Confederate Coal Torpedo: Thomas Courtenay’s Infernal Sabotage Weapon
By Joseph M. Thatcher and Thomas H. Thatcher
(November 2011 Civil War News)
Illustrated, photos, appendices, bibliography and index, 123 pp., 2011, Kenerly Press, firstname.lastname@example.org, $19.95.
During the Civil War the Confederacy was far ahead of the North in use of so-called infernal machines or torpedoes, such as a variety of anti-ship and anti-personnel devices. One of the more promising weapons was an explosive encased in cast iron that resembled a lump of coal.
Because most steamships of the day used coal to fire their boilers, the insertion of one of these coal torpedoes into a fire box could cause considerable damage or even destroy a ship.
Using surviving papers of the inventor and actual examples of the torpedo, the authors weave an intriguing story of the development and use of this unusual weapon.
Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay emigrated from Ireland to New Orleans in 1842. While living and traveling in the South, he adopted the lifestyle and came to admire slavery. He later moved to St. Louis and became an insurance company agent. In that position, he was well aware of what fire could do to a wooden steamship.
After experiencing financial problems, Courtenay began to look for work with the Confederate Government, with which he completely sympathized. He had made some important friends inside the government and proceeded to push his plan for the destruction of Union steamships.
Using military contacts and spurred on by the War Department’s plan to award a 50-percent bounty on the value of Federal property destroyed by new inventions, Courtenay proceeded to push his idea up the chain of command.
He also proposed a “Secret Service Corps” of men to plant the devices wherever they might do the most damage. In early 1864 Jefferson Davis put Courtenay and his men on active duty. Davis was apparently impressed with the coal torpedo — one was found in his office after the fall of Richmond.
Joseph and Thomas Hatcher provide a great amount of detail on the torpedo and use three surviving examples for photos and research. They also devote a good part of the book to the effectiveness of the weapon despite Union intelligence about it. Perhaps the most impressive known loss was Gen. Benjamin Butler’s ship Greyhound, which also carried Adm. David Porter.
The Springfield Arsenal was a target, but the coal torpedo intended for its destruction was discovered before it was put into use. The authors also speculate that the April 27, 1865, Sultana disaster, which killed more than 1,500 homebound prisoners of war and others on the Mississippi River, might have resulted from Courtenay’s device.
There is an interesting section on the reappearance of the coal torpedo in World War II as the United States, Germany and Japan came up with their own variations.
This book is well written and nicely illustrated. One appendix describes surviving torpedoes, and another includes much of Courtenay’s correspondence. The authors’ thorough research into this little-known aspect of Civil War ordnance is evident.
This book is highly recommended for those interested in technology, ordnance, sabotage, brown-water naval operations and the workings of the Confederate Government.
Reviewer: Dale E. Biever
Dale E. Biever received his M.Ed. in American history from Kutztown University. He is past vice president for administration and former member of the Board of Governors of the Company of Military Historians. A retired educator, he was registrar at the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia.