- - Monday, September 21, 2015


By Mark K. Ragan

Texas A&M University Press, $35, 249 pages

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During the frantic last days of the Confederacy, officials involved in intelligence hastily burned records pertaining to Civil War secret service operations, honoring the age-old espionage tenet about the necessity of protecting covert agents. The destruction took on greater urgency when suspicions (unfounded) pointed to a Confederate intelligence role in the murder of President Lincoln.

Alas, the flames also devoured any chance for a comprehensive history of Confederate intelligence activities. Fortunately, history buffs such as Mark Ragan had the tenacity to sort through surviving snippets of records, old newspaper accounts, and stray oral histories to piece together missing parts of a fascinating story: how a group of small-town Texans developed the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel.

The story begins with Union naval raids on and around the port of Galveston, Texas, a key shipping point for the cotton exports that helped keep the Confederacy alive economically. To fend off such attacks, a group of citizens in the adjacent community of Port Lavaca set about developing torpedoes to attack Union ships.

The prime mover was a burly gunsmith (six feet, three inches) named Edgar Singer, who had a knack for mechanics (he was a nephew of Isaac Singer, inventor of the sewing machine). Singer is credited with the notion of using “underwater warfare” as a defensive tool in the war. Using a water-filled barrel in his backyard as a “laboratory,” he began experimenting. Eventually, he and friends developed a contact mine containing up to 50 pounds of black powder, for use both underwater and on land. The typical mine consisted of a watertight metal container, anchored three feet below the water surface, with a spring-loaded detonating device that activated when brushed by the hull of a passing ship. Variations followed.

In an era before polygraph exams and security clearances, secret operations relied on dealing with trusted individuals. Thus Singer and a friend, physician John R. Fretwell, recruited their core group from the local Masonic lodge, some 25 to 30 middle-aged men of varied occupations.

Initial deployments in Galveston Bay were so successful that members of the group were ordered to shift operations to Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital, so that the explosives could be deployed east of the Mississippi. The group became known as the “Singer Secret Service Corps.”

Persons serving with Singer apparently never joined the Confederate military, but worked as independent contractors. Mr. Ragan records a major security lapse: an operative, while crossing the Mississippi, lost a letter containing “all Confederate agents, saboteurs and informers” working behind Union lines — the biggest blunder ever for Confederate intelligence. The mines proved such a hazard to Union shipping — both water and rail — that officials declared members of the Singer group to be spies and saboteurs” who should be “shot on the spot” if apprehended carrying explosive materials.

The crowning accomplishment of the Singer group was the construction of a submarine designed by an engineer named Horace Lawson Hunley. His craft was constructed from the shell of a 40-foot steam boiler. A hand-turned crank that powered a single propeller gave the sub mobility. After tests in Mobile Bay, the Hunley (named for its creator) was hauled by rail to Charleston, S. C. and launched into the harbor.

In February 1864 the Union picket ship USS Housatonic, a 205-foot steamer, took up picket duties off Charleston. George Dixon, commanding the Hunley, squeezed into the crude submarine with seven other men. Guided by signals lights from shore, he struggled with the rudder to keep the Hunley on course. A Housatonic crew member later testified that “I saw something on the surface which looked to me like a porpoise coming to the surface to blow.” The crew was called to quarters. One man fired a shotgun at the object, to no avail: there was “an explosion, accompanied by a sound of rushing water and crashing timbers and metal.”

The 135-pound torpedo launched from the Hunely had detonated well below the water line, and fragments of the vessel flew into the air. Within minutes, the vessel was sinking. Many of the Housatonic crew members scrambled to safety.

Not so for the Hunley. Also an apparent victim of the explosion, the submarine “and its entire crew vanished, never to be seen again.”

According to the scanty records pieced together by Mr. Ragan and other researchers, the Singer group sank nine Union ships during its two years of operation, and derailed uncountable trains carrying Union war goods.

In the end, Singer’s torpedoes had scant effect on the outcome of the war. But history owes a tip of the hat to the “bold band of men” from Port Lavaca “who designed, fabricated, and manned the world’s first successful combat submarine.”

A fascinating footnote to Civil War history — a difficult read, at times, but worth the effort.

Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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