The Infernal Machine
How a Confederate officer invented the land mine and changed the face of warfare
THE VERY FIRST BLAST CAME EARLY ONE APRIL night in 1840. Federal troops were in the midst of a skirmish with the Seminole Indians, who had been fighting for 23 years to keep their lands in Florida. A 36-year-old Army officer from New Bern, North Carolina, had fashioned a primer that would explode when touched and attached it to an ordinary artillery shell. A couple of days earlier he had hidden shell and primer under a bundle of clothing near a pond often used by the Seminoles. On hearing the explosion, the officer, Capt. Gabriel James Rains, gathered some dragoons and rode to the pond, but instead of finding dead or wounded Seminoles, he and his men saw only the carcass of an opossum, which they brought back to their fort for examination.
An autopsy showed that the opossum had been killed not by the mine but by a rifle bullet. The next morning Rains returned to the spot with 16 men to investigate further. The party was ambushed by “some hundred and more infuriated savages,” as the captain later recalled, who managed to wound Rains and kill a sergeant before being driven off. With Rains’s experiment having ended in failure, a second mine that had been placed near the fort was removed, and the devices disappeared from American warfare for the next two decades.
In July 1861 Rains, who was fiercely pro-slavery, resigned his commission as lieutenant colonel of the 4th United States Infantry. Two months later the Confederacy made him a brigadier general. Already strongly against the Union, he grew increasingly bitter after the Federal Navy shelled his hometown in March 1862. His hatred of Federal forces and his expertise with explosives would make for a grimly effective mix.
In the spring of 1862 Rains was stationed at Yorktown, Virginia, as the Union Army slowly made its way north toward Richmond. Early on May 4, as Federal cavalry searched for retreating Rebels near Yorktown’s Revolutionary War battlefield, an explosion shattered the morning quiet. A horse and rider were blown into the air, both severely wounded. There had been no cannon fire, no hiss of an approaching shell. Rains had deployed the first successful land mine.
The Federal troops were stunned. They hesitantly searched nearby fields, and what they found and cautiously unearthed verified a report they had heard from a deserter: Artillery shells with triggered fuses lay buried just beneath the surface of nearby roads and fortifications. Then came another explosion, this time near the roots of an old tree, and another soldier lay wounded. The rules of war had changed.
Officially the devices became known as “infernal machines” or “subterra shells,” but to the rank and file they were simply “torpedoes.” Some of them were converted artillery shells; some were no more than wooden kegs or demijohns—glass bottles encased in wicker—filled with gunpowder, to which Rains added a fuse. For security reasons he kept his recipe for primer to light the fuse a secret, and it wasn’t until after the war that the North identified his formula. It was actually fairly simple by today’s standards: 50 percent potassium chlorate, 30 percent antimony trisulfide, and 20 percent pulverized glass. Crushing a thin copper skin was enough to activate it, detonating the primer to ignite a fuse connected to the powder. Rains buried his torpedoes just under the surface of the ground, positioning tin roofs over them for protection against the rain and lightly placing a wooden plank or a pile of leaves on top for Camouflage. A foot- or hoofstep, or the slightest movement of the device, was all it took to set off a fearsome explosion.
A member of Pennsylvania’s 85th Volunteer Regiment said that Yorktown’s roads were thickly sown with “fatal iron fuses, whose touch is death.” A road might or might not be seeded with mines; Union troops could never be certain. Charles A. Phillips of the 5th Massachusetts Artillery recorded the presence of “a blood stain on the ground where a man was blown up.” The New York Times reported that “inside the fort [at Yorktown], especially near the guns, and in the … streets [and other] places our men would walk, newly turned earth and other indications gave evidence of buried torpedoes.”
When Union forces threatened to overrun nearby Williamsburg and a battery of Confederate artillery got stuck in the spring mud, Rains had mines buried in an approaching road. Federal cavalry set off four of them, and the unit refused to move forward until the roadway was carefully searched. The troops took three days to get back under way, and by then the Rebel guns had been moved to safety. Gen. George B. McClellan admitted his drive to Richmond was “much delayed by the caution made necessary by the presence of these torpedoes.”
