Since the discovery of the C.S.S. Hunley, a sunken Confederate submarine near Charleston Harbor, a growing body of research is emerging on the Confederacy’s secret weapons. Many of these weapons were designed by a surprising array of Southern professional men; those with a knack for finance, military engineering and subterfuge. One of the most prominent was an unlikely Texas resident that few would know about until decades later.
Prior to the Civil War, Ohio native Edgar C. Singer was a gunsmith in the tiny port village of Lavaca just off the Texas coast. He came from a family of noted inventors. Singer’s uncle, Isaac Merritt Singer, invented the first commercially successful sewing machine. After Texas seceded, Singer enlisted in the Confederate Army and was assigned to a coastal battery.
With many young Texans being shipped off to eastern battlefields, the defense of the Texas coast rested upon older, middle-aged men. Captain Daniel Shea’s artillery company, which included Singer, was positioned to help defend the Matagorda Bay area. Among its company roster were professional, middle-aged men from Lavaca: jewelers, gunsmiths, merchants, doctors, attorneys, carpenters, and steam engineers. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they had one common affiliation - the local Masonic lodge.
Shea’s company received their baptism of fire when a Union fleet sailed into Matagorda Bay and shelled Lavaca. Seeing their homes bombarded led to a sustained outrage that would bring fear and grief to the Union Navy; they were determined to prevent another bombardment.
Shortly after the Union fleet departed, Singer began experimenting with underwater torpedoes or mines as they are called today. The experiments proved successful, but required men and government support to deploy them on a massive scale. In addition, the use of hidden explosives was considered a dishonorable form of warfare, more of a criminal act than an act of war. Nevertheless, the Confederacy possessed little in the way of a standing navy and had to rely on unorthodox methods to defend her coasts and rivers. For much less than the cost of a trained crew and a steam-powered warship, a small torpedo could fit the bill quite nicely.
Singer’s new mine was successfully tested on a half submerged wreck before Captain Shea. Impressed by the result, Singer was ordered to present his creation to the Texas district commander, Major General John Magruder.
Based in Houston, Magruder, or “Prince John” as he was referred to by friends, was no stranger to the use of unorthodox military tactics and weapons. During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, his use of such tactics helped stall the Union advance on Richmond. When Singer blew up an old scow in Buffalo Bayou, an excited Magruder ordered torpedoes for the defense of Galveston and Matagorda.
Small in size, but awesome in delivery, the Singer torpedo was a metal canister filled with gunpowder and topped with a spring-loaded rod, somewhat similar in appearance to a butter churn. Anchored 3 feet below the water’s surface, the torpedo was set off when a vessel’s hull struck the rod. Like a pinball machine, the rod slammed into 2 percussion caps that set off the gunpowder. In a terrifying flash, a heavily armed warship could be sent straight to the bottom.
In early February 1863, Singer travelled to Richmond to demonstrate his invention. After convincing the Confederate government of the torpedo’s potential, he was awarded a patent and authorization to form a company of twenty five men. Christened “Singer’s Submarine Corps.,” most of the company consisted of Singer’s fellow masons. From his Lavaca workshop, Singer began cranking out his deadly devices while his company fanned out across the Confederacy to deploy them. On the Yazoo River in Mississippi, they hit pay dirt; a Union ironclad, U.S.S. Baron De Kalb, struck two Singer mines and sank.
Singer’s company wasn’t limited to torpedoes; they supervised and assisted in the construction of submarines and torpedo boats. At the port of Mobile, Singer met three New Orleans inventors: James McClintock, George Baxter and Horace Hunley. The three had experimented with submarines in New Orleans until Union forces captured their city. Plans for a new submarine were drawn up to be used against Union blockading vessels off the gulf coast. Singer offered to put up a third of the $15,000 construction cost. Named after Horace Hunley, the submarine was armed with a spar torpedo activated by Singer’s patented, spring-loaded trigger. On the night of February 17, 1864, the C.S.S. Hunley sank the Union gunboat U.S.S.Housatonic, the first vessel in history to be sunk by a submarine. The Hunley, however, failed to make the return trip and was lost along with its crew.
Captured documents in Mississippi revealed his torpedo operations to Admiral Porter, the commander of the Mississippi River Fleet. Having lost two ironclads to torpedoes, Porter ordered Singer and his company to be “shot on sight.” That didn’t deter Singer, whose Lavaca-made torpedoes sank another one of his ironclads, the U.S.S. Eastport on the Red River.
Though twenty-seven Union ships were sunk by torpedoes, Singer’s creations couldn’t fully deter Union Navy. His company spent their final days mining the James River near Richmond and the Texas coast. To avoid prosecution for war crimes, most of the Singer documents were destroyed by its members. After Texas was surrendered, Singer and his fellow Masons signed parole papers and retired to obscurity in Lavaca (now Port Lavaca). Most of their activities are lost to history but certainly not their impact.