150 years ago: “I firmly believe that such a vessel … would defy the Navy of the United States.”

I last mentioned Captain Francis Lee in connection with his successful spar torpedo experiment. On this day (March 25) in 1863 he wrote a letter to General P.G.T. Beauregard outlining the tactical application of the device, urging support for this type of attack:

The work on torpedo ram has nearly come to a stand for the want of iron. I have exhausted every private source of supply, and unless the Government comes to my assistance the work must stop. The whole sponsing of the boat is ready for the iron plating. The engine is in place, and the shield is finished as far as my supply of iron for bolts will permit. I have requested Commodore Ingraham to assist me, but he is unable to do so. I hope the practical demonstrations of the efficiency of torpedoes borne by vessels may remove any objections arising out of the novelty of the device and the departure from long-established custom. I would respectfully suggest that if row-boats may carry torpedoes and sink large vessels with them without damage from their own weapons, whether larger vessels may not use them more effectually and with greater security. The naval officers of this station, after witnessing the trial in the harbor, warmly approved of and adopted this terrible weapon of offense.

In proof of it, the iron-clads, together with every available steamer and small boat in the harbor, are now being prepared for their use. One thing has been clearly and fully demonstrated, and that is that vessels may be constructed impenetrable by shot and shell. There is a limit to the power of missiles; there is no limit to the means of resisting them. If six inches of wrought iron or even steel be not a sufficient protection nine inches may be, and so on to any thickness. Such is the resisting strength of iron-clads above the water-line in the rare and elastic medium of air, where comparatively little resistance is offered to the expansive force of gunpowder. But below the waterline, in a medium incompressible, where, consequently, the power of gunpowder becomes far more tremendous, the iron-clad vessels are undefended, for the reason that ordinary missiles cannot reach them. It is here, then, with a new weapon, that they must be attacked with hope of success; and I believe that the one satisfactory experiment with the spar torpedo has opened to us clearly the way to the attainment of this end. I may appear visionary, but after the most thoughtful consideration of the subject am free to confess that with one powerful vessel, strongly iron-plated, modeled for great speed, and with enormous motive power, with propellers so arranged as to enable her to turn quickly, without guns of any kind, without turrets or shields, with an iron-clad deck unbroken fore to aft, with nothing about it but a shot-proof smokestack, I firmly believe that such a vessel, armed with torpedoes, would defy the Navy of the United States. With a speed superior to any vessel afloat carrying an armament, she could always reach the enemy, while the instant of contact must be that of destruction. I believe that a vessel of this kind built abroad, where material and labor are ample, and where consequently the work may be rapidly accomplished, would not only keep open every port now in our possession, but would so embarrass the enemy as to drive them from those ports on our coast where they now have almost undisturbed possession.

I may perhaps in this communication have pressed the matter too strongly, but so firm is my conviction of the importance of the enterprise that I am assured you will excuse my unseemly ardor.

Yes, we have the one-thousandth reference to the Confederate shortage of iron.

As one who traces the history of weapons development, I find interesting Lee’s explanation about the effects of the spar torpedo. The discussion of escalating armor thickness reminds me of similar observations made in World War II as scientists perfected the shaped charge. Likewise the mention of pressure effects from underwater explosions matches to efforts to perfect both the mine and self-propelled torpedo in the 20th century.

But like many “wonder weapons” through the centuries, claims “this will change everything” were over-expectations. The Federals were already working on countermeasures as Lee experimented.

Beauregard forwarded Lee’s report to Richmond. In his endorsement, the general also suggested overseas purchase of suitable vessels to employ the spar torpedo.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 843-4.)

One thought on “150 years ago: “I firmly believe that such a vessel … would defy the Navy of the United States.”

  1. […] After Rodgers cast his raft adrift on April 7, it ended up behind Morris Island. There Confederate engineers inspected the raft and provided the detailed sketch seen above. Later the Confederate returned to salvage usable parts from the raft. Captain Francis Lee requisitioned some ten tons of iron fittings from “the Yankee devil” for use in construction of his torpedo rams. […]

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