Rains not only buried his mines but may also have used some to booby-trap aboveground objects. Though he vigorously denied it, the traps seemed to be everywhere. “You could not tip over a barrel or anything else,” another soldier from Massachusetts wrote, “but what had a string attached to a big shell or … torpedo, that would kill five or six men every time they did anything or moved anything.” This was an exaggeration, but Rains’s infernal machine had spread fear throughout the Union ranks.
Many found the idea of hiding bombs under dirt and twigs, bombs just waiting for the unwary to set them off, repellent. McClellan wired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “The rebels … have been guilty of the most murderous and barbarous conduct.” Confederate troops had left land mines and booby traps “near wells and springs, near flag-staffs, magazines, telegraph offices, in carpet bags, barrels of flour, etc.” McClellan ordered his troops not to touch the mines and forced captured Rebel soldiers to remove the devices “at their own peril.”
Objections to the use of the mines crossed ideological lines. In May 1862 Rains’s commander, Gen. James Longstreet, ordered his troops to stop using the devices because they were not “a proper or effective method of war.” Rains countered that fields of torpedoes were much the same as lines of human pickets—both, after all, were placed in advance of an army to warn of an enemy approach—and took his argument to Confederate Secretary of War George Wythe Randolph. Randolph instructed Rains to obey Longstreet’s order but at the same time wrote: “It is admissible to plant shells in a parapet to repel assaults, or in a road to check pursuit, [but] it is not admissible to plant shells merely to destroy life and without other design than that of depriving the enemy of a few men.” Rains had said the mines were meant “mainly to have a moral effect in checking the advance of the enemy [and] to save our sick.” But a friend quotes him as declaring that he had “no scruples in resorting to any means of defense against an army of Abolitionists, invading our country for the purpose, avowed, of extermination.”
Randolph resolved the dispute between Longstreet and Rains by reassigning the latter to “submarine defenses of the James and Appomattox Rivers.” The transfer was made at the request of Gen. Robert E. Lee, recently put in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia. Since the Confederate Navy was still tiny, Lee was concerned about a Federal naval invasion. He visited Rains, who had mined the waters around Yorktown the previous winter, and said, “The enemy have upwards of one hundred vessels in the James River. … If there is a man in the whole Southern Confederacy that can stop them, you are the man. Will you undertake it?”
Rains did, and his new command began in mid-June 1862. At the same time, however, the Confederate Navy was pursuing a parallel program in naval-mine research. It was directed by Matthew Fontaine Maury, perhaps the Confederacy’s most brilliant scientist, and Lt. Hudson Davidson. A rivalry developed between Davidson and Rains and persisted long after the war was over. In writing his history of the Confederate torpedo program, for example, Davidson dismissed Rains’s Seminole War fiasco by saying: “The biter was bit, and the Indians caught him and peppered him with lead. He was daft on sensitive fuses, and his experiments were generally disastrous.”
In the summer of 1862, though, Rains had torpedoes that detonated reliably on contact, while Davidson and Maury were still perfecting their electrical detonation system. Their devices would soon prove quite deadly; in December 1862, in fact, a Maury-designed mine would be responsible for the first torpedo sinking of a Union vessel, the USS Cairo , on the Yazoo River in ^? Mississippi. (The captain of that ship. Thomas O. Selfridee, Jr., had a knack for being on the wrong end of technological innovations. He commanded the forward gun battery on the USS Cumberland in March 1862 when it was sunk by the Confederate ironclad Merrimack the night before her famous duel with the USS Monitor . Selfridge escaped that sinking vessel by wriggling through a porthole and swimming to a lifeboat, and he survived the Cairo disaster too, as did all his crew in the Yazoo’s shallow water. His grandson, Army Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, would carry on the family tradition with less success by becoming, in 1909, the first person to die in an airplane crash.)
