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


by Mark K. Ragan

College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015. Pp. x, 350. Illus., maps, diagr., notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 1623492785

Confederate Secret Naval Weapons

Ragan, the Hunley Project historian and author of The Hunley and Submarine Warfare in the Civil War, examines the work of Texan Edgar Collins Singer (1825-1919) in the Civil War. A nephew of the sewing machine inventor, Singer recruited a group of engineers, mechanics, Free Masons, and others, mostly older men not liable for military service, whom he organized to invent new weapons for the Confederacy. Their innovative work was quickly recognized by the more perceptive Confederate leaders, notably Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, who issued commissions to Singer and his teammates, who were eventually dubbed “The Singer Secret Service Corps”.

Although more famous for submersibles, notably the H.L. Hunley, their most significant contribution to the Confederate war effort was their work on much the less glamorous marine mines, called “torpedoes” in the day, which sank 27 Union warships, nearly 40% of Union warship losses from all causes. Ragan notes that because many of the official documents were destroyed in the final days of the war, the full extent of the work of Singer and his team is not known, such as the “coal torpedo” – a bomb disguised in a lump of coal that is believed to have led to the loss of several ships, and may have been what caused the disastrous Sultana explosion at the end of the war.

There’s a good deal of technical detail in the book, but Ragan writes well, despite an excess of qualifiers (“perhaps”, “may have”, etc.), and seasons his material with touches of human interest, biographical glimpses at the men involved, background material on events, and so forth.

A volume in the A&M “Ed Rachal Foundation Nautical Archaeology Series”, Confederate Saboteurs is likely to be of interest to students of naval warfare in general as well as those of the Civil War.

Note: Confederate Saboteurs is also available as an e-book.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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