Naval technology from Dixie.
That moonless October night in 1864 the Union navy faced another example of what Northerners had come to call "diabolical Rebel ingenuity." Reputed to be the world's most powerful warship, the New Ironsides would not see action again for almost a year. The ironclad frigate had fallen victim to a new class of vessel introduced by Confederate naval engineers, the semi-submersible torpedo boat CSS David. Designed to ram enemy ships below the water line with explosive charges, then called "torpedoes," the David contributed to dashing Union hopes of invading Charleston by sea, and lifted the flagging morale of the struggling Confederate nation.
As engineer on the David, James Hamilton Tomb displayed extraordinary bravery in the hazardous attack on the goliath New Ironsides. An impressed Confederate president Jefferson Davis granted him increased authority to experiment with novel challenges to the Yankee stranglehold. The fall of the Confederate States, however, left Tomb and other scientific personnel of the innovative Confederate Naval Torpedo Bureau with bleak futures.
Yet he would soon put his skills to the test and again risk his life as a leader in another war, the second bloodiest of this hemisphere.
As the North American conflict wound down in 1865, a similarly devastating war exploded in the southern continent, though the root causes and objectives radically differed. Secession of the Southern states of the U.S.--the new Confederate Republic--threatened the nation's unity; the remaining Northern states struggled to preserve the Union. In South America, territorial ambitions ignited a tragic five-year war of attrition: The Paraguayan marshal-president Francisco Solano Lopez made a desperate bid for regional power. Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, in an unholy Triple Alliance, responded to crush his Napoleonic ambitions. Lopez's defenders, however, maintain the Allies only sought to dismember the smaller, vulnerable Paraguayan nation and seize its lands and resources.
The Allies initially found themselves unprepared to challenge the British-installed Paraguayan war arsenal and well-honed sixty-thousand-man professional army, the continent's largest. Insightful and cunning, Lopez had earlier contracted with a British firm for engineers, mechanics, construction workers, and physicians to construct railroads and otherwise modernize his country's infrastructure. In response, the Allies quickly adopted recent military innovations from foreign shores. In particular, the Triple Alliance looked to the acknowledged technical expertise of the recently defeated Confederate States of America. This short-lived nation revolutionized the world's navies with its use of the ironclad warship, developed history's first submarine to sink a ship in battle, and proved the defensive value of submarine mines (torpedoes), which sunk or damaged more than forty Union vessels. If the triumphant Union government would squander capable North American talent, the South American nations would seize the opportunity presented by the disenfranchisement of these seasoned inventors and engineers.
Brazil's Dom Pedro II, a gifted emperor of rare wisdom--and an amateur scientist in his own right--moved aggressively to bring about one of the few successful brain drains ever directed against the United States. By a generous immigration policy and effective propaganda advertisements in the U.S. media, the emperor recruited thousands of disaffected Confederates. He exploited the positive image of Brazil, popularized before the war in the 1853 book The Amazon and the Atlantic Slopes of South America by then U.S. commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury. Honored as the father of oceanography, Maury would later initiate the Confederate torpedo research program as the South's most brilliant scientist.
Brazil targeted the well-to-do and educated populations of physicians, lawyers, planters, and businessmen of the Confederacy; some Northerners also emigrated, while others, such as young Thomas Edison, seriously considered joining them. As a number of Confederate torpedo and other naval scientists joined in the struggle against Lopez, the Brazilian war effort could only benefit. Tomb, the intrepid engineer of the CSS David, learned of the Alliance's acute need for technical experts and resolved to offer his torpedo experience. After the Southern surrender, he traveled to New York and met Argentina's minister to the U.S. (and later president), Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a strong proponent of torpedo defense for his country's Rio de la Plata. Securing a letter of introduction to Argentine president Bartolome Mitre, Tomb left for South America. Finding in Buenos Aires that the Argentineans "had no navy to mention," Tomb consulted with Brazilian admiral Joaquim Marques Lisboa, baron of Tamandare. In short order, the admiral arranged an introduction to Emperor Dom Pedro II.
