Confederate Torpedo Boats


The American Civil War saw a number of innovations in naval warfare, including the first torpedo boats, which carried spar torpedoes. In 1861 President Lincoln instituted a naval blockade of Southern ports, which crippled the South’s efforts to obtain war materials from abroad. The South also lacked the means to construct a naval fleet capable of taking on the Union Navy. One strategy to counter the blockade saw the development of torpedo boats, small fast boats designed to attack the larger capital ships of the blockading fleet.

The David class of torpedo boats were steam powered with a partially enclosed hull. They were not true submarines but were semi-submersible; when ballasted, only the smokestack and few inches of the hull were above the water line. On a dark night, and burning smokeless anthracite coal, the torpedo boats were virtually invisible. The Davids were named after the story of David and Goliath. The CSS Midge and CSS St. Patrick were David-class torpedo boats.

The CSS Squib and CSS Scorpion represented another class of torpedo boats that were also low built but had open decks and lacked the ballasting tanks found on the Davids.

19th century spar torpedo boat.The Confederate torpedo boats were armed with spar torpedoes. This was a charge of powder in a waterproof case, mounted to the bow of the torpedo boat below the water line on a long spar. The torpedo boat attacked by ramming her intended target, which stuck the torpedo to the target ship by means of a barb on the front of the torpedo. The torpedo boat would back away to a safe distance and detonate the torpedo, usually by means of a long cord attached to a trigger.

In general, the Confederate torpedo boats were not very successful. Their low sides made them susceptible to swamping in high seas, and even to having their boiler fires extinguished by spray from their own torpedo explosions. Torpedo misfires (too early) and duds were common.

In 1864 Union Naval Lieutenant Cushing fitted a steam launch with a spar torpedo to attack the Confederate ironclad CSS Albermarle. Also the same year the Union launched the USS Spuyten Duyvil, a purpose-built craft with a number of technical innovations including variable ballast for attack operations and an extensible and reloadable torpedo placement spar.

CSS David
CSS Midge
CSS Scorpion
CSS Squib
CSS St. Patrick

Back to Confederate Navy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: