Thursday, March 16, 2023

Review - " Civil War Torpedoes and the Global Development of Landmine Warfare " by Earl Hess

[Civil War Torpedoes and the Global Development of Landmine Warfare by Earl J. Hess (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023). Softcover, photos, drawings, appendix, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xix,192/270. ISBN:978-1-5381-7428-9. $39]

For a very long time, the standard study of Civil War subterra and underwater mines ("torpedoes" in the language of the time) was Milton Perry's Infernal Machines (1965). However, a number of much more recent studies have expanded our knowledge and appreciation of Civil War mine warfare. Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau (2017) by W. Davis Waters and Joseph Brown provides readers with a focused yet brief study of the man and military organization chiefly associated with promoting and conducting Confederate mine warfare during the Civil War. Herbert Schiller edited and published together in Confederate Torpedoes: Two Illustrated 19th Century Works with New Appendices and Photographs (2011) the historically important manuscripts of Rains (his Torpedo Book being a manual of sorts for mine manufacture and use) and engineer officer Peter Michie (his Notes Explaining Rebel Torpedoes and Ordnance offering a fascinating Union perspective on Confederate mines). Additionally, Mark Ragan's 2015 book Confederate Saboteurs reveals much about the previously enigmatic Texas-based Singer Secret Service Corps that became a major player in Confederate mine warfare. Finally, Kenneth Rutherford's America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War (2020) filled the need for a modern general overview of the topic. That brings us to today. Through more in-depth research and a wider approach to the subject matter, Earl Hess's new history Civil War Torpedoes and the Global Development of Landmine Warfare improves upon previous overview efforts by addressing the subject of landmines through themes of morality, technological innovation, and tactical use while also emphasizing international context.

Its oldest antecedent being the fougasse, underground explosive devices more closely related to those used during the Civil War were first deployed by the Russians during the Crimean War. As Hess details in the book, the Confederates experimented with landmines at Port Royal, South Carolina and Columbus, Kentucky but they first came to broader attention during the Yorktown fighting on the Virginia Peninsula, where the casualties inflicted by torpedoes ignited northern outrage on both home and fighting fronts. There, General McClellan first used Confederate prisoners as mine clearing labor as well.

With Hess detailing at least fifteen significant mine warfare locations from Texas to Virginia, and with Rutherford's book overlapping those to a great degree (there are some smaller events covered by Hess that are absent from Rutherford's study), it appears that there is a pretty strong consensus regarding the actual extent of landmine use during the Civil War years. Well supported by the evidence, Hess and Rutherford both independently arrive at the conclusion that Civil War landmines were tactically insignificant. In none of the examples of mine-impacted battles described in either book were advancing Union forces halted or really even appreciably slowed in ways that could be attributed to Confederate landmines. Contrary to Rains's insistence at the time, landmines also failed to erode enemy fighting morale. Advocates hoped that mines might possess a moral effect that would compensate for their producing less than predicted casualty levels, but Hess's research finds that anger and thirst for revenge, not mass demoralization and fear of moving forward, comprised the most typical response emanating from Union soldiers who encountered mines in the field.

It is very often the case in warfare that the introduction of a new weapon immediately produces moral outrage from the opposing side, with the outcry against the enemy violating the laws of civilized warfare gradually softening as the conflict progressed (often by way of a general adoption). In the context of landmine warfare, Hess finds that that common process did not occur during the American Civil War. Inflammatory language found in press accounts, soldier letters, and military documents consistently demonstrated that Union morality-based revulsion, mine warfare being popularly condemned through such loaded descriptors as "diabolical," "un-Christian," or "uncivilized," remained unabated throughout the conflict. Interestingly, though it seems impossible to really measure, Hess traces the instantaneous and widespread popular reaction against Confederate use of landmines at Yorktown to 1850s cultural priming. During the decade preceding the war, several murder plots involving torpedo-like explosive devices achieved widespread and sensationalistic newspaper attention in the North. In the author's view, those reports deeply informed northern popular opinion when news arrived that landmines were being used as a military weapon by the Confederates. Recognizing their utility, Union forces did experiment with anti-ship mines and specialized methods of wrecking bridges and railroad track infrastructure, but Hess could find no evidence that any of those devices were widely used. Strangely, the 1863 Lieber Code did not specifically address landmines, though Hess reveals that at least one Union general formally protested its absence.

Obviously not intended to be a technical treatise, Hess's study does discuss basic landmine materials, design features, and ignition mechanisms, and it additionally provides a good summary of the variety of mine sizes and uses. Even though reliable contact fuses were eventually made commonplace, Hess shows us that professional debate over the superiority of victim-activated versus electrically activated mine systems extended well into the post-Civil War period. Objecting to Rains's frequently unjustified self-promotion and single-minded obsession with mine warfare, Hess nevertheless gives credit where credit is due. He echoes those who have argued that Rains deserves singular recognition for inventing a very sensitive and reliable fuse primer (perhaps the war's best detonator) and for developing the only systematic doctrine for mine deployment in the field. Nothing like Rutherford's detailed minefield maps are present in this study, but Hess does include a schematic drawing of the innovative mine sowing and marking pattern promoted by Rains.

According to Hess's findings, United States opposition to many forms of landmine use continued well into the post-Civil War period (even through the end of WW1). Nevertheless, aspects of mine warfare remained a regular part of U.S. officer training. In exploring the possibility of Civil War influences on concurrent European landmine development, Hess could find no evidence that peer militaries across the Atlantic, none of which exhibited any qualms about their use, paid any attention to Civil War landmine designs and tactics. In looking at landmine use in South America, Asia, and Africa between the end of the American Civil War and the Great War, Hess found that improvised mines remained the typical form. The global transition to purpose-built and designed landmines occurred during the 1930s. Exactly why landmines were relatively uncommon during WW1 on the Western Front (outside of German booby traps) remains unclear, but Hess reasonably speculates that perhaps they were deemed unnecessary due to an already sufficient defensive firepower (primarily in the form of machine guns and rapid-firing artillery) available to armies during that conflict. One of the reasons cited in the book for the tactical ineffectiveness of Confederate landmines was that there just weren't enough of them (Hess's best low-end estimate from the sources is only around 4,000 devices buried in total). In WW2, landmine warfare truly came into its own, with millions of advanced antipersonnel and antitank devices sown into massively deep and wide minefields closely integrated with other defensive arrangements. In uninterrupted fashion, generalized mine use extended into the Cold War period and beyond. The challenges of their presence remain today in many parts of the world where civilians are routinely victimized, although Hess does point to international signs that there use might finally be winding down.

Its wider value further enhanced through situating its topic within the long history of international landmine development, this impressive study rightfully assumes its place as the new standard history of what proved to be the most controversial weapon and mode of warfare that emerged during the American Civil War. Highly recommended.

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