discussion of the so-called “Shreveport”
submarines, it should be mentioned that a Civil War era submarine has been
located and is currently being restored in Louisiana. Actually its location has never been a mystery. It has been seen, photographed and gazed
upon by the residents of New Orleans
for over 100 years. It is now in the
possession of the Louisiana
and is being prepared for display.
Hopefully this will be accomplished before the Civil War
Sesquicentennial. The big mystery of
this submarine is who built it. It had
been speculated that it was the Hunley group’s first attempt at a submarine,
the Pioneer. Documents and
drawings recently uncovered by author Mark Ragan in the National Archives seem
to disprove the museum’s submarine as being the Pioneer.
Link to Louisiana
correspondence in the Official Records appears to be the main argument for the
existence of submarines in Shreveport
during the Civil War. The letter was
written in March of 1865 and is based on a letter from a ‘confederate scout’ to
someone not named living in New Orleans. This is third and fourth party
information. Basically it is a
rumor. To use the courtroom analogy
once again, if you were trying to prove the existence of Submarines in
Shreveport and all you had was hearsay evidence, then you would lose the
case. Hearsay statements are not
accepted as evidence in court.
OF THE UNION AND CONFEDERATE ARMIES.
SERIES I—VOLUME XLIX PART 1 PAGE 913-914
DIVISION OF WEST Mississippi,
OFFICE OF THE CHIEF
New Orleans, La.,
March 13, 1865.
Lieut. Col. C. T.
Asst. Adjt. Gen.,
Military Division of West Mississippi:
COLONEL: I have
the honor to submit to your consideration the following report of information
received at this office this 13th day of
March, 1865: In a
letter from Captain Collins, Confederate scout, to a person in this city, he
states that he expects a visit about this time
from one Ike
Hutchinson, from Lavaca, Tex.,
who has charge of the torpedoes in Red River.
This, taken in connection with
report of the designs of Jones (also from Lavaca), who was at Houston, Tex.,
January 12, to destroy the iron-clad Tennessee and other gun-boats at the mouth
of Red River, leads me to believe that there is some such plan on foot, of
which the commanders of gun-boats should be notified.
The following is
a description of the torpedo-boats, one of which is at Houston and four at Shreveport:
The boat is forty
feet long, forty-eight inches deep, and forty inches wide, built entirely of
iron, and shaped similar to a steam-boiler. The ends are sharp pointed. On the
sides are two iron flanges (called fins) for the purpose of raising or lowering
the boat in the water. The boat is propelled at the rate of four miles an hour,
by means of a crank worked by two men. The wheel is on the propeller principle.
The boat is usually worked seven feet under water, and has four dead-lights for
the purpose of steering or taking observations. Each boat carries two
torpedoes, one at the bow attached to a pole twenty feet long; one on the stern
fastened on a plank ten or twelve feet long. The explosion of the missile on
the bow is caused by coming in contact with the object intended to be
destroyed. The one at the stern on the plank is intended to explode when the
plank strikes the vessel. The air arrangements are so constructed as to retain
sufficient air for four men at work and four idle, two or three hours. The
torpedoes are made of sheet-iron three-sixteenths of an inch thick, and contain
forty pounds of powder. The shape is something after the pattern of a wooden
churn and about twenty-eight inches long. Jones, the originator and constructor
of these boats, also constructed the one which attempted to destroy the New
Ironsides in Charleston, S. C.
A. M. JACKSON,
U. S. Colored Heavy
The description of the
submarines is contradictory and contains elements of both the Pioneer
and the Hunley. The Pioneer
was the first submarine built by H.L. Hunley, James McClintok and Baxter
Watson. It was constructed in New
Orleans during the fall of 1861. The Pioneer made several successful
dives in Lake Pontchartrain but apparently
never saw combat. It apparently did however
make several successful practice attacks on barges in Lake
Pontchartrain with the towed weapon. When the Federal fleet captured New Orleans
in April of 1862, the Pioneer was scuttled in the New
and was latter discovered by the Federals.
A Union engineer drew a diagram of the submarine.
Note the ‘sharp
pointed’ ends, and single conning tower or pilot house with deadlights. Presumably there were four deadlights, one
on each side or one on each side, one in front and one on top. The diagram shows a length of 35 ft. and
diameter of 4 ft. (48 inches). It is 5
ft. shorter than the description in Major Jackson’s letter but the two person
hand crank fits the line: “a crank worked by two men”.