At the time, Rains’s torpedoes were cheaper and more easily built than those of Davidson and Maury. Still, waterborne defense was the navy’s bailiwick, and by autumn Davidson had won control of the James and Appomattox Rivers (Maury had by then taken on other duties). The rest of the Confederacy’s rivers and harbors were divided up between Davidson’s Submarine Battery Service and Rains’s Torpedo Bureau.
Rains’s naval torpedoes came in several shapes and sizes, including one made from a beer barrel with cones attached to the ends. They were usually set adrift in pairs and weighted so the fuse would sit just above the water’s surface. These deadly beer-barrel bombs assured one Union Navy man a place in history. In August 1864 Rear Adm. David Glasgow Farragut encountered Rains’s naval mines while leading his squadron into Mobile Bay. Lashed to the rigging of the USS Hartford to keep from being washed overboard during battle, the admiral saw the Federal ironclad Tecumseh strike a mine and sink seconds later, taking her captain and 92 men to their deaths (there were 21 survivors). As the Union line began to waver and hesitate, Farragut rallied it with what has become perhaps the single most famous order in naval history: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” (or words to that effect).
Another of Rains’s underwater mines used his secret-formula fuse in what came to be called a frame torpedo, suitable for use in water that was not too deep. He positioned the fuse in a 400-pound, 15-inch artillery shell loaded with 27 pounds of gunpowder. Each shell was specially cast with a thin top surface to direct the explosive force upward. The fuse screwed into an opening in the shell’s nose, and the shell was attached to a framework made of heavy logs that was anchored with boulders and stones in a river or harbor.
General Longstreet may not have approved of mines, but the Confederate general Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard did. He ordered frame torpedoes laid around his command at Fort McAllister, near the Ogeechee River at Savannah, Georgia, in 1863. From that point on, torpedoes became an increasing hazard in Southern rivers and harbors. Although the Union used several methods of clearing waterways—among them a system of large garden-style rakes attached to ships, forming the world’s first minesweepers—the mines were still a source of fear. A seaman oiïthe USS Albatross said that Federal sailors “dreaded torpedoes more than anything else.” After he saw a Union tus blasted out of the water, he wrote, “I think her smoke stack must have gone fifty feet into the air.”
In late May 1863 Confederate President Jefferson Davis, an enthusiastic convert to the use of mines, sent Rains to aid in the defense of Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. Unfortunately for the Rebels, Rains arrived too late to fend off Ulysses S. Grant’s attack, and the city fell on July 4. In September Rains went to Charleston, South Carolina, to supervise that city’s torpedo defenses on land and water. He stayed there until February 1864, when he was shifted to Mobile, Alabama. In June of that year he was recalled to Richmond and put in charge of all the Confederate Army’s torpedo operations.
As land mines came into increasingly common use, planting them got to be a highly organized task. By mid-November 1864 Rains was supervising the deployment of nearly 1,300 infernal machines on the approaches to Richmond, with more to come. His men placed a small red flag three feet behind each planted mine—at night the flags were replaced with lanterns shaded with red flannel—and laid streamers of white cloth along the ground to mark safe paths for Confederate soldiers. The plan, of course, was to remove the flags and streamers when the Union Army advanced, though some were still in place when the Confederates abandoned the city in Aoril 1865.
Land mines and torpedoes were not the only weapons Rains developed during the war. He invented a primitive hand grenade, described by the Confederate general Edward Porter Alexander as “thin, iron shells, about the size of a goose egg, filled with powder and with a sensitive paper percussion fuze in the front end, and a two foot strap, or strong cord, to the rear end. A man could swing one of these and throw it 60 yards, and they would burst wherever they struck.”
Just how much damage land mines or naval torpedoes did in the Civil War isn’t certain. It’s doubtful that either had any appreciable effect on the course of the war, and nowhere did Rains’s invention change the outcome of a battle. Still, land mines did slow the advancing troops at Williamsburg and Yorktown, giving an advantage to the South.
