Gen. Benjamin F. Butler landed his militiamen on the Annapolis docks on the morning of April 22, 1861, to intimidate the Maryland General Assembly into voting against secession. He arrested a number of its members. One who got away was Edward Pliny Bryan, delegate from Prince George’s County.
Bryan did not hide, however. He crossed the Potomac River, probably stopping first at his home in Piscataway, and enlisted at Manassas Junction as a private in the First Virginia Infantry Regiment.
The 30-year-old’s determination to hurl the Yankees back was, by all evidence, inexhaustible. He rarely called them anything but “the enemy” or “Abolitionists.”
A telegrapher by trade, Bryan used new technologies as they were developed and always sought riskier, more powerful and novel means by which to prevail. It was thus propitious that early on he introduced himself to then-Capt. Edward Porter Alexander, Gen. P.E.T. Beauregard’s signal officer at Manassas.
Alexander undertook to train Bryan and others in a new signal system he had learned in the U.S. Army. Nicknamed “wig-wag,” it used flags in daytime, torches at night and was adaptable to encoding. The signalmen had to endure long stretches in fireless camps, often without security, in vigilant boredom. Worse, they had to stand their ground when transmitting or receiving, inviting well-placed shots from the enemy.
Bryan’s career then took off and never descended. He found his niche in providing the Confederacy’s needs for information, volunteers and materiel of all sorts that could be had north of the Potomac.
The Potomac had been sealed off by the Federals, and crossing without a pass was illegal. Jails soon were filled with those who had tried. Union gunboats patrolled the river; cavalry and pickets prowled the shores. Thus, the Confederacy needed specialists agents of passage and reconnaissance men to help with crossings. The job naturally fell to those Marylanders and Virginians who knew the river, and Bryan volunteered.
When his enlistment ended, he worked as a civilian, without pay, hidden in the Maryland woods on the Potomac, reporting Federal activities. He performed such excellent reconnaissance work that Alexander recommended him to President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee for expanded duties.
“He is bold and intelligent, and well worthy of any recognition or reward you may deem suitable,” he wrote to Davis in October 1861. The War Department soon hired Bryan as a civilian employee.
Meanwhile, Union Gen. George B. McClellan had recommended to Secretary of State William Henry Seward that Bryan be arrested as a “disloyal member” of the Maryland Legislature. In February 1862, a Yankee patrol captured Bryan on Mason’s Neck and threw him into the Old Capitol Prison.
At first, he was listed as “E.P. Bryan, Signal Corps.” A month later, he was listed as “Spy; belonged to rebel signal corps.” This was a dangerous turn. It erased legal protections and could lead to summary hanging.
Alexander wrote to Lee to get Bryan commissioned to effect his release by exchange as an officer, arguing that Bryan had “volunteered for secret signal service in which he underwent great hardships & continual risk & did much service.” So Bryan was commissioned a captain, transferred administratively to the command of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, cavalry leader and father of Confederate reconnaissance. That August, Bryan was exchanged for a Union captain at Fort Monroe, Va., and went right back to what he had been doing until he learned of the Torpedo Corps.
The Confederacy had no navy to fight against the 300 ships that made up the Union’s North Atlantic and South Atlantic squadrons, which were deployed to shut down Confederate commerce. The South fell back on imagination and improvisation.
How could it keep Yankees out while letting in commercial ships? Heavy shore guns could not do it alone; Yankee warships had more guns afloat, and they could come as near as they pleased and withdraw if things got too hot. The need was to restrict and destroy Yankee blockaders in the approaches.
Enter the “torpedo” and Bryan. Torpedo was a general term for any canister filled with powder and having a detonator. A Confederate invention, it was dangerous and difficult to deploy. In October 1862, a torpedo bureau had been established at Richmond, and torpedo stations were established in the main ports and in Richmond.
Soon Bryan was wearing two hats: those of signal officer and torpedo officer. One historian wrote, “The men of the corps were sworn to secrecy and granted extraordinary privileges on account of the perilous and arduous nature of the service. Several boats engaged in the laying of torpedoes were destroyed with all their crews by accidental explosions.”
Teams used small boats, moving at night to deploy their deadly weapons. They might be spotted by deck watches and blown out of the water or hunted down by Marines. Members of the Torpedo Corps were riverine warfare specialists, men of brass and skillful movement. They were experts on explosives and about the tides, winds and currents.
Though primitive, the weapons could devastate powerful warships. Some weighed several hundred pounds, and they often were roped together. Old boilers often were used to construct them. Some had contact detonators, others command detonators of either friction or electrical type. Command torpedoes were wired to shore parties in torpedo pits. Galvanic batteries provided the electrical charge. They could be anchored to the bottom of harbors and rivers in patterns, leaving a channel for blockade runners, and then detonated from shore when a target hove into sight.
Bryan set off on long tours up and down the coast from Florida to Virginia. Until two days before his death, he was rarely in one location longer than a few weeks. His written orders stated only “special service.” February 1863 found him in Port Royal Sound and Hilton Head, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Wilmington, N.C. April found him in Jacksonville, Fla.; May in Charleston, S.C., and Virginia. In June, he went back to Charleston. And so on through the dangerous, grinding months.
His most successful efforts were in the St. John’s River at Jacksonville. There the Federals were landing large numbers of infantry for their campaign against Georgia. Within a few weeks, Bryan and his teams accounted for the sinking of four enemy transports totaling 1,468 tons. The Maple Leaf went down first, a few hours before dawn on April 2, 1864; Bryan and two men rowed out and burned her to the waterline.
In late May, Bryan was ordered to Chester, Va., to help mine the James River. Lee wanted to shut down the crushing flow of Yankee troops and materiel feeding the Petersburg siege. Unfortunately, Bryan was too late.
The North had left little room in which to operate. Bryan brought in torpedoes and boats in by wagon and, under darkness, launched. While his teams were still close inshore, a Yankee transport drove off his security force. He dared not move; the tide went out, and he was forced to abandon the mission. His men did sink or damage a few vessels, but the closest they came to success was the diversion of thousands of Yankee soldiers from line combat to river security. The Yankees captured the boats and mines, and Bryan was ordered back to Charleston.
The risk of fever was always present around waterways. In Charleston Harbor, Bryan contracted yellow fever, which killed him within three days, on Sept. 30, 1864.
In an Oct. 1, 1864, letter to Richmond, Gen. Samuel Jones wrote, “I have the melancholy duty of informing you of the death of Capt. E. Pliny Bryan. He died in this city at half past one o’clock yesterday morning of yellow fever. In him the service has lost a daring, zealous and intelligent officer.” The next month, a Gen. Rains of the torpedo bureau wrote that the loss of Bryan “has necessarily paralyzed our efforts.”
David Martin Ritchey is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.