The Courtenay Coal Torpedo

by Joseph Thatcher

The Coal Torpedo, reproduced from La Bree, "The Confederate Soldier in the Civil War," p.438:
"Looked like an innocent lump of coal, but in reality, it was a block of cast iron with a core containing about ten pounds of powder. When covered with a mixture of tar and coal dust, it was impossible to detect its character. They could be placed in coal piles on barges from which Federal vessels took their supplies, and exploded with terrible effect in their boilers."

The following material is reprinted by permission from the author, Mr. Joseph Thatcher who is the great-grandson of Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay. This article was originally published in the "Military Collector and Historian", the journal of the Company of Military Historians, Vol. XI, Spring 1959, Washington, DC. Mr. Thatcher mentions that he has "heard rumors that a photograph was taken of Jefferson Davis's office in the Confederate White House when the Union army marched into Richmond and that one of the coal torpedo castings is on the desk." However, Mr. Thatcher has never been able to locate such a photo. Any assistance in locating such a photo would be most appreciated. Mr. Joseph Thatcher's E-mail address is: JTships@aol.com

The Courtenay Coal Torpedo

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.

The developer of the Coal Torpedo, Captain Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay was one of the leaders of the Confederate Secret Service, He was born in Belfast, Ireland, on 19 April 1822: 20 years later he came to the United States. In 1861 this singular fellow was operating a cotton brokerage and commission business in St, Louis. By 1863, as Captain Courtenay, C.S.A., he was attached to the Department of Trans-Mississippi, commanded by Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith. In August of the same year, under Special Orders Number 135, Courtenay was authorized to enlist a Secret Service Corps not to exceed 20 men. Travel orders would seem to indicate that he traveled extensively in 1863 between Shreveport and Richmond, carrying dispatches. On 30 November he submitted his plans for using the Coal Torpedo to President Davis and a week later followed these up with a detailed proposal for a new "Secret Service Corps" to use it. This letter would seem to indicate that Courtenay considered secret service men to be saboteurs and wreckers more than anything else. The letter is worthy of full quotation as an indication of his train of thought at that time:

Richmond, Virginia, December 7, 1863.
To His Excellency
Jefferson Davis
President CSA

I propose to organize a "Secret Service Corps" to consist
of such numbers of men as may be from time to time be
required. Said Corps to be employed in doing injury to the
enemy according to my plans submitted to your excellency
under date 30th November last.

The corps to be enlisted or detailed from the several
branches of Government Service. I propose to instruct and
send a number of said "Corps" at once to operate on the
Mississippi River and Tributaries, and will defray their
expenses asking from the Government such compensation for
partial or total loss to the Enemy's Steamers as may be
agreed upon.

The corps to be furnished by Government with ammunition,
castings and transportation.

I propose to send a number of the "Corps" to the Northern
States, West India Islands and Europe to operate on
steam vessels, locomotives and all Federal Property where
Steam is used.

I propose that the Government advance me such funds as
may be required for fully carrying out my plans, such monies
advanced to be deducted out of the compensation allowed
for partial or total loss.

Other matters of minor importance can be acted upon hereafter.
With great respect
I remain
Your obedient servant
Thos. E. Courtenay.

After the Confederate Congress approved Courtenay's plans, on 9 March 1864 Secretary of War Seddon authorized Courtenay to employ 25 men in his secret service work, these men not being liable to conscription. Necessary work was to be executed at War Department workshops with powder, chemicals and transportation for men and materials to be furnished by the Government. The new agents were not to receive pay but a provision was made that:

For the destruction of property of the enemy or injury
done a percentage shall be paid in Four per cent bonds in
no case to exceed fifty per centum of the loss to the enemy
and to be awarded by such officer or officers as shall be
charged with such duty by this department.

Seddon's authorization also made it clear that the waters and railroads of the Confederate States used by the Federals were quite properly the subjects and arenas of operations of Courtenay and his men. Courtenay, however, would not be permitted to operate against "Passenger vessels of citizens of the United States on the high seas and vessels properly on those waters and railroads within the territory of the United States. Public property of the Federals, though, could be destroyed wherever found. Boats flying the Flag of Truce were specifically considered as off limits for saboteurs.

On 28 May 1864, Seddon wrote to Major General W.H.C. Whiting, commanding officer at Wilmington, North Carolina, to the effect that Courtenay was authorized to use against the enemy a torpedo of his own invention, the nature of which Courtenay would explain to Whiting. The commanding officer at Wilmington was instructed to help Courtenay obtain an old barge or boat capable of carrying a few tons of coal as a means of getting "torpedoes" on the vessels of the blockading squadron.

Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the intrepid Courtenay was forced to leave the country shortly after this and flee to England. A Confederate mail carrier had been captured while crossing the river at Alexandria, Louisiana, and Admiral Porter of the United Slates Navy was able to learn the full details of what had been planned by the Confederate Secret Service. Because of this misfortune, Captain Courtenay found it necessary to leave the country in order to protect his family, which had been living in Maryland. He obtained permission from President Davis to take his family to Europe "where they would not be subject to Yankee malice and outrage." The Courtenays were reunited in Halifax, after the captain had successfully gone through what he called the "Blockage" off Wilmington.

In London he was engaged in filling a large contract for clothing for Alabama troops, and in at- tempting to sell his invention to the British Government. In the latter enterprise he told the British that his coal torpedo would save Her Majesty's Government millions of pounds in the Construction of a new steam Navy, and would enable it to destroy any iron steam vessels any possible enemy might have. The Royal Navy apparently wasn't too interested, but the War Office showed some interest by asking Courtenay if he would comply with War Office regulations, that is, whether he would entrust his secret to the Secret Committee whose duty it was to investigate all inventions, and whether or not he would leave the "amount of reward" to the War Office. Courtenay is believed to have tried to obtain 50,000 pounds for his invention. The British, in 1871, finally declined to purchase it.

In 1873 the captain was in New York, where he represented the London Assurance Corporation. His rather short life came to an end on 3 September 1876 near Winchester, Virginia. How much actual damage was done by his coal torpedo will probably never be known, but in a letter written by Courtenay to Lord Richard Grosvenor on 24 November 1864, he claimed:

"By a very simple invention I have been enabled to do much
injury to Federal Steam Property and have proved beyond a
doubt that Iron-Steel built Steam vessels can be more easily
destroyed than by cannon or conical shell. I have an independent
"Corps" who operate exclusively' with my invention
for the destruction of Federal Steam property. They have
destroyed many Steamers on the Mississippi River and a few
months ago blew up the new Gun Boat Cherrango at Brooklyn, New York."

The coal torpedo was not the type of invention that would be likely to change the course of history, but it undoubtedly made the Civil War more expensive for the Federal Government.

All quotations are from letters, orders, and newspaper clippings in the possession of Mr. Joseph Thatcher, Captain Courtenay's great-grandson, and this source material has been the sole documentary basis for this article.

More information about Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay can be obtained from the link below:

A biography on Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay: