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IEDs: A modern day scourge from ancient times

Ned Jilton II • Jul 24, 2019 at 1:00 PM

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are one of the more devious weapons of war. They are more responsible than bullets for the killing and wounding of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although in common use today, IEDs date back to ancient times and the invention of gunpowder in China. The Chinese would bury wooden pipes filled with gunpowder at the gate of some fortification. When the enemy reached the gate, someone would light the fuse and no more enemy.

It was during the American Civil War, however, that IEDs were heavily developed.

In 1862, Confederate Gen. Gabriel Rains created the first mechanically triggered IED. It was called a torpedo then, but it was the forerunner of the modern landmine. Rains used them during the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, to slow the advance of Gen. George B. McClellan’s Union Army up the peninsula.

And yes, there was a Civil War battle at Yorktown on the same location as the Revolutionary War battle. In fact, the Confederates occupied some of the old British positions.

Most of these early torpedoes were improvised using explosive shells just as in Iraq and Afghanistan today. But Rains eventually standardized a design which became known as the Rains mine, and more than 1,500 were deployed.

Virginia wasn’t the only place the Confederacy used IEDs. Torpedoes were used in Georgia in an effort to stop Gen. William T. Sherman’s march to the sea.

On Dec. 8, 1864, an officer in the lead element of one of Sherman’s columns lost a foot to a landmine. Sherman took quick action by putting Confederate prisoners of war at the front of his columns to find and clear the mines and sent a message through the lines to the Rebels informing them of this fact. Mines were never used against Sherman again.

The Confederates used IEDs against the powerful Union Navy as well.

Edgar C. Singer — a gunsmith originally from Ohio, fighting on the side of the Confederacy in Galveston, Texas, and the nephew of Isaac Merritt Singer, the inventor of the first commercially successful sewing machine — was the man who invented the underwater mines used by the Confederacy.

He got help to perfect his design from the local Masonic Lodge he had joined when he arrived in Texas in 1840. He then successfully demonstrated it to Gen. John Magruder in Houston by blowing up an old scow in a nearby bayou.

Singer’s underwater torpedo was eventually recommended to the War Department in Richmond and used throughout the Confederacy. Singer recruited more help from his Masonic Lodge to mine the bays and rivers around the South. The group eventually became known as Singer’s Submarine Corps.

Singer’s Submarine Corps mined the port in Mobile, Alabama. Then On Aug. 5, 1864, the Battle of Mobile Bay began as Union Admiral David Farragut’s fleet entered the bay passing through the underwater torpedoes. The ironclad in the lead, the USS Tecumseh, was critically damaged by an exploding torpedo and sank in three minutes, killing 94 men.

As the Tecumseh sank, the rest of the fleet came to a halt and was being pounded by cannon fire from the forts. Farragut demanded to know what the problem was and was told there were torpedoes in the water, at which point Farragut said, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.” His flagship and others in the fleet actually hit some of the torpedoes, but none went off, and Farragut captured Mobile Bay.

An interesting side note: While mining the port in Mobile, Singer met Horace Hunley, who at the time was working on an experimental submarine. Singer and his fellow Masons went in together to help Hunley finance his boat, and the CSS Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel, became a reality.

The Union Army tried its hand at IEDs as well, but in one case not very successfully.

It took place in New Mexico as Capt. James “Paddy” Graydon came up with an idea to do some serious damage to Confederate forces near the Rio Grande. He loaded boxes of 24-pounder howitzer shells on the back of two old mules and led them to the edge of the enemy camp. Aiming the mules toward the Rebel mules, he lit the fuses and sent them toward their target hoping they would join the mules there.

The mules had other ideas and decided to go with the last person to feed them, and that was Graydon.

As Graydon walked away the mules followed him. As he walked faster, they walked faster. With the fuses still burning and the mules still following, Graydon broke into a run. And so did the mules. Graydon did manage to escape injury when the shells went off.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the mules.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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