Confederate Secret Service Manufactures Coal Torpedoes
The coal torpedo was invented by Capt.
Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay of the Confederate Secret Service. During the Civil War, the term torpedo was used to indicate a wide range of explosive devices including what are now called land mines, naval mines, and booby traps. Northern newspapers referred to Courtenay's coal bombs as torpedoes, or sometimes "infernal machines"; Courtenay himself called it his "coal shell".
The torpedoes were manufactured at the 7th Avenue Artillery shop (across the street from Tredegar Iron Works) in Richmond, Virginia, in January 1864. The manufacturing process was similar to that used for artillery shells, except that actual pieces of coal were used as patterns for iron castings. The walls of the coal shell were about 3/8 inch thick, creating a hollow space inside sufficient to hold 3–4 ounces of gunpowder. After filling, the shell was closed with a threaded plug, then dipped in melted beeswax and rolled in coal dust, creating the appearance of a lump of coal. Finished coal torpedoes were about 4 inches (10 cm) on a side and weighed 3–4 lb (1.5–2 kg). The size and powder charge of the coal torpedo was similar to a 6 pound Shrapnel shell (a hollow, four-inch cannonball containing gunpowder and 24 musket balls as shrapnel) or the equivalent of three Civil War-era hand grenades. Even so, the explosion of a coal torpedo under a ship's boiler would not by itself be sufficient to sink the vessel. The purpose of the coal torpedo was to burst the pressurized steam boiler, which had the potential to cause a tremendous secondary explosion. Boiler explosions were not uncommon in the early years of steam transportation, and often resulted in the complete destruction of the vessel by fire. In action, the coal torpedo would leave little evidence that a boiler explosion was due to sabotage.
The Confederate Secret Service has gone unheralded and unsung except for a very few Civil War enthusiasts. It deserves a better fate, however, because its accomplishments were many and varied, and because from time to time one of its operatives would think up some simple but deadly device such as the Coal Torpedo. These torpedoes were hollow metal castings resembling a lump of coal which, when filled with powder, were secreted in the coal bunker of enemy vessels, when the bogus coal was shoveled into the fire boxes of ship's boilers, the resulting explosions either damaged or sank the ship. A variation of the coal torpedo used against river steamers was a piece of wood, hollowed out and filled with powder, which could easily be concealed in the fuel piles of cord wood stacked along the river banks and which was capable of producing disaster to the unlucky ship that hoisted it aboard.