Following are some of the full reviews of my various books:
(in order of publication)
A Dog Before a Soldier
Review by Nathan Albright for the Naval Historical Foundation, posted
26 March 2013
Chuck Veit, the President of the Naval & Marine Living History Association and founder of the U.S. Naval Landing Party, has managed an impressive feat in A Dog Before A Soldier. In this self-published collection of essays, Veit has written something that will be new to most readers in presenting solid historical treatments of largely obscure civil war engagements whose neglect springs from how the U.S. Navy has been traditionally overlooked in the historiography of the American Civil War. Veit brings impressive credentials to his work as a pioneer in living history efforts that focus on the role of Sailors in historical reenacting, a field traditionally dominated by those who seek to portray soldiers. A number of these essays have previously appeared in Naval History magazine, and hopefully the fact that this work was self-published will not discourage potential readers, as this work is well copy-edited with worthwhile historical essays.
Although this work is a collection of essays, the essays taken as a whole demonstrate the breadth and importance of the United States Navy to the Union war effort. This importance included such tasks as intelligence gathering, espionage and delivery of messages, providing logistical support and manpower for raids to deny areas and resources to the rebel effort, as well as providing supporting fire to aid in the defense of army posts and positions. One of these essays deals with a forgotten but significant incident where the Navy defended the honor of the United States against a rebellious Japanese daimyo in the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunate. Not all of these incidents were successes, but all of them demonstrate the vital role of the Navy in the Union War effort that has largely been neglected. The last essay of the book ties up the various threads of the previous essays, arguing that the efforts of the US Navy were decisive in leading to victory. Though this particular essay is a bit more provocative than the others, the case drawn by the author is certainly reasonable in showing that at key parts of the Civil War that the efforts of the Navy were decisive (especially at New Orleans and Malvern Hill). The fact that the army could transmit news quickly over telegraphs (and tended to neglect to give proper credit to the Navy) whereas the Navy had to depend on slower dispatch boats, gave the Army a huge advantage when it came to writing their story and building their reputation.
Even though presently available naval sources like dispatches and logbooks can provide intriguing historical information of the First Battle of Shiloh, as well as the presence and vital importance of both black soldiers and gunboats in the brave and successful defense of Fort Butler, these sources have not been widely understood even among Civil War specialists. By providing this historical information in an easily readable form, Veit provides a service to those who are looking to better understand the largely forgotten role of the United States Navy in the American Civil War. Hopefully this role will not be forgotten for much longer.
Review by Mark Jenkins on Goodreads.com, 28 December 2014
I'm not usually a fan of the anthology-of-short-subjects approach to the naval history of the Civil War; it's been done repeatedly, usually with almost identical chapters or sections in nearly identical order. It can be (and has been) done effectively, but usually not. Chuck Veit's A Dog Before a Soldier, however, is among the effective minority. This is because of his choice of subjects; bypassing the usual short treatments of episodes such as Fort Sumter, the Trent Affair, and of course the Monitor and the Virginia, he concentrates on the less-famous but no-less-interesting events, many of which have not seen the light of day outside official records and scattered memoirs of individuals. The subtitle of the book, "Almost-lost Episodes in the U.S. Navy's Civil War," is apt, and Veit ably rescues these almost-lost episodes, demonstrating the value of the Navy in actions as small (and yet as significant) as the seizure of a large herd of cattle in Louisiana ("The Great Navy Cattle Drive") and a Confederate supply dump in eastern North Carolina ("The Raid on Pitch Landing"); behind-the-lines scouting work ("A Novel Naval Scout" and part of "A Handsome Affair: The Navy at Fort Butler"), and small but intense firefights up Confederate-controlled rivers ("The First Battle of Shiloh" and "Engagement at Deloges Bluff"). While not every action goes the U.S. Navy's way (as in "The Raid that Wasn't: The Navy's Attempt at the Petersburg Bridges"), Veit well sustains his central idea: that the U.S. Navy played an important role in the war that has been in large part forgotten. His reminder is welcome.
