AS A UNION ARMY
By James W. Towart and Col. J. V. Witt, USA Ret.
Contact James W. Towart
I have the honor to report that in compliance with the instructions from Colonel D. B. Harris, Chief Engineer, I placed 12 torpedoes, containing 70 pounds of small grain black powder, in the St. Johns River near Mandarin Point, during Wednesday night, March 30. I found the channel wide, about 25 feet deep, with very muddy bottom.
This was the same night the Maple Leaf left Jacksonville for Palatka.60
The sinking of the Maple Leaf was the first use of torpedoes in Florida and as can be expected by the introduction of a new weapon, it was initially successful. After the Maple Leaf sinking, soldiers were dispatched to the scene to look for the torpedoes, and Captain Dale later testified that he had seen three of them in Jacksonville.61 That suggests that eight of Captain Bryan's devices were still in the river channel. On April 16, the transport steamer General Hunter exploded a mine near the wreck of the Maple Leaf. The report of Commander George B. Balch, the senior naval officer in Jacksonville, states the following:
TheNorwich was convoying the (steam transport) Cosmopolitan and the General Hunter, the two leading vessels having safely passed and drawing 3 to 4 feet more water, when the explosion took place, and by which the Hunter was sunk in five minutes, with the loss of the quartermaster.... It is supposed that Norwich and Cosmopolitan passed very near the torpedo ....and that in making a turn in the channel the Hunter was blown off to the leeward ....by the wind, which was fresh ....And she drifted out of the wake of the other two vessels.62
The third casualty of the Confederate mines in the St. Johns River was the armed transport Harriet A. Weed, which was sunk on May 9, 1864. Five civilian employees were killed in the explosion.63 The Harriet Weed was sunk near St. Johns Bluff, about 12 miles east of Jacksonville. The fourth and last Army steamer to be sunk in the St. Johns near Jacksonville was the Alice Price, which went down on July 19, 1864, with no casualties.
The day after the Harriet Weed was sunk, the surveying steamer Vixen was proceeding down the St. Johns River from Jacksonville bound for Port Royal, South Carolina. As the Vixen neared the wreck of the Harriet Weed, members of the crew noticed a series of six small ripples on the surface that indicated the presence of submerged objects. They anchored the Vixen and launched two boats to drag the river. They quickly hooked a mine, which they cut from its moorings and towed to shore. Then they drilled a hole in the mine and poured out the powder.
The crew of the Vixen made a sketch of the torpedo. (Picture) It consisted of a keg two feet long and a foot and a half in diameter. The torpedo had six iron hoops around it and two solid wood cones a foot and a quarter high secured at each end of the keg to provide flotation. The mine was coated with tar. A brass fitting was screwed into the keg, which contained the trigger-plunger and the percussion cap to ignite the 70 pounds of black powder in the keg.64 J.W.T.