Thursday, August 6, 2020

Review - "America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War" by Kenneth Rutherford

[America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War by Kenneth R. Rutherford (Savas Beatie, 2020). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, footnotes, glossary, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xviii,165/206. ISBN:9781611214536. $29.95]

Among the multitude of Confederate military innovations that emerged during the American Civil War (including advancements in ironclad warships, torpedo boats, submarines, and mine warfare), no widely-used killing technology was more controversial than their extensive use of land torpedoes (roughly equivalent to what we would call landmines today) and "subterra shells" (artillery shell conversions akin to modern IEDs). The development, deployment of, and attitudes toward these weapons are the subject of Kenneth Rutherford's America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War.

With landmines being defensive weapons, their employment during the Civil War was almost exclusively Confederate [see pg. 88 for an account of repurposed torpedoes ordered by Union General Phil Sheridan to be planted in the cellar of a civilian home as retaliation for nearby mine casualties]. Inspired in part by Crimean War reports, the first mastermind of Confederate mine warfare was the famous Virginia scientist and naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury. Though Maury first tested his explosive devices at Richmond in early 1861, battlefield use of these weapons is commonly believed to have started on the Peninsula in 1862. However, Rutherford notes that General Leonidas Polk solicited mine engineers as early as 1861 in the West and ended up seeding his Columbus, Kentucky defenses with two major mine belts covering the land approaches to his imposing Iron Banks river batteries.

Predictably, Union military and civilian authorities along with many fellow Confederate officers decried the use of such weapons as violations of the laws of civilized warfare. At least from the Union side, harshly condemnatory rhetoric regarding mines persisted throughout the war (with words such as "uncivilized," "diabolical," and "devilish" commonly used when describing the enemy's deployment of these "infernal machines"). On the Confederate side, however, moral resistance to mine warfare rapidly faded on most fronts in the face of mounting invasion pressures squeezing conventional southern resources to the breaking point. The fact that the weapons were relatively cheap to produce with obtainable (at least most of the time) materials also made them appealing force multipliers in areas where desperate defense was required.

Minute descriptions of device specifications and construction are beyond the scope of the book1, but Rutherford provides more than adequate base levels of information regarding the devices and their inventors. Featured individuals in addition to Maury include Torpedo Bureau head Gabriel Rains2 and Singer Secret Service Corps founder Edgar Singer3. Indeed it would be Rains, an amateur chemist and developer of a highly effective fuse that bore his name, who would become the face of the torpedo program that spread to ports, forts, and battlefields across the Confederate South. Administration orders banning published material that might be of use of the enemy meant that there was no consistent mine warfare manual or doctrine developed during the war, but Rains and representatives of the Singer Corps traveled in person to various hotspots to instruct local commanders on their use. Beyond the questionable practice of forcing Confederate POWs to clear minefields under threat of death, there's not much discussion in the book regarding specific Union mine location, disarming, or disposal techniques and strategies (though there is mention of one dangerous-sounding method of disabling torpedoes that involved drilling into the device and pouring water down the hole).

With official documentation discouraged during the war and most existing papers destroyed when the war was winding down, Rutherford's research effort was nevertheless able to assemble a pretty solid collection of Union and Confederate primary sources written by those with direct experiences of mine warfare during a number of important campaigns and battles. These informative accounts are supported by an excellent set of tactical-scale maps that specifically show critical battlefield areas that were heavily seeded with mines. The book's coverage of places where landmines comprised a significant part of Confederate defense planning includes Columbus, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Port Hudson, Morris Island, Yellow Tavern, Richmond Defenses (Chaffin's Farm area), Fort McAllister, Fort Fisher, Spanish Fort, Fort Blakeley, and Goldsboro (1865).

In reviewing those siege and battle actions described in the book, it can't be argued (and the author certainly does not attempt to do so) that mines were the decisive factor in stopping any major attack. Instead mines were a cost effective psychological weapon and (as mentioned before above) force multiplier. Land torpedoes were never decisive in any Civil War siege or battle, but they did in many cases slow the pace of Union operations, cause fairly significant casualties, and limit nighttime activities key to successful siege operations. On the other hand, the indiscriminate nature of minefields also hindered the defenders' ability to conduct their own sorties and picket line arrangements. Indeed, the book clearly reinforces the reality that torpedoes only were truly effective when part of an overall defensive system that closely integrated manpower, firepower, natural topography, earthworks, and man-made obstructions (with the Confederates most consistently deficient in the first two factors).

The author, himself a landmine victim and internationally-recognized leader in negotiating their global eradication, also discusses in the book the protracted legacy of landmines. Though it was not the first war to see their use, the American Civil War was the first conflict to bury mines on the battlefield en masse. Their deployment chiefly to front-line defenses sharply limited civilian casualties, but the same could not be said for the twentieth-century proliferation of the weapons (which reputedly were killing or maiming over 26,000 people worldwide, mostly civilians, on a yearly basis by the time landmines were mostly banned by international treaty in 1997).

Well researched, full of case studies from all theaters, and written in a manner that can attract a wide audience, America's Buried History is the new standard overview history of the Confederate use of landmines on the Civil War battlefield. It is highly recommended reading for all.

1 - See the Herbert Schiller-edited volume Confederate Torpedoes (2011).
2 - For a fine Rains primer see Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau (2017).
3 - See Mark Ragan's excellent Confederate Saboteurs: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War (2015) for more detailed information about the Singer Corps.


  1. Hi Drew--many thanks for taking the time and trouble to read this so closely and craft such a deep review. So glad you enjoyed it. I hope readers do as well. The reviews thus far have been spectacular.

    Ted Savas

  2. Drew - What an awesome detailed review! Thank you for the positive comments. Coming from you they make it special. As you could probably read from the book, that researching and writing it over nearly a decade was a labor of passion: Traveling to Civil War Battlefields and archives, writing nearly every day at 4AM before my family woke and commute to work. After 25 years of experiencing a landmine in Somalia, and traveling the world with U.S. Dept. of Defense and Dept. of State for landmine work, honored that Savas Beatie published this book. Could think of no better partner and wish every author was blessed to work with such a publisher. With appreciation to you for taking the time to read and write a review. Best Regards, Ken

  3. The positive comments coming from you means a lot. It also makes me happy that you enjoyed the book. Eight years of research, traveling to Civil War Battlefields and archives, and writing nearly every day before my family woke and went to work. After 25 years of experiencing a landmine in Somalia, and traveling the world sponsored by U.S. Departments of Defense and State for landmine work, glad to couple those experiences with landmines in the Civil War. Could think of no better publishing partner than Savas Beatie and wish every author was blessed to work with them. With appreciation to you for taking the time to read the book and write such a detailed, spot-on review. Thank you Ken.


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