Tomb quickly came to admire Dom Pedro, concluding in his unpublished memoirs: "I doubt if there were at that time another king or emperor his equal, as his whole thoughts were for his people." Evidently the Brazilian sovereign grew fond of Tomb as well, even tolerating his resident expert's occasional display of naivete. At their initial introduction, for example, a somewhat befuddled Tomb mistook the emperor for a "fine looking" admiral, firmly shaking his hand, rather than kneeling to kiss it. Soon after the war, when traveling with the emperor to Lisbon on the RMS Duro, Tomb again revealed his inexperience with protocol. Arising late one morning, he took the first available bath filled with freshly drawn water and "was having a good time in the tub, when there was a knock on the door and someone said the Emperor was ready to take his bath." Tomb "got out on short notice," blaming himself for the error, writing "had I taken pains to look around the room [I] would have seen it was private."
Soon after the Confederate's arrival in Brazil, Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Saraiva requested Tomb "suggest something to remove the torpedoes in the Paraguay River" placed by the Paraguayan marshal-president. Ironically, a select few North Americans initiated President Lopez's early torpedo program, headed by Thomas H. Bell, once of the U.S. Navy. Bell superintended twenty marooned British technicians as arsenal commander at Asuncion, where he proved of great benefit to Paraguay before his death of typhoid fever in February 1866. Insulated wire in short supply, advanced electrically triggered torpedoes, such as those perfected by Commodore Maury, could not be produced by the Paraguayans; they relied on simpler mechanically triggered models. Although Tomb wrote that Bell's floating torpedoes "never did any damage to us," they were effective in stalling an already overly cautious Brazilian fleet.
Tomb identified three basic kinds of Paraguayan torpedoes. Floating mines, which contained several hundred pounds of gunpowder in a box at the bottom of a canoe, were "exploded by a gun through the front of the box with a line leading to another canoe upriver." Anchored torpedoes, positioned a few feet below the surface, contained multiple boxes, one inside the other, their powder igniting when a ship's impact broke a sulfuric acid-filled glass tube, which flashed upon contact with the detonator, fulminate of mercury. Submarine torpedoes, "lying on the bottom of the river," usually had an attached rope running up to the woods where a guard's tug could set off the charge as a ship passed by.
The Confederate lived up to his reputation in devising effective countermeasures against Paraguayan torpedoes. Brazilian naval authorities confessed "no experience with torpedoes" and persuaded Tomb to serve with the navy during military operations. The navy valued Tomb's service: He wrote, "I was impressed by the good will and confidence shown in me." Assigned to the ironclad Tamandare, Tomb converted the warship into a minesweeper at Paso de la Patria, near the confluence of the Parana and Paraguay rivers. Tomb's attached-mine defensive "machine" comprised an extended net surrounding the vessel. Perfectly confident in his defense against the floating torpedoes sent nightly by the enemy, Tomb slept soundly below deck--"none of the other officers would do so."
Later transferred to the Apa, Tomb searched for a torpedo-free channel leading to enemy batteries on the Paraguay River at Curuzu, a few miles south of Curupayti, part of the fortress Humaita's defenses protecting Asuncion. Proceeding upriver with "a sharp grapnel and cutter," Tomb led a crew of a dozen Brazilians to find an open passage. Encountering on their return the Brazilian ironclad Rio de Janeiro, they reported the open passage and likely existence of three torpedoes between some pilings and a two-gun Paraguayan battery. Based on the report, Admiral Tamandare ordered three ironclads forward through Tomb's passage--the Bahia and Brasil, with the Rio de Janeiro in the rear. The Rio's captain, Americo Brasilio Silvado engaged the tenacious Paraguayan battery and worked outside the channel to approach nearer the position, apparently forgetting the warning. Tomb later reported: "The ship drifted broadside down the stream and the stern came over one of the torpedoes. There was an instantaneous explosion and a great column of water went up." The ship was lost with most of the crew, including Captain Silvado. The destruction of the warship Rio de Janeiro proved to be the most notable victory of Paraguayan torpedoes against the Allies.
Just after the tragedy of the Rio, Tomb conducted extensive torpedo reconnaissance to pave the way for the Brazilian fleet in its combined army and naval advance on the strongly fortified Paraguayan batteries at Curupayti. Three weeks before the attack, Tomb discovered a torpedo containing five hundred pounds of powder, designed with three boxes, one inside the other. "Although the construction was poor," he had no doubt a ship passing over it would have been lost. Exploring the shore further until "with my glasses [I] could take in all the bluff" across the river, Tomb noted only one large eight-inch gun at Curupayti's embankment. He observed what historians would later confirm: Had Admiral Tamandare advanced then, the position could easily have been taken. However, as his adversaries dallied in coordinating their assault, Lopez "mounted some thirty guns" on the bluff: These later greeted the Allies during their bombardment of September 22, 1866. Admiral Tamandare boasted: "in two hours I shall blow their earthworks to pieces." Instead, blistering Paraguayan grape and canister shot prevailed, decimating advancing Argentine and Brazilian troops. In Paraguay's finest victory of the war, Allied casualties numbered nine thousand--including the only son of future Argentine president Domingo Sarmiento.
