When Admiral David Farragut shouted the famous phrase “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!” before storming into Mobile Bay in 1864, he wasn’t talking about the type of torpedoes that are fired from ships or dropped from airplanes.
He was talking about tethered underwater mines, usually made by filling a demijohn bottle --- a large wine bottle -- with gunpowder.
During the Civil War, torpedoes were used extensively, especially by Confederates, who faced a severe shortage in the number of warships they had to defend rivers and harbors.
Many of the torpedoes floated on the surface or were tethered just below the water and detonated by contact. But they often did not explode due to poor powder or faulty triggers. They also could be detonated by electric charge.
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Most famously, the huge Federal ironclad “Cairo” was sunk by such an electric torpedo near Vicksburg. The Cairo has been raised and is now part of the national battlefield there. The fuse used to detonate the mine is on display at the Vicksburg museum.
Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard used mines extensively during the siege of Charleston. There were 123, to be exact, in the harbor and the nearby Stono River.
Gen. G. J. Rains, former chief of the Confederate Torpedo Service, wrote in 1877 that the torpedoes “prevented the capture of that city and its conflagration.” He added “iron clads are said to master the world, but torpedoes master the iron clads.”