edited Rains's work and published it for the first time in a new book titled Confederate Torpedoes. In a worthy marriage, Rains's manuscript is joined by Union engineer officer Peter S. Michie's1 Notes Explaining Rebel Torpedoes and Ordnance. It is a fitting companion work as it explores the Confederate use of mines from the Union perspective.

Rains's manuscript is far more than an instruction manual on the construction and use of all types of torpedoes (e.g. galvanic, contact, current, horological, etc.). It also discusses darts, grenades, incendiary bullets, torpedo boats, and submarines. One of the most fascination sections of Rains's Torpedo Book describes a remote operated torpedo boat, its rudder directions controlled by the positive and negative wires connected to a battery manipulated from shore. One is left to wonder if one of these was ever put to use.

Adding immeasurably to the value of the book, author and publisher made the excellent decision to reproduce in full the original illustrations that accompany the manuscript, at the same time making them large enough to make out the technical details [a seemingly obvious feature that is all too often neglected]. Also visually enhanced by 21 plates, Michie's text discusses the Confederate use of torpedoes as well as noteworthy guns and shells, citing specific wartime examples.

In addition to biographical essays for Rains and Michie, editor Herbert Schiller contributes several lengthy appendices that enhance the information presented in the text. The first is a compilation of known vessels sunk or damaged by Confederate torpedoes, the circumstances behind each event explained by narratives ranging in length from a single paragraph to a page. Schiller also added a photographic gallery of surviving examples of Confederate torpedoes, with descriptive text and some supporting drawings from other sources.

Confederate Torpedoes is a significant contribution to the published technical literature (especially naval) pertaining to Civil War weaponry and equipment. Even the most knowledgeable readers will find Rains's work full of surprises and will marvel at the ingeniousness and technological sophistication of many of the designs. The book should also serve as a reference work of lasting worth, on par with the press's spectacular recent study of Civil War shell fuzes2. Confederate Torpedoes is highly recommended.

1 - Michie, a West Point graduate and professor, served as the admired Chief Engineer of the Army of the James and his beautiful maps adorn many of the plates included in the Official Military Atlas that accompanies the O.R.
2 - The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance of Artillery in the Civil War by Edward B. McCaul, Jr. (McFarland, 2010).

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