While on the Apa, Tomb received a letter from a Southern comrade, Commodore Thomas Jefferson Page. Like Commodore Maury, his onetime commander at the U.S. Naval Observatory, Page knew the continent well. He gained South American experience while commanding a two-year, 3,600-mile expedition of the USS Water Witch to explore the Rio de la Plata and its tributaries. In fact, Page almost precipitated a U.S. war with Paraguay. In September 1853 he naively entered Brazil against President Carlos Antonio Lopez's wishes; upon his return by the Parana River in February 1855, the Paraguayan fort Itapiru fired on the ship, killing the helmsman. Furious, Page returned to the U.S. and persuaded President James Buchanan in 1858 to send a punitive expedition of nineteen warships with Page as fleet captain. The naval display sobered Lopez, who capitulated and avoided a war with the U.S. With secession of the South two years later, this crisis faded from memory. More positively, the maps, charts, and reports Page developed in his exploration of vast, undeveloped regions earned eternal Argentine appreciation and fostered immigration to that country.
As a Confederate, Page learned of the end of the North American war while he was in Cuba, en route from Spain where he had just provisioned the oceangoing ram CSS Stonewall. Too late to challenge the Union navy, he surrendered the Confederacy's new "invincible armored monster" to Spanish authorities at Havana. He lent his expertise to the Allied war effort and later settled in Argentina, where President Mitre earnestly welcomed him.
Tomb and Page arranged a visit to Corrientes, Argentina, and returned together to the Apa for a couple of weeks with Page as Admiral Tamandare's special guest. Tomb considered the admiral "as hospitable as he was brave" and appreciated his sensitive gesture of allowing two Confederates so far from home--men adapting to a new language, culture, and clime--to gain solace in mutual company and reflection.
Two years before Lopez would finally be killed in battle, Asuncion fell to the Allies. Tomb described the victorious Brazilians as "exceedingly humane," noting they brought to the capital several hundred destitute Guarani natives "and issued rations to them." He befriended one refugee, a fourteen-year-old girl named Margarita. Giving her five dollars to start a market stall, he proved a frequent customer of her linens and calico. Tomb respected her decision to reject an offer of adoption by a woman from Buenos Aires, because, as Margarita explained to him: "The Argentineans were enemies of Paraguay." No doubt reminded of the sacrifices borne by loyal Southern women, Tomb wrote: "I think women are the best patriots in all countries."
A disaster for the Paraguayan people, the War of the Triple Alliance was eclipsed in scope only by the U.S. War of Secession and its battles such as Gettysburg. Over half the Paraguayan population died--hardly more than one in ten adult men survived--and schools and newspapers shut down for a generation.
After the war, the North American expatriates took divergent paths. Tomb briefly joined other Confederates in advising Chile in its defense against Spain's Pacific incursion; after recovering from yellow fever and cholera, he bought an Argentine quinta with John Page, the commodore's son. Three decades later, as proprietor of the Benton Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, Tomb offered his technical services to the U.S. Navy in the war against Spain. Thomas Jefferson Page settled in Argentina, and later retired to Italy, where he died. His son John became an Argentine naval commodore and his grandson Franklin Nelson Page rose to the Argentine admiralty. Matthew Fontaine Maury, who popularized Brazil in North America and initiated Confederate torpedo research, served as Imperial Commissioner for Confederate Colonization in Emperor Joseph Maximilian's Mexico, before assuming a physics professorship at Virginia Military Institute.
In their experiences in both wars, the former Confederates would see the victors inflict long military occupations on the vanquished nations--the Confederacy and Paraguay. The Union army subjugated the South for a dozen years. Similarly, Paraguay would not know self-government for six years. Interestingly, U.S. president Rutherford B. Hayes ended both occupations. In 1877 he withdrew federal troops from the South in a brokered deal with Southern Democrats that would secure the presidency after a controversial election. The following year, Hayes then played broker himself over the disputed Pilcomayo Chaco lands; as international arbiter, he awarded these to Paraguay. It is a curious twist of fate that the final chapters of these two devastating wars involving Confederates would end with the penstroke of a U.S. president, himself a onetime Union army general.
