Monday, February 6, 2012

Protecting CSS Virginia -- At All Costs

Harper's Weekly sketch of submarine attack on USS Minnesota in Hampton Roads in fall of 1861. (Library of Congress)

Acting Master William Cheeney was extremely anxious March 12, 1862, as he began writing a letter to Commander John Mercer Brooke in Richmond.  The arrival of the Union Monitor had dramatically altered the naval situation in Hampton. The blockade remained in place and a feared buildup of Union forces around Fortress Monroe seemed imminent. But if the underwater explosives engineer could get the support of  Brooke, the inventor of a revolutionary deep sea sounding device, a powerful Navy cannon, and one of the fathers of the ironclad CSS Virginia, Cheeney believed he had the means in hand to dispose of the wooden Union Navy's radically-designed defender.

Cheeney had already approached Commodore French Forrest, commander of Confederate naval forces in Hampton Roads, about securing a "little sheet iron cigar boat" about 12-feet long and 2 1/2- feet wide to do the job.

"When  done, I shall make the first trial on the Monitor which is the only enemy our noble Virginia has to fear.  I believe I shall succeed."

Asking for Brooke's patience if the project ran into a delay, Cheeney, who was born in New York and had served in the United States Navy, assured him that unlike the ironclads and Matthew Fontaine Maury's gunboats, "It will cost very little and will require about one week to complete it."

Why would Cheeney seem so assured that he could succeed and he would receive Brooke's support? He had done it before. Since the earliest days of the war, he had worked with submersibles and had built a "sub-marine boat" then in Richmond.  But speed was necessary now. It "would take too long" to  ready the submarine and send it to Norfolk for an attack on Monitor. He had won Brooke's support in the past to build the submarine, and he had every reason to believe he would have it now when the stakes were so high.

The Union Navy also had every reason to believe that such an attack by a submersible or a "sub-marine boat" was possible in Hampton Roads. In the fall of 1861, Cheeney had probably launched at least one attack against USS Minnesota, now aground following the Battle of the Ironclads. Shortly after that, the commander of USS Congress, now sunk, had positioned A-frame defenses around his ship to protect it from torpedoes (mines) or rip apart the floats of spar-tipped submerged Confederate attackers.

A female spy had tipped the Union Navy and Union Army off.  Allan Pinkerton, head of the Secret Service, had taken "Mrs. E.H. Baker," one of his Chicago operatives with connections in Richmond, directly to Major General George B. McClellan and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles when she arrived in Washington in November 1861.  There, she handed over her notes of a demonstration of the submarine's power that she had witnessed as the guest of a Confederate Army officer and a sketch of work being done on a much larger submarine at the Tredegar Iron Works that she made after touring the facility the next day.

Through field glasses, Mrs. Baker watched the "float," a green device atop the model submarine allowing air into the vessel, approach a scow.  As the Army officer explained to her, two or three men operate the boat.  They are "provided with submarine diving, armor, which enables them to work under the water and attach the magazine to the ship intended to be blown up."

For a few moments, the "float " stopped "within a few rods of the scow" before moving away.  For a few more moments, nothing happened.  She believed the experiment had failed.

"Without any previous warning, there was a terrific explosion, and the scow seemed lifted bodily out of the water and thrown into the air.  Her destruction was complete."

The officer then told her that the plan nearing fruition was to have the larger submarine being fitted out at Tredegar taken to Norfolk and paired up with Patrick Henry and Yorktown, both converted steamers, in a coordinated attack on the water and below upon the Union fleet.

Pinkerton's memoirs can be troublesome when it comes to facts vs. hyperbole concerning himself and his agents and even dates.

On Oct. 12, more than a month before Mrs. Baker is said to have reported to Washington, the New York Herald published an account of a foiled attack on Minnesota, possibly using a submarine. Harper's Weekly reprinted the account with a sketch of the two vessels. Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, commander of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron, reported to Welles several days earlier that "an attempt, no doubt, was made by the insurgents to get an infernal machine among our shipping" in Hampton Roads, but whether he was referring to a submarine or floating mines is unclear.

What is known is that Lieutenant Robert Minor failed in an attack on Congress off Newport News Point on the day Goldsborough wrote Welles, but he used floating mines.

Yet Pinkerton wrote, "One of the vessels of the blockading fleet ... had discovered the float, and putting out her drag-rope, had caught the air-tubes and thus effectually disabled the vessel from doing any harm, and no doubt drowning all who were on board." He didn't name the vessel saved the Federal fleet from destruction.

There also are no known surviving records of Cheeney's "sub-marine boat" engaged in combat in Hampton Roads either in 1861 or 1862. Torpedo boats, cigar boats, "Davids," CSS Hunley, and other similar vessels appear in a number of other accounts of later engagements at New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston.

What Cheeney's letter clearly shows is the Confederate Navy's heightened interest in devising new technologies and techniques to frustrate the Union Navy's wealth and numbers. Often its grasp exceeded its reach.

But with Monitor on station and other ironclads on the way, the massive Army and Navy buildup for the Peninsula campaign was safely under way.

As matters turned out, there is no record of Cheeney's cigar boat attacking Monitor, either. In fact by the fall of 1862, he switched sides again -- rejoining the Union Navy where his work remains shrouded in secrecy.


ORN, Ser. 1 Vol. 6, pp. 363,  392-393
"A Rebel Infernal Machine," Harper's Weekly, Nov. 2, 1861
Allan Pinkerton, The Spy of the Rebellion, G.W. Dillingham Co., New York, Google e-Book, pp. 396-403
John M. Coski, Capital Navy, Savas Woodbury Publishers, Campbell, Calif., 1996. pp. 116-121

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