by Gordon Thorsby
Naval bombardments, with minor army actions, had resulted in the surrenders of Forts Gaines and Morgan at the mouth of Mobile Bay in August 1864. The investment and surrender of the defenses in and around Mobile itself was another matter. The Union loss at Chickamauga in 1863 and the Red River fiasco in the spring of 1864 had shelved certain plans to take the city for some time. By early spring 1865, a combined Federal army and navy force attempted to complete the closure. Torpedoes in abundance mined the harbor, and as many as twelve Union warships and supply vessels would settle to the bottom before the campaign was over. Mobile would have to be taken by both land and water. Concerned that the “lions” were closing in, Major General Dabney H. Maury, commanding the Confederate District of the Gulf knew that some different and innovative ideas had to be considered.
Then came news that someone was working on something up the Alabama River at Selma, Alabama. How could anything for the open ocean be worked on in Selma, in the middle of Alabama? To many outsiders, the Alabama River is not a major water source. To the Alabaman, they know the Alabama River is deep, as much as 90 feet deep, and other Confederate ironclads had been built out of sight of Union spies in the past. In the case of this new idea, it was that of a torpedo boat.
A 30-year old designer, John Halligan, had a team working on the submersible which was named the Saint Patrick, possibly named after Halligan himself. The craft was approximately 30 feet in length, and could submerge and surface at will. What was best to like was that it required no Confederate government funding. The Southern Cotton Growers had financially backed the project (craft pictured is the HL Hunley, no known picture exists). During construction, Union gunboats congregated beyond the mouth of the harbor intent on planning trouble for Mobile. Correspondence from the Selma Navy Yard was that Halligan and the team had added some new abilities with the craft ,and that it would be ready soon to counter this threat.
Union Intelligence had gotten wind of something in the works in Selma. General Hurlbut reported:
"I am informed, and I believe credibly, that a submerged torpedo boat is in course of preparation for attack upon the fleet at Mobile. The craft, as described to me, is a propellered craft about 30 feet long, with engine of great power for her size, and boiler so constructed as to raise steam with great rapidity. She shows above the surface only a small smoke outlet and pilothouse, both of which can be lowered and covered. The plan is to drop down within a short distance of the ship, put out the fires, cover the smoke pipe and pilot house, and sink the craft to a proper depth; then work the propeller by hand, drop beneath the ship, ascertaining her position by a magnet suspended in the propeller, rise against her bottom, fasten the torpedo by screws, drop their boat away, pass off a sufficient distance, rise to the surface, light their fires, and work off. The torpedo is to contain 40 pounds of powder and work by clockwork. One of the party has gone North for a magnet and air pump. I expect to catch him as he comes back. The boat is to be ready by 10th May."
April 1864 came and went, June came and went, and delays of the St. Patrick continued. The losses at Forts Morgan and Gaines were absorbed. Delays continued and appeared as unnecessary, even into December. Gen. Maury finally gave up and wired Richmond to demand release of the torpedo craft for action in Mobile Bay. His correspondence included the line, ”there has never been so good an opportunity for a torpedo boat to operate as is afforded by the off Mobile.” Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Navy, could not agree more and ordered the Selma Navy Works to run the vessel down to Mobile and turn over the project since Halligan had stalled Maury’s requests. Halligan, who had fully designed the unique warship, now lost control of his “dream machine.”
Navy Lieutenant John T. Walker, who reported to Maury, was given command of the six
man vessel. Inventors are often stubborn individuals, especially regarding their inventions, and Halligan was no different. As Walker prepared the vessel to take into action, Halligan removed important operating parts. With a little bit of effort, Walker recovered the parts and off he sailed on January 28, 1865. The first ship as an objective, was the Octorara, the Federal flagship in the bay.
To approach a highly armed Octorara, the best method was to move at night, and at 1 A.M. Walker moved on the vessel. Walker negotiated to hit the side near the wheel house
where the torpedo could create the greatest damage. Moving about to make its final approach, a lookout on the Octorara eyed something large moving about and raised the alarm. As the crew cleared for action, the gunboat began its approach. The Saint Patrick made contact but it was a glancing hit, and the torpedo failed to explode. The response for the men in the torpedo boat was predictable. It was “let’s get the hell out of here.”
As the Union gunboat loosed its 24 pounder smoothbores and heavy musket fire, they failed to land a blow on the torpedo boat and it escaped to the protection of batteries on shore.
Walker intended to sail the Saint Patrick again when the night was dark enough, but the opportunity never came. The war continued on until the surrender in April.
Innovations had influential impact on the Civil War and these would affect warfare in the future including ironclad ships, repeating rifles, trench defenses, balloon observation, telegraph, and mortars. The Saint Patrick at Mobile Bay was just one more method as was the Hunley in South Carolina . It was ingenuity, even in small bits that potentially influenced the war.
Sources: The Last Siege, Brueske, Paul, Casemate Publishers, 2018. Pp10-12.
Http://290 Foundation. CSS St. Patrick. Site dedicated to Navies during the Civil war.