November 27, 1864: The “Coal Torpedo” Sinking of Greyhound
On November 27, 1864, 150 years ago to the day, Benjamin Butler’s headquarters boat Greyhound blew up and sank on the James River…but not before Butler, Admiral David Dixon Porter, and every officer and man aboard escaped intact. The horses of Butler and his staff were not so lucky.
Admiral David Porter had gone to Dutch Gap that day in is headquarters ship Malvern to give orders to vessels which would remain in the area in the coming weeks. Porter, on the other hand, would lead the upcoming expedition to take Fort Fisher. While Porter was at Dutch Gap, Ben Butler offered to give the admiral a ride back to Fort Monroe in his headquarters ship Greyhound. This vessel was NOT the Confederate blockade runner captured by the Union navy earlier in 1864, despite some internet accounts which make this incorrect assumption. Instead, she was a steamer rented out to the U. S. Army for $500 per day. Her owner was George H. Powers of Hudson, New York, and she was widely considered the fastest steamer on the James River. A painting of the Greyhound was produced by famous maritime artist James Bard in 1864, and she certainly looks the part.
Needless to say, Porter accepted Butler’s offer. Together with Butler and Major General Robert C. Schenck, who was visiting Butler and recovering from wounds he had suffered several years earlier at Second Bull Run, Porter climbed aboard the Greyhound for the voyage to Fort Monroe. They wouldn’t make it, at least not on the Greyhound.
As Schenck and Butler discussed politics, Porter took a walk around the ship. When he entered the lavish saloon about half an hour into the voyage the admiral received quite a shock. Porter was face to face with “half a dozen of those cut-throat-looking fellows, such as haunted Dutch Gap, scattered through the apartment.” He tried to show no alarm as he asked the men what they were doing there. After replying indignantly that they weren’t doing anything wrong, the rough crowd disappeared from the room one by one. Porter went to Butler immediately and told him who was aboard. Butler promptly had the men arrested and put ashore at Bermuda Hundred.
The voyage resumed until Bermuda Hundred was “five or six miles behind us.” At this point a massive explosion rocked the front of the ship in the vicinity of the boiler room. The resulting fire spread quickly throughout the ship, and though Admiral Porter estimated they had escaped the ship only five minutes from the point of the explosion, both generals, the admiral, and all officers and men escaped safely, an almost incredible turn of events. Porter and the generals were forced to listen to the awful sound of Butler’s horses perishing on board the stricken ship, though he noted they didn’t suffer long. The admiral insisted in his memoirs that he had aided in Butler’s escape, and perhaps even saved the general’s life, though Butler never thanked him for the deed.
The distinguished passengers were forced to row down the river, soon hailing an army steamer. Butler proposed they should go aboard but Porter decided he had had enough of army steamers for one day. They continued rowing until they encountered a navy tug, which they quickly boarded, finally finishing their eventful passage to Fort Monroe.
This boiler explosion, like the explosion at City Point in mid-August 1864, was probably the work of Confederate agents. This time however, the explosive device wasn’t a “horological” bomb (aka a time bomb). Instead, Confederates created a device which when painted resembled a lump of coal. The device is supposed to have been smuggled onto the Greyhound at some point, was shoveled into the boiler, and shortly exploded. That was Admiral David D. Porter’s theory, at least. In his 1885 book Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, page 266, Porter laid out his thoughts on the matter:
I do not know that there was ever any investigation into the loss of the Greyhound. My theory was that the fellows put ashore at Bermuda Hundreds had planned to capture General Butler and destroy the Greyhound, and I believe they were provided with torpedoes to throw among the coal, which they could easily do when the firemen’s backs were turned. They could also have saturated the wood-work in the vicinity of the engine and fire-rooms with tar-oil with very little chance of detection.
When the torpedo was thrown into the furnace with the coal, it soon burst, blowing the furnace-doors open and throwing the burning mass into the fire-room, where it communicated with the wood-work. Perhaps the shell may have contained some volatile matter which caught the saturated wood. We were furnished with such shells ourselves during the war, but never used them. Only a few months ago the inventor inquired of me how many had been expended by the navy during the war, probably with the idea of claiming a royalty.
In whatever manner the Greyhound was set on fire, I am sure it was not one of the ordinary accidents to which all ships are liable. In devices for blowing up vessels the Confederates were far ahead of us, putting Yankee ingenuity to shame.
For Further Reading…
- The Confederacy’s Bomb Brothers
- Confederate Torpedoes: Two Illustrated 19th Century Works by Gabriel Rains and Peter S. Michie, edited by Herbert M. Schiller: Appendix 1 Section on Greyhound Sinking
- Submarine Warfare, Offensive and Defensive by J. S. Barnes
- November 30, 1864 Philadelphia Inquirer, Page 1, Column 2
- “The Explosion of the Greyhound” in Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War by Admiral David D. Porter, pages 262–267
- Submarine Warfare, Offensive and Defensive by J. S. Barnes, Plate VIII, Fig 5 between pages 76-77 shows a “coal torpedo”.
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