Naval torpedoes probably did more damage. Though most of the sinkings of Union ships by torpedoes came late in the war, after the Confederacy had yielded control of its rivers and harbors, more Federal ships were lost to Confederate torpedoes than to all other causes combined. Rains claimed his torpedoes sank 58 Federal vessels, though a more likely figure is 29 sunk and 13 damaged. Only one Confederate ship, the ram CSS Albemarle , was sunk by Union torpedoes, which went into use in 1864.
That sinking was effected not by a floating mine but by one that was released from a craft specially built for the purpose. In perhaps the Union Navy’s most gallant exploit, a low, swift launch called a torpedo boat, commanded by Lt. William B. Gushing, raced into the teeth of the Albemarle ’s fire and then released, from very close range, a torpedo attached to a spar. The resulting underwater explosion was the only way to sink the Albemarle , whose impenetrable iron armor made regular shelling futile.
Because no one knew- the total number of land mines deployed, not all Civil War mines were ever uncovered. “The carelessness evinced by the Rebels, in marking the places of their deposit, is most culpable,” a Federal officer remembered. He added that many of the mines were “liable at any time to injure persons, who from curiosity, or other motive, may visit the ground.” Surely some still lie buried, waiting for enemies long dead. In 1960 three mines were found around Spanish Fort, Alabama (across the bay from Mobile), their powder still dangerous almost a century after the war. Naval torpedoes also remained a threat for years; they, too, were dangerous so long as their powder remained dry.
Following the war Rains lived for a while in Augusta, Georgia, and the ruins of Atlanta, moved on to Charleston, and eventually worked as a clerk in the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Department, never regaining the excitement of his explosives work. He died in 1881, but his legacy was firmly in place. While some Northerners argued that any Rebel who had worked with torpedoes should hang, none did, and after the war many Confederate mine and torpedo specialists went to work for the reunited military as explosives experts. Many in the Federal government believed that land mines and torpedoes were, as one Union officer wrote, “destined to be the least expensive but most terrible engine of defense yet invented.” A few Rebels who had worked with Rains’s infernal machines tried to peddle their expertise to foreign nations. Overtly, at least, no country took them up on it.
In later years many nations took their lead from the Confederacy and deployed waterborne torpedoes in defense of rivers and harbors. Land mines were used sparingly in World War I, but by World War II they had become a staple weapon. In the 1960s microelectronics and other technical advances spawned a new generation of smaller, lighter mines. Some even use audio sensors to detect the sounds of mechanized vehicles so they can attack tanks and not people. Still, soldiers and civilians continue to be killed or maimed by land mines, and their use remains a hotly contested issue in modern war zones like Bosnia.
In December 1997, 125 nations (not including China, Russia, or the United States) signed a treaty to ban antipersonnel land mines. Two months earlier Jody Williams, head of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The cause had been popularized in part by the activism of Princess Diana, who had been especially moved by the stories of children victimized by mines meant for others. According to a United Nations report, there are now 80 to 110 million land mines deployed in 62 nations—one for every 50 people on earth. The International Red Cross (IRC) estimates that mines are responsible for at least 26,000 deaths every year, and most of the victims are civilians. The IRC agrees with the position taken 137 years ago by General Longstreet: Mines are of limited military use, and their danger to civilians far outweighs any advantage they may offer.
Rains’s weapons were so-called “dumb” mines, lying in wait to be stepped on or touched. Millions of today’s newer land mines are “smart” mines, with detonators designed to remain active for only short periods. In theory, at least, smartmine detonators decay, ultimately rendering the mines harmless, and some military authorities claim old smart mines pose no lingering threat to life. Those same military authorities agree, however, that 10 to 15 percent of smart mines aren’t so smart and still pose a serious risk long after they are supposed to. Like Rains’s infernal machines, they wait for us all.