The air arrangements
for four men working and four idle more closely fit the Hunley as does
the description of a spar torpedo. It
is interesting to note that the information is coming from someone living in New
Orleans who may have seen the Pioneer after it
was pulled out of the basin. It rested
there on the bank until the end of the war and was then sold for scrap.
Based on Major
Jackson’s description, this is what the Trans-Mississippi submarines may have
looked like if completed. This type of
craft would have been far easier to build in Shreveport
than a “Hunley”. The Hunley was a purpose built from the
ground up submarine. As more of the
Hunley is investigated, it is becoming apparent that it was a complicated and
sophisticated machine. Building
something of that technical nature was not possible in Trans-Mississippi
Shreveport. Railroad locomotive boilers
could have been used but finding four locomotives to confiscate or purchase
would have been difficult if not impossible in Shreveport
during 1864 or 65. There was no way for
a train locomotive to get to Shreveport since all railroads were torn up and
the iron confiscated to build the Missouri. There is some record of iron being stripped
off of a steamer in Lake Charles
and being turned over to R. W. Dunn “for torpedo service”.
It took Hunley,
McClintock and Baxter three years to build three different submarines. How could four submarines be built in a few
months in a place with little or no industrial capacity? There were no rolling mills for shaping iron
plates anywhere in the vicinity of Shreveport
during the Civil War. Lt. Carter
mentions this in his letter book. More
proof of the inability to shape heavy iron is the fact that the Missouri was
armored with iron rails and not plates.
Apparently it was difficult to even cut iron in Shreveport
since the rails were laid onto the casemate of the Missouri at an
angle. This was evidently done to
prevent cutting as mentioned in the previous description of the Missouri. The only cutting that would have been
required was over the gunports and near the bottom sides of the casemate where
the decreasing angle called for shorter pieces of iron.
Lt. Carter was tasked
with building two ironclads but could only come up with enough raw materials to
build one. By the time the Missouri was
completed, there was nothing left in the area with which to build another
ironclad. How then could four
submarines be constructed? It is
possible if any were built, much like the never built sister of the Missouri,
the planned number of vessels was never completed. Maybe three or two or one or what is most likely, none.
In Mark Ragan’s book,
“Submarine Warfare in the Civil War”, he details an account of James Jones and
the Federal spy Hunnicut meeting on the stage from Marshall, Texas. In this meeting, according to Hunnicut,
Jones offers him a chance to join a “Torpedo Association” involving the venture
to send submarines to attack the ironclad Tennessee at the mouth of
the Red on the Mississippi River. This apparently would only cost Hunnicut $5,000
if he wanted to participate. Was it
possible that Jones knew Hunnicut was a spy and was feeding him false
information in an attempt at counter-intelligence? Or is it possible that Jones was merely trying to get a quick
$5,000 from a gullible stranger?
Even if submarines
were constructed in Shreveport during the Civil
War it is highly unlikely that they would have been used in the Red
River. The river current
was at least 4 mph in most places and the depth of the channel too shallow for
submarine operations. With 4 mph being
the maximum speed of a manually cranked submarine, there would have been no way
to move upstream. Propelling, diving
and navigating downstream in the turbulent waters of the Red would have been
nearly impossible even for short distances.
It was difficult enough for normal surface boats to navigate the Red
much less an underwater craft.
Underwater visibility would have been zero. Any attempt at steering a two ton, iron submarine in the narrow,
twisting, shallow, log infested river would have resulted in death for anyone
brave or foolish enough to attempt it.
There is the
possibility that the submarines were not intended to operate in the Red
River but to somehow be transported elsewhere. Jackson’s
report and the stage incident mention Jones’ purpose for their construction was
to attack the Tennessee
at the mouth of the Red on the Mississippi River. Although the Mississippi
is larger and easier to navigate than the Red, it still would have been a
suicidal mission. The current of the Mississippi
is much faster than the Red. The record
of the Hunley and her earlier sisters
suggest that calm, smooth, clear waters are the only operational conditions for
a hand cranked submarine to have any hope of success and survival of the
crew. Even that is no guarantee as the Hunley sank twice and lost two crews in
training before sinking a third time with the loss of all on board.
The problem of
getting the subs in the area of a target would have been a huge obstacle. It took two flat cars to transport the
Hunley from Mobile to Charleston. There is the possibility of the subs being
towed on the river or somehow carried on a steamer but operational boats big
enough for the task were few and far between by late 1864. Barges could have been used which seems the
most likely mode of transportation.