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Book Review, NRJ 61.2

May 15, 2016 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

Confederate Saboteurs: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War

Mark K. Ragan

The Confederacy often relied on efforts to use technological innovation to counteract gross disparities in manpower and resources. Much of this was the work of the Singer Secret Service Corps, a small skilled team of inventors and investors led by Edgar Collins Singer, set up in early 1863 at Port Lavaca, Texas.

Singer had developed a spring loaded detonator for mines (then known as torpedoes) for use both on land and in the water. His group operated across the Confederacy as their services were needed. Their successes included sinking Union vessels (nine were sunk, including five ironclads) but often the mere presence, or even rumor, of Singer torpedoes tended to inhibit Union operations in Southern waters.

In late 1863, Singer agents used land torpedoes to derailed eight Union supply trains in Tennessee, but repairs usually were effected very quickly, so these efforts were little more than a nuisance. Singer Secret Service Corps boat and bridge burning operations were more effective, seriously disrupting transportation along the Mississippi.

The Singer group also worked on designs for submarines and torpedo boats, most famously the submarine CSS Hunley. Ragan, the Hunley project’s historian, thoroughly covers its design, construction, trials, and ultimate demise after sinking Housatonic at Charleston. He also documents the group’s work on a massive steam-powered ironclad torpedo boat at Buffalo Bayou, near Houston, at the end of the Civil War.

Ragan and other researchers have done excellent work in uncovering sources for the Singer group’s activities despite the destruction of so many records (for obvious reasons) late in the war. Surviving Confederate Secret Service documentation is fragmentary, but the author largely succeeds in reconstructing a coherent exposition of this numerically tiny organization’s critical role in defending the South’s ports and waterways. Confederate Saboteurs is a skillfully crafted study that is an important addition to the naval histories of the Civil War.

  • College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, 249 pages
  • Illustrations, map, diagrams, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00
  • ISBN: 9781623492786

Reviewed by William Kingsman, University of North Carolina

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