Review by Civil War Books & Authors, 26 October
At this point, most serious students of the Civil War should find it difficult to imagine Union victory without the U.S. Navy, with the nautical arm's matchless proficiency at a seemingly endless list of direct action and support roles. However, through his living history interactions with thousands of period enthusiasts over the years, Chuck Veit, President of the Navy & Marine Living History Association and active landing party reenactor, certainly can speak with some authority when he claims to encounter little of this appreciation during his presentations.
Veit's book A Dog Before a Soldier: Almost-lost Episodes in the U.S. Navy's Civil War is a valuable compilation of both new and previously published articles covering specific topics that even seasoned readers may not have encountered before, though the larger themes are familiar.
First Battle of Shiloh (March 1, 1862) - A Union landing party with close support from timberclad gunboats went ashore to destroy Confederate field guns situated above Pittsburg Landing. The Confederates declared victory after pushing the smaller Union detail back to their boats, but the naval presence prevented the Confederates from erecting a permanent battery position.
Civilian rams on the James River (March 1862) - This article recalls a needlessly desperate and badly conceived plan to employ civilian rams to destroy the CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads. The whole snafu was indicative of early war growing pains and jurisdictional confusion.
Appomattox River Raid (June 26-28, 1862) - Lost in the general turmoil of the Seven Days was another failed Union operation, this one an ill-planned naval raid up the Appomattox River to cut the Richmond & Petersburg R.R. at the Swift Creek and Petersburg trestles. Lessons in joint operations would be quickly learned.
Naval cattle drive (October 1862) - Confiscating a herd of 1,500 head of cattle crossing the Mississippi River above Donaldsonville (La.), the Union navy conducted a remarkable cattle drive down the east bank to friendly lines at New Orleans, securing valuable fresh beef for the Union commissary. A good example of the naval branch's versatility and initiative.
Fort Butler (June 28, 1863) - Covered pretty well in a number of books and articles, the Union defense of Fort Butler isn't really an "almost-lost" Civil War event like many of the others, but Veit's account is among the best. He also clears up some points of lingering confusion in a persuasive manner. Fort Butler serves to highlight the almost unassailable security that the Navy was able to provide fortified Union river enclaves, posts which even if taken by attacking Confederates could not be held by them.
Battle at Japan's Shimonoseki Straits (July 16, 1863) - This successful ship to shore (and to a lesser degree ship to ship) engagement is among the better known events covered in the book, but it does well illustrate the U.S. Navy's global reach even while in the midst of Civil War.
Deloges Bluff (April 26, 1864) - One of many running engagements fought being retreating Union naval vessels and pursuing Confederate land forces during the Red River Campaign, the encounter at Deloges Bluff illustrated both the vulnerability of thin skinned gunboats to massed small arms fire and light artillery and the ability of the Union navy to navigate extremely difficult environments.
Pitch Landing raid (December 4, 1864) - Pitch Landing, a major Confederate gathering point for supplies in eastern North Carolina, was the target of a successful army-navy raid. It's a textbook example of the type of 'death by a thousand cuts' operation that the navy came to excel in conducting anywhere within a day's march of a navigable body of water.
Grinnell scout mission (March 4-12, 1865) - This chapter tells the story of a small navy team that set out from Wilmington to reach Sherman with dispatches and news of the port city's fall. It also serves as a reminder of how vital the navy was in sustaining army lines of communication for commands cut off from direct land routes.
All of the chapters are solid mini-narratives, each well documented. Sources used are fairly limited in scope but well selected and effectively utilized. The maps, original and often highly detailed visual renderings of the action described in the text, are exceptional in number and quality. A small collection of artwork and photographs are also present in the book, among the latter a very rarely seen image of Fort Butler. For a self-published book, outside of a few minor flaws, the presentation is quite professional, better than many traditionally published works.
Beyond being quality accounts of lesser known events worthy of more attention, Veit's episodes also comprise a fine group of samples representative of the wide range of naval operations conducted during the Civil War. With examples drawn from all three major theaters of war as well as the Pacific, geographical diversity is another strong point. With the "lost" or "forgotten" label so often cynically overused as a marketing tool in history publishing, it is refreshing to encounter a book that actually holds true to the promise.
Review by Rob Morgan for the Lone Warrior Blogspot, 23 August
This book, A Dog Before a Soldier by Chuck Veit, . . . was reviewed and savaged by an academic in The Mariner’s Mirror earlier this year. I wondered why, as it seemed to be unusual, and perhaps worthy of a little closer examination . Having access to a review copy, thanks to the author and our own George Arnold, and having now read it, the book has turned out to be a different, and very rewarding, trip into the naval actions and shore activities of the Federal Navy during the Civil War between the States. It’s written, not by a professional historian, but by a re-enactor, and has that viewpoint, which makes a change. Chuck Veit is president of the Navy & Marine Living History Association, a new organisation on me, not surprisingly, and this 200- page, neatly illustrated and mapped book, which also has battle plans and dispositions of immense use to the naval wargamer, is clearly the result of years of active research. The six-page bibliography contains much in the way of primary sources especially, of which I was not aware, but many of you reading this review may well be more familiar with them. The title comes from a sailor’s statement of the order of his loyalties:
A messmate before a shipmate,
A shipmate before a stranger,
A stranger before a dog,
and a dog before a soldier.
… a comment unfair to dogs, arguably, and it’s subtitled: “Almost-lost Episodes in the U.S. Navy’s Civil War.” Some are rather more “lost” than others! Nine separate naval episodes are recounted by the author, and in all but one or, at most, two cases, these can provide the background scenario for a decent ACW naval wargame, and in some cases a wargame of a very unusual format indeed. Several I will return to at a later stage, as specific table-top wargame scenarios. The models are readily available, in a range of scales, after all! The book opens with a naval landing party encounter shortly before and near where a general action far better known to the ACW land wargamer, the Battle of Shiloh, later occurred. Shiloh, of course, was also the battle in which two Union gunboats, Lexington and Tyler, played a crucial, but often side-lined role. I’ve seen Shiloh wargamed, and written up as a wargame, with the Union gunboats omitted or given a slender, and nonfiring presence, unless directly troubled by the Confederates!
Next, Veit deals with that amazing encounter at Hampton Roads, rarely referred to as a battle of course, but that’s what it was before the Monitor turned up: An ironclad ram (CSS Virginia) with eight guns takes on – what? -- over 200 guns on a Union fleet, which must have been regarded as powerful to say the least! This is a different approach to the later, first ironclad sea-fight, highly readable too.
One or two of the chapters in the book, and each has a detailed set of supporting footnotes and drawings, stand out as being of substantial interest. I’d never heard anyone mention “The Raid that Wasn’t” until I read this. The Federal plan, involving 12 warships, including Port Royal, Jacob Bell, Galena and USS Monitor, was to destroy the Petersburg Bridge and limit supplies reaching Richmond. Since this was in support of the unfortunate Union General McClellan, odds must have been on failure! A solo wargame of tremendous potential.
The next chapter is equally fascinating and, though it would require a little more thought, as a war game it can be played. “The Great Navy Cattle Drive,” part of the astonishing and vigorous activities of the Confederates and the over-stretched Union flotillas along the unpacified Mississippi after New Orleans fell to Farragut in the Spring of 1862.
The account of “The Navy at Fort Butler” which follows, is perhaps less easy to transpose, but the lively activity of a single man o’ war, USS Port Royal, a captured blockade runner, and a small landing party or two, does offer some table-top ideas.
