Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War. By Mark K. Ragan. Mason City, IA: Savas Publishing Company, 1999. 310 pgs.
The history of submarine technology and warfare is a surprisingly long one, particularly in the Civil War. Even the most novice of Civil War hobbyists are familiar with the story of the ill-fated H.L. Hunley, However, the story of submarines in that conflict holds more untold chapters than the fate of that lone ship. Mark K. Ragan demonstrates in his Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War that the infamous Confederate submarine was but one of around two dozen “infernal machines” designed and employed by both the Union and Confederacy in their naval war efforts.
Ragan’s premise is that historians have ignored the rich history of Civil War submarine activity. He claims that, “There is now no doubt that the birth of the modern submarine took place during the American Civil War. The Hunley, for all of the justifiable attention she has received, was but one of perhaps two dozen underwater boats built during the conflict by both sides (p.257).” Confederates built submarines at sites from Shreveport to Charleston, and attempted to use their “infernal machines” in a secret war effort directed against the Federal blockade. The most famous of these was the H.L. Hunley, a 30-foot iron submarine that executed the first successful submarine attack in history against the USS Housatonic in February, 1864. The submarine was a death trap, killing two crews and her inventor during trials, and her combat crew after the sinking of the Housatonic. For their part, the Union Navy also engaged in submarine activities. The USS Alligator was built in 1862 by the efforts of Frenchman Brutus de Villeroi, who had experience building other submarines in Europe during the mid-1800s. It was supposed to be used against the fearsome ironclad CSS Virginia, however before she could be made ready, the Virginia dueled the USS Monitor. The Alligator ingloriously sank during tow in 1863, and has been lost at sea since. Confederate forces were more apt to use alternative and “dishonorable” submarine warfare offensively out of desperation to break the Union blockade, which provided a compelling incentive to develop any and all technological oddities in order to break it. The imaginative Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory can also be credited in the development of submarine warfare, as well as the many businessmen and common soldiers and sailors from whom the many Confederate submarine designs originated. Ragan explores submarine activity from inception and invention to trial and error through the course of the war, in a slightly scattered but detailed narrative. His sources consist of letters, naval records, business records, and some secondary sources. Ragan provides some outstanding visual sources as well, ranging from photographs to sketched illustrations documenting the mysterious existence of several previously unknown Civil War submarines.
Several issues concerning Ragan’s documentation must be noted. Ragan’s scholarship must be considered groundbreaking when considering that his work pioneered the study of Civil War submarine activity beyond rudimentary knowledge of the infamous H.L. Hunley. However, the author repeatedly asserts conclusions that depend on letters that are lost. Most documentation concerning Confederate submarine warfare seems to have been burned in the fires that raged in Richmond in 1865, and Ragan does an outstanding job piecing together what evidence he was able to access. He cites numerous documents which he claims historians have not used, and transcribes several previously unpublished letters in their entirety. However while pioneering in its premise, Ragan’s work cannot be considered definitive. Critical shortcomings haunt the documentation of several of his alleged submarines. His evidence proving the existence of some Confederate submarines is circumstantial at best, depending on brief references in scattered letters and nothing more in several cases. A quick examination of the footnotes of his fifth chapter plainly reveals this point. This does not necessarily alter Ragan’s premise, which holds true; however while groundbreaking and thoughtful, Ragan’s scholarship is substandard. It is interesting to note here that Ragan himself is not a historian trained in the proper use of archival information, but an avid submariner and project consultant who has worked on several H.L. Hunley documentaries.
Finally, it must also be noted that the 1999 edition of Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War was rendered obsolete shortly after its publication when the location of the H.L. Hunley was raised from the ocean floor off the coast of South Carolina on August 8, 2000. Ragan’s text was reissued in 2002 under the title Submarine Warfare in the Civil War. (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002.). That version features expanded coverage of the excavation of the H.L. Hunley.
Submarine Warfare in the Civil War. By Mark K. Ragan. (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002.) Originally published as Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare.
From the beginnings of naval warfare, man has dreamed of new and innovative methods to destroy his enemies. One such method of attack, that has received much attention, is the art of submarine warfare. Man has long endeavored to use the secrecy of the deep to conceal his attacks. It is recorded that primitive submarines were used in combat as early as Greek and Roman times. More recently, during the American Revolution, David Bushnell attempted to place an explosive charge under the hull of a British man of war using an underwater ship known as the “turtle”. Although this was one of the first modern attempts at underwater warfare, it was followed up extensively in the American Civil War. Most historians today, consider the American Civil war to be the conflict where the modern submarine made its first appearance. Civil War submarines included such modern inventions as air purifications systems, periscopes, self-propelled torpedoes, underwater guns, electric motors and air lock chambers.
Mark K. Ragan examines the history of submarine warfare in the American Civil War. Throughout his work, Ragan makes it a point to explain that he has used all of the available documents and papers on submarines to conducts his research. He also explains the reason for the lack of extensive documentation found from the Civil War era. Ragan explains that during the nineteenth century the very idea of submarine warfare was considered repugnant. According to the rules and protocols of war, an honorable combatant would not stoop to methods such as submarine combat. Due to the unfavorable outlook on submarine warfare, very few documents or records were produced or stored, in fear that the enemy would find the documents and use the information in retribution against the perpetrators. The records that do exist are spotty at best, but Reagan has pieced together most of the information. Ragan contends that the Confederate forces were forced to use methods such as submarines, for the purpose of their very survival. Mark Ragan suggests that it is surprising that the Union did not produce more submarine boats, with their wealth of facilities and technologies. Overall, around two dozen submarine boats were produced, in total, on both sides of the conflict.
Ragan divides his book into several chapters, each dealing with a different period of the development of the submarine in the Civil War, both Union and Rebel. He begins his work investigating submarines produced in the early stages of the war. One of which was a boat constructed in the city of New Orleans. This boat was tested extensively in Lake Pontchartrain, but was scuttled by its designers as the Union forces were capturing the city. Other submarine boats were constructed upon the James River in Virginia by the Tredegar Iron Works. These boats operated in and around the James River but where only somewhat successful. In the north, a French inventor, named Brutus de Villeroi, invented a submarine boat known as the Alligator. This ship was built for defeating the Rebel ironclad CSS Virginia. Before the Alligator could meet the Virginia in battle, she ran had already met the USS Monitor and had later been ran aground and set a fire by her crew. Later in the war designers from New Orleans developed several boats including the Pioneer, the Pioneer II and the CSS Hunley. Of these working submarine boats, the CSS Hunley was by far the most successful, if not plagued by disasters. The Hunley was built by privateers in Mobile Alabama and then brought to Charleston to operate against the Federal blockade. Before the Hunley saw action it became swamped and sunk to the ocean floor killing several crew members not once, but twice! This did not stop the desperate Confederate Navy. A third crew was raised and the Hunley successfully attacked the USS Housatonic. Although the USS Housatonic was sunk, the Hunley met a similar fate and never returned to port. Later in the war, other boats were built by Union forces but most never operated successfully. The Hunley was the most successful boat of the war, being the first to sink an actual ship in combat.
Overall, Ragan's work is fascinating to the reader and entertains throughout. He has obviously spent countless hours researching and examining primary documents. It is unfortunate that many of the documents were destroyed or not produced in order to protect the submariners after the war. Although, much information is missing, Ragan has done an excellent job of piecing together the story. Anyone with interest in submarines or the Civil War would devour this book with great speed.
Christopher D. Draper Texas Christian University