Monday, May 7, 2012


[ Misadventures of a Civil War Submarine: Iron, Guns, and Pearls by James P. Delgado (Texas A&M University Press, 2012). Cloth, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:206/298. ISBN:978-1-60344-472-9 $34.95 ]

The CSS Hunley grabs the headlines, but there was much more to Civil War era military submarine technology in America than the cigar shaped Confederate submersible warship. Students of the naval war will likely have heard of the USS Alligator or even the Intelligent Whale, but Julius H. Kroehl's Sub Marine Explorer is equally deserving of attention, both for its advanced technology (that actually worked!) and its place in the evolution of the modern submarine. In 2001, vacationing marine archaeologist James P. Delgado came upon the rusted hulk of the vessel while strolling along a beach in Panama. His investigation into the peculiar craft's origins and history resulted in Misadventures of a Civil War Submarine: Iron, Guns, and Pearls.

Delgado begins his book with a nice primer on the state of 19th century underwater technology, from the development of diving suits to diving bells. From there, the reader is introduced to Julius Kroehl. An immigrant from Prussia, the marine engineer and entrepreneur came to public attention with his winning of a hotly contested contract to clear troublesome New York harbor obstructions like Diamond Reef. When this task proved vastly more difficult than anticipated, Kroehl adapted an existing diving bell design for the purpose of drilling and blasting the reef. Although he had his critics, Kroehl had enough of a reputation as a marine demolition expert that his services were in demand by the US Navy when Civil War erupted.

As a civilian contractor, the Prussian-American was first asked to develop a plan for destroying the hulk and chain obstruction on the lower Mississippi River that barred progress upriver to New Orleans. He also served with the James River Squadron and along the Cape Fear River. After a serious bout of tropical fever, Kroehl was released from the navy. His new design, a submarine-diving bell hybrid called the Sub Marine Explorer, was original designed to harvest pearls for the Pacific Pearl Company at depths inaccessible to divers, but Kroehl also saw its military potential and offered the sub to the Navy in 1864. Although inspected by the Navy in 1865 [the full report is reproduced as an appendix] and recommended for sea trials, the submarine never saw service during the war.

How the Explorer found itself beached and rusting in a Panamanian cove is not entirely known, but Delgado reasonably suggests that it was mothballed there and ultimately abandoned, with the pearl business no longer a going concern and the expense of returning the vessel to the U.S. prohibitive. The business acumen of the officers of the Pacific Pearl Company is also questioned by the author, as they did not seem to have investigating just how badly overfished the oyster beds were at the time.  On top of this, a design feature turned out to be a major flaw in its usefulness for the purpose at hand. The depth at which existing oysters could be harvested was not a safe one for the crew and led to decompression sickness [for workers to exit the vessel underwater, compressed air was used to equalize pressure inside the vessel to that of the surrounding depths].

The final part of the book documents in photos and text the archaeological investigation of the wreck. One of the appendices also provides an extraordinarily detailed set of construction plans. The originals no longer exist, but the drawings in the book attempt to reconstruct them using the best available evidence.

Misadventures of a Civil War Submarine is truly an original work.  Not only does it resurrect the Civil War career of an important maritime innovator and inventor, it makes the case for the unjustly forgotten Explorer (a true submarine with a lock out diving chamber) being an important evolutionary step in the development of submersible vessels for civilian and military use.  Delgado's study is highly recommended for Civil War scholars and enthusiasts, as well as more general nautical history and technology students.

More CWBA reviews of TAMU Press titles:
* 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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