The “Battle of the Straits of Shimonoseki” took place in July 1863, and again the action of a single warship, USS Wyoming, engaged in hunting the CSS Alabama off the coast of Japan, provides so much for the naval wargamer. This is another potential scenario, neatly mapped and precisely described in the text, to return to at a later stage. The Federals scoured the world hunting, and even sometimes finding, the Confederate Navy’s raiders, but this battle off Japan was unexpected.
The Federals didn’t have it all their own way on the great rivers, of course. The 1864 Red River Campaign included a Confederate ambush of potentially immense implications for the large steamer squadron of “tinclads” under Admiral Porter , which was “ambushed” at Deloges Bluff in convoy down the river after the rather better known engagement in which USS Eastport was destroyed. This is a good “gauntlet running” action, and proves that shore attacks on warships in confined waters can be successful -- to an extent. Again, a very useful solo scenario here.
The chapter entitled “The Raid on Pitch Landing” deals with the numerous raids carried out by the gunboats of the US Navy against the many Confederate supply bases inland from Albermarle Sound. Here, small steamers were involved, such as USS Chicopee, as well as picket boats and numbers of US Marines for shore operations. Very interesting combined operations actions, small scale, sometimes only a handful of men by the sound of it, and a war reminiscent of Hornblower and Aubrey in the wars against Bonaparte! A very good map game I think, and maybe the odd conversion to the table top.
The last of the nine actions which are recorded in A Dog Before a Soldier is a land trek, rather than a voyage. “A Novel Naval Scout” deals with the attempts of a group of Union sailors to reach General Sherman with news of the capture of Wilmington. It’s not a wargame in our terms, but it just goes to show what navies can do, when asked. You could, I suspect, play it out on a map.
The book ends with a very well written assessment of the Federal Navy’s role in actually winning the Civil War for the Union -- the blockade and the fall of New Orleans being particularly examined. The Union Navy never faltered in its efforts to choke the Confederacy to death, and that truth is evident in every line of this book.
Chuck Veit concludes his text with a statement which might find a sympathetic reception among many ACW wargamers, on land and afloat: “… while the Navy alone could not have won the war, the Union Army alone would almost surely have lost it.” This is an excellent, well written and well produced paperback volume, sadly unlikely to find its way onto the shelves of many British wargamers, but it really is worth reading, and in my case worth returning to as a source of newfound and rather intriguing solo wargame scenarios.
Review by David Kronenfeld for the Naval Historical Foundation, 24
Chuck Veit in Raising Missouri has put together a tidy little volume detailing a little known footnote of American naval history – the sinking and salvage of USS Missouri.
This is Veit’s third book and
continues in the vein of his focus on 19th century American naval
history. Veit utilized the self-publication platform Lulu.com
In the first two chapters, Veit details the planning, building and early life of Missouri – one of America’s first steam powered warships. In subsequent chapters, Veit goes on to describe the events surrounding the ship’s 1843 sinking in Gibraltar harbor and how she threatened to destroy the harbor’s usefulness as silt gathered around her remains. Next, the book documents the failed salvage attempts of Missouri and the bruise to the national ego that she inflicted. Interspersed throughout the book’s storytelling is the backstory of the development of steam propulsion and primitive diving suits. Veit’s description of 19th century diving and salvage efforts is especially intriguing for anyone interested in diving for work or pleasure. Finally, Veit concludes with the heroic against-all-odds salvage of the Missouri performed by American entrepreneur John Gowen.
Raising Missouri excels in its readability as well as the meticulous footnotes Veit provides. The book is also well-illustrated with helpful diagrams, period drawings and pictures as well as copies of primary documents. Considering that I prefer the use of footnotes over endnotes, I found Veit’s documentation excellent and incredibly helpful to the reader. Veit has obviously mastered the subject and exerted immense amounts of research to write the most accurate account possible of the events surrounding Missouri’s life and salvage. Readers desiring a quick, but highly engaging read would be well advised to pick up a copy of Raising Missouri.