YANKEES AND BALLOON RECONNAISSANCE
At the same time that former Confederate James Tomb was helping the Brazilian navy tackle its torpedo problem in the War of the Triple Alliance, two Yankee brothers, James and Ezra Allen, were initiating the Brazilian army into the science and art of ballooning. Their exploits marked the beginnings of military aviation in South America, even though their balloons were not used for offensive purposes, but only for reconnaissance. The information they and the Brazilian army observers aboard obtained was of paramount importance for the Brazilian commander, the Marquis of Caxias, who was then preparing to launch a major offensive.
The marquis, later the Duke of Caxias, General Luis Alves de Lima e Silva (1803-80) was insistent on having an aeronautical branch in his forces. Caxias became commander-in-chief of the Brazilian forces on October 10, 1866, and before leaving Rio de Janeiro for the war in Paraguay, requested balloons from the War Ministry. A price was agreed upon, and in December he was followed by a French balloonist, Louis Desire Doyen, who, unfortunately, had neglected to varnish his balloon properly before he arrived at the Allied camp at Tuyuti; it was wrongly folded and stored and became useless.
But the Brazilian commander did not give up, asking for a replacement that, same month. Early in 1867 Brazilian authorities in the United States began to search for balloons and balloonists. The Brazilian consul in New York, Henrique Cavalcanti de Albuquerque, contacted Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, who was head of the Balloon Corps for the Union army during the Civil War. Lowe suggested the Allen brothers, of Providence, Rhode Island. James Allen had been a captain and balloonist in the Union army. Although the balloon corps of the American army was dissolved after the war, he kept ballooning privately.
On March 22, 1867, the brothers left New York for Rio de Janeiro. So anxious were the Brazilians for their arrival that when the brothers' ship was quarantined in Uruguay because a case of cholera was aboard, another ship was procured to bring them to Tuyuti, where they arrived on May 31.
The operation of the balloons was fraught with difficulties, and they were used only briefly. The brothers had problems trying to get the necessary supplies, iron dust and sulfuric acid, to manufacture hydrogen for their two balloons. But within the month the first flight of the tethered balloons was made, on June 24. However, problems with supplies persisted. According to correspondence in the Brazilian National Archives, Caxias complained to the army authorities in Rio that he was not receiving adequate supplies for the proper operation of the balloons. "The worst is to be in such a situation, when the balloons could be conceivably of more use for the frequent reconnaissances, which are indispensable, of the terrain through which I am going to march." The marquis was particularly worried because the terrain could conceal enemy forces that could threaten the rearguard of the marching army.
About twenty balloon flights were made, twelve of them before a dangerous but ultimately successful offensive, an outflanking maneuver about Tuyu-Cue. Whenever the balloon was aloft, watching the enemy from an altitude of around one thousand feet, the Paraguayans would open fire, however unsuccessfully, with their artillery. One effective countermeasure was to light up fires so the smoke could mask their trenches. An army major, Francisco Cesar da Silva Amaral, was the first Brazilian soldier to fly; he participated in ten balloon flights.
The last mission was on September 25, 1867. The Allens were then sent home. Even though the data they helped collect was highly valued by the army, supply difficulties ultimately conspired to abort their activities. The brothers were never able to use their bigger balloon, with a forty-foot diameter. And the smaller one, with about a twenty-eight-foot diameter, never operated with an adequate supply of hydrogen.
However, the Americans' involvement with aeronautics in Brazil did not end there. American help was instrumental in the formation of the Brazilian Air Force (Forca Aerea Brasileira--FAB) during World War II. In fact, the first combat mission of the FAB, in 1942, was in a B-25 Mitchell bomber with an American-Brazilian crew. But that is another story, and another war.
Darryl E. Brock works in European agrochemical governmental regulatory affairs for Monsanto Company in St. Louis, Missouri. He describes himself as a Confederate-Puerto Rican scientist.
Ricardo Bonalume Nero is a freelance journalist living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who specializes in science and military history.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article|
|Author:||Brock, Darryl E.|
|Publication:||Americas (English Edition)|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1994|
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