Confederate Saboteurs Sink U.S. Warship The Infamous Coal Torpedo © 2012 Steve Hathcock


sultania from Ballous Pictorial Drawing room companion

Sultana from Ballous Pictorial Drawing room companion circa 1854



Confederate Saboteurs Sink U.S. Warship

The Infamous Coal Torpedo

© 2012 Steve Hathcock

More damage was done by the Confederate Torpedo Bureau in the last twelve months of the war then had been done in the previous three years.

On the afternoon of Friday, April 15, 1864, the newly commissioned side wheeler USS Chenango sailed out of the Navy Yard at New York. She was to rendezvous with the USS Onondaga, a double turreted monitor near Sandy Hook, the next morning. The iron-clad warship would escort her south to her destination at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

She never made it.

A tremendous explosion tore apart her port boiler as the Chenango splashed her way past Fort Richmond in New York Harbor. Two men were killed instantly and thirty others were severely burned. Rescue boats carried the survivors ashore where they were loaded into ambulances and taken to the United States Marine Hospital. The New York Times reported the following: “Many of the poor fellows were literally flayed alive, some of them being quite blind from the effects of the steam. Their shrieks and groans were painful beyond expression; great, stalwart men implored the surgeons to give them something to ease their pain. It was evident that several of them were beyond human aid and would find in death a speedy easement of their suffering.” In fact, many of them suffered horribly before dying of their wounds. An investigation conducted by the Navy Department within a short time of the explosion, found negligence on the part of second assistant engineer, S. Wilkins Cragg. It was assumed he had been derelict in his duties as inspection officer of the boiler which had exploded. It was obvious to the court of inquiry the boiler had been constructed defectively. The build up of pressure had caused the explosion in the weakened structure.


Coal torpedo from kentucky Historical Society

Coal torpedo from kentucky Historical Society

They were wrong but would only discover their error when a batch of letters was found after the war had ended. In a letter dated May 21, 1864, inventor Thomas E. Courtenay wrote: “My work is beginning to tell on the Yankees. A short time ago, the U.S. Gun boat, Chenango, was blown up at Brooklyn by one of my coal torpedoes (as the Yankees call them) and I am now preparing to start for Canada & England to send parties from there to all parts of the West & North. You will soon hear of my success.” (Courtenay’s coal torpedo was an explosive device camouflaged as a lump of coal. Agents of the Confederate Secret Service hid the torpedo amongst ordinary pieces of coal. The fake coal exploded upon exposure to the fires in the huge boilers of the steam ship). This new information was not a startling revelation to the Navy Department though, as the Union had recently become aware of the Confederate Navy’s increasingly desperate attempts to develop weapons capable of breaking the choke-hold of the Union blockade of the Southern ports. In March, 1864, the Union gunboat Signal, of the Mississippi Squadron, captured a Confederate mail carrier with a batch of letters detailing activities of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. In response to the threat of this horrible new weapon, Rear-Admiral David Dixon Porter, commanding the Mississippi Squadron, issued General Order number 184: The enemy have adopted new inventions to destroy human life and vessels in the shape of torpedoes, and an article resembling coal, which is to be placed in our coal piles for the purpose of blowing the vessels up, or injuring them. Officers will have to be careful in overlooking coal barges. Guards will be placed over them at all times, and anyone found attempting to place any of these things amongst the coal will be shot on the spot. Extra vigilance will be required in preventing the passing of boats across the different rivers. Anything in the shape of a boat or scow must be destroyed, no matter to whom it may belong. No pass will be given to anyone to cross or re-cross a river. No letter of any kind will be permitted to pass, and no boats will after this take from the banks anyone (except contrabands) who have not (been issued) passes from me. No one will be allowed to go on board any gunboat unless the commander knows them personally and can vouch for them. Their names must be mentioned in the log and the facts reported to me. The transports are not to take on board refugees or prisoners of war or deserters, and only such persons as are authorized at Cairo or by me. All persons captured are to be thoroughly searched, also all trunks and clothing.  All letters to be sent to me. When wheeled vehicles are captured, the lining and seats are to be cut and examine; horses, harness, and in fact everything where there is the least chance of stowing correspondence. No person is to be released who is caught carrying mails, but sent to Cairo as a prisoner of war. The same with all ferrymen, whose property will be confiscated on the spot. The names of persons who are engaged in the torpedo business are: R.W. Dunn, E.C. Singer, J.D. Breaman, J.R. Fretwell, C.E. Frary, F.M. Tacker, L.C. Hirchbarger, and the sooner they are got rid of the better.

David D. Porter, Rear-Admiral, Commanding Mississippi Squadron.


Sinking of the Steamer Sultana


In spite of the warning given in Porter’s Order, the casualties continued to mount at an astonishing rate. The most infamous act of sabotage occurred in the waning days of the war. On April 27, 1865, the steamer Sultana carrying 2300 passengers, the bulk of whom were Union soldiers recently liberated from Confederate prison camps, was steaming northward when a sudden explosion ripped through her boilers. Flaming coal rained from the sky. Within moments, the crowded craft was engulfed in flames.  Over 1700 people died. The official report at the time indicated the Sultana was overloaded. As the war wound down, there was little inclination to investigate further and it was not until years after the war that the true story came out. While the Sultana lay at the Memphis wharf, a member of the Confederate Torpedo Corps smuggled aboard a large lump of coal in which was concealed a torpedo. The fake lump of coal was placed in the fuel pile in front of the boilers for the express purpose of causing the destruction of the boat.


Thomas Courtnay, inventor of the "Coal" torpedo

Thomas Courtnay, inventor of the “Coal Torpedo

In order to protect his family after his activities became known to the Union Officials, Courtenay obtained permission from Jefferson Davis to take his family to Europe, “where they would not be subject to Yankee malice and outrage.” Safe at last in England,Courtenay kept busy filling a large contract for clothing for Alabama troops while attempting to sell his invention to the British Government for $150,000.By 1873, Courtenay was back in New York, where he represented the London Assurance Corporation. His return to the now re-united States was short lived. Captain Thomas E. Courtenay died September 3, 1875 near Winchester, Virginia. How much actual damage was done by his coal torpedo will probably never be known. But officially, the Courtenay Torpedo was credited with sinking no less than sixty Union vessels along the Mississippi River killing thousands of Union soldiers and sailors and destroying millions of dollars worth of property.



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