The Yankee Expedition to Sebastopol
|2017 Winner in Perennial Best Seller category and Book of the Year, Independent Publishers of New England|
Review by Robert P. Largess for the Naval Historical Foundation, 2
Forty years ago, I picked Commander Edward Ellsberg’s On the Bottom off the bookshelf of an elderly friend, a favorite from his own boyhood. The story of the raising of the submarine S-51 from 132 feet of seawater off Block Island in 1925 was my first introduction to the world of the salvor and the bitterly punishing and dangerous trade of the traditional “hard hat” deep sea diver. I hadn’t been back there until I read Chuck Veit’s The Yankee Expedition to Sebastopol: John Gowen and the Raising of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 1857-1862.
Most Americans know the Crimean War only through The Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale, Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches – and perhaps the armored floating batteries that provided the inspiration for the ironclad warship. However, the war crippled Russia’s naval power in the Black Sea and frustrated its designs on Constantinople for a generation. It also left the fortress city of Sebastopol in ruins and its fine harbor blocked and littered with perhaps 90 wrecks, including fifteen sailing ships-of-line and nine very valuable iron-hulled steamers. In 1856, the Russian Imperial government approached Boston entrepreneur and self-taught engineer John Gowen to undertake the task of raising this fleet – still the largest salvage operation in history and one of the first to contemplate raising large ships intact from considerable depths of 60 feet.
Who was he? John Gowen was a briefly celebrated private citizen. The author had to piece together his portrait of the man and his achievements from his speeches, contemporary newspaper reports, and letters. The story begins with his first experiments with metal helmet diving gear – invented by the English Dean brothers in the 1820’s to enable firefighters to enter a burning building without being overcome by smoke. Its potential for diving was soon recognized and was successfully used to salvage guns from a wrecked warship in 1836. Gowen and his partner Wells used it for salvage, improved it, and marketed their own version of “Submarine Armor,” basically the same design used for all diving for more than 100 years, until the invention of SCUBA gear. Its use was incredibly hazardous. “Death could come from the slightest of mistakes: the failure of the pump, a break of the supply hose, or a careless stepping on the air tube as it lay along the deck.”
It also brought great rewards. Success led to an exploit that brought Gowen to the attention of the Russian Grand Duke Constantine and the removal of the wreck of the steam paddle frigate USS Missouri from Gibraltar harbor in 1852 after she had lain there defeating all efforts of British salvors for nine years. Gowen signed a contract with Russia in 1856 to clear Sebastopol by 1862. In return, he would receive half the value of all the ships and material brought up – an estimate worth 65 million dollars – and began assembling his men and equipment in Philadelphia.
There are three basic methods for raising a sunken ship: by crane, by making it buoyant by filling its hull with air, and by attaching external flotation devices. Gowen intended to use the last, much like Ellsberg did when he raised the S-51 with pairs of metal pontoon floats. Each pair was connected by a chain slung under the keel of the sub, which supported and lifted the vessel between them. Gowen built four huge wooden “caissons” in Philadelphia, with each one 50 x 50 x 13 ft., displacing 1,040 tons, and built two more even bigger at Sebastopol, both 100 x 65 x 64 ft., displacing 4,576 tons. But it was the attachment of the chains which posed one of Gowen’s most difficult problems. All of the exposed wood of the hulls was honeycombed by the tunnels of the “teredo navalis,” or shipworm, reducing it to a state of paper like fragility. The chains could not be passed through the hulls, which was Gowen’s original plan. Only the fact that the lower sides of many hulls were covered in many feet of soft mud protected them from the shipworm and left them strong enough to be lifted. But how did they get the chains under their keels? It was necessary to devise novel ways for the divers to tunnel under their hulls so a line could be passed through to pull the chain sling out the other side of the ship.
Gowen went to work in 1857 demolishing wrecks and removing them piecemeal. It was only in 1858 that he began to bring up completely intact ships. At this point, it would be most interesting to know if he was truly the inventor of the caissons, or the first to use this technique of raising ships with such rigid external floats. This is suggested by the fact that both at Gibraltar and Sebastopol another man’s earlier invention was tried without success: “camels,” or inflatable canvas, and rubber floats. These all burst at only partial inflation pressures; plainly the materials of the time were inadequate to justify the concept. But more to the point, Gowen was the master of finding solutions that worked, adopting whatever came to hand and surmounting all unexpected technical glitches. He was a man of many parts – the epitome of the brash, self-confident, but big-hearted stereotypical American. When asked by the governor of Gibraltar if he knew that the Missouri had defeated the best of the world’s engineers, he replied “May I enquire of Your Excellency if any of these engineers were Yankees?”
He was undaunted in the face of setbacks, not the least of which were some very dirty tricks played on him by the Russian government. His can-do generosity was revealed by his personal crusade to restore and protect the graves of the English, French, and Turkish soldiers who died at Sebastopol, which he found in a state of total neglect. Chuck Veit has single-handedly rescued Gowen from oblivion and given this impressive and attractive character his place in history. As a self-taught natural engineer, Gowen’s story is inherently interesting, like that of the Wright brothers, John Holland, or Barnes Wallis. Mr. Veit does not appear to be an academic, but he writes fine history based on meticulous, imaginative research. This book will provide a rewarding read for anyone fascinated with the long story of man and the sea – but it is definitely required reading for those interested in the history of the art of the salvor or nineteenth century technology.
This book is self-published by the author, and it’s worth noting how the computer has made this type of work so much more accessible to its intended audience. In days gone by, I could only have encountered such a work by chance, browsing booksellers’ shelves or catalogs. Today they are readily available online. This goes far to make such research into the neglected corners of history far more rewarding to those of us who are addicted to it.
|2016 Winner in Narrative Non-fiction, Independent Publishers of New England|
Review by Rebecca L. Mugridge of "Books High and Low," 6 August
Sea Miner: Major E.B. Hunt's Civil War Rocket Torpedo, 1862-1863 is the story of the little-known development of a torpedo during the Civil War. Author Chuck Veit's research on this topic was inspired by the mention of a mysterious wooden box that was on Brooklyn's Naval Yard in the early days of the Civil War. His research reveals that the box contained a prototype of a rocket that had incredible range. However, its top-secret nature has prevented it from becoming more widely known, and likely prevented it from being completed after its inventor, E.B. Hunt, was killed in an accident.
Although I enjoy reading history, this was a narrower subject than I usually select. However, I found the writing to be very good, and the many images and drawings to be helpful in describing and showing how the rockets and torpedoes of the time were constructed. The book is heavily researched with lots of footnotes, an index, a bibliography of E.B. Hunt's scientific publications, and bibliographies of primary, secondary, and picture resources. Anyone interested in Civil War or military history will find this book interesting.
Chuck Veit's research specialty is naval, nautical, and Civil War
history. His day job is as a graphic designer, which explains the high
quality of this self-published book. Sea Miner was published through
Andrew Duppstadt, North Carolina State Historic Sites, 15 March 2018
In Sea Miner, Veit brings to light a little-known and long-forgotten piece of naval history, the Union attempts to design and build a self-propelled underwater torpedo. Due to the paucity of resources—Major Hunt destroyed much of his own documentation to maintain secrecy—Veit admits that some of this story relies on speculation, conjecture, or just plain educated guessing. However, he has pieced together enough documentary evidence to produce a solid history of this project. The research is impressive; the amount of primary source material used is laudable considering how much must have been destroyed.
Not only does Veit show a strong grasp of the history of this project, he is able to convey the scientific and mathematical complexity of it without getting too bogged down. In fact, Chapter XI is the only chapter that reads more scientific than historical. Throughout the course of the book, Veit covers all the bases. He gives a solid biographical account of Hunt’s life, details previous efforts to design and build such weapons systems, gives a good overview of the Brooklyn Navy Yard where the project was housed, and conveys as full an accounting as possible of the Sea Miner project. He highlights the interplay and cooