Wednesday, October 18, 2017


[Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau by W. Davis Waters and Joseph I. Brown (Savas Beatie, 2017). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, chapter notes, appendices, bibliography, index. 162 pp. ISBN:978-1-61121-350-8. $16.95]

Published in 1965, Milton Perry's Infernal Machines: The Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare became the standard modern overview of the Confederate military's development and use of underground and underwater mines (or "torpedoes" in the jargon of the day) during the Civil War. Much more recently, historian Herbert Schiller has edited two important contemporary works for publication. Released together as Confederate Torpedoes: Two Illustrated 19th Century Works with New Appendices and Photographs, Schiller's 2011 book reintroduced modern readers to the technical manual authored by Confederate Torpedo Bureau head General Gabriel Rains along with Union Army engineer officer Peter Michie's astute assessment of the enemy's "infernal machines" titled Notes Explaining Rebel Torpedoes and Ordnance. Published last year, Mark Ragan's Confederate Saboteurs: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War explores at length the wartime exploits of the Singer Secret Service Corps, a large part of whose activities were devoted to mine warfare. Reference books, one example being Civil War Heavy Explosive Ordnance: A Guide to Large Artillery Projectiles, Torpedoes, and Mines (2003), have also addressed the topic. The newest contribution to the literature, W. Davis Waters and Joseph I. Brown's Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau, centers on the man many consider to be the father of modern mine warfare.

At around eighty pages in length, the main narrative's treatment of the life and career of Gabriel Rains before, during, and after the Civil War is necessarily broad stroke in nature. An 1827 graduate of West Point, Rains throughout his army service applied his engineering education to his natural inventiveness. He first experimented with land mines ("subterra shells") while fighting the Seminoles in Florida, but it would be during the retreat from Yorktown in 1862 that his creations would create widespread controversy. To cover the vulnerable rear of the Confederate withdrawal movement up the Peninsula, Rains mined the roads and their explosion killed and injured Union soldiers, sparking outrage at the use of devices deemed by many to lie outside the boundaries of civilized warfare. Initially, even Confederate generals opposed the use of land mines, but the defensive technology had high-level support (including the solid backing of President Davis) and Rains was allowed to continue his work.

In 1863, Rains was appointed head of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau while also holding the post of Superintendent of Conscription. It was noticed in the capital that Rains's conscription duties were largely left to deputies, leaving later observers (and author Waters himself) to ponder the possibility that the conscription department assignment was bureaucratic cover for Rains's primary job of managing secret torpedo experimentation and production. Soon, Rains's services were in the high demand for city and harbor defense, and the book summarizes well his 1863-65 assignments to various key strategic points across the Confederacy, including Jackson, Mobile, Charleston, Savannah, and Richmond. Unmentioned, however, are any interactions that Rains might have had with other Confederate 'infernal machine' developers (like the Singer Secret Service Corps mentioned above).

As the book notes, late-war desperation quickly dissolved most moral qualms in the South over the use of mines on land (their marine employment seems to have drawn fewer complaints from both sides), and Waters & Brown make a strong case that mines became an invaluable component of integrated defense systems in the Confederacy. Confederate torpedoes are most famous for sinking capital ships (like the City-Class ironclad Cairo on the Yazoo River and the monitor Tecumseh at Mobile Bay), but the book makes it clear that land mines came to be routinely deployed as sentinels and raid deterrents late in the war, especially useful when available manpower was overstretched to the breaking point at key places like Richmond and Petersburg in 1864-65. The mere threat of mines often slowed attackers long enough for reinforcements to arrive and the more faint-hearted were turned away altogether.

The book offers good general descriptions of the types of weapons that Rains oversaw, the best known being subterra shells, barrel torpedoes, the submarine mortar battery, and the dart grenade. Rains also invented a contact primer for these devices that was safe to handle yet suitably sensitive for practical application. More detailed descriptions and analyses of the Rains weapons and inventions are made available in modern mine warfare specialist Joseph Brown's Chapter 7 analysis. Several reference lists and additional documents can also be found in the appendix section.

Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau is an effective primer (no pun intended) on the history of the Confederate mine service and the godfather role assumed by General Rains, who clearly deserves significant credit for the delayed fall of numerous southern cities essential to maintenance of the Confederate war effort. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the review of Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. We appreciate your review and are glad to hear you enjoyed the book! Those interested in checking out this book can read more at the Savas Beatie website here:


If you wish to comment, please sign your name. Otherwise, your submission may be rejected, at the moderator's discretion. Comments containing outside promotions and/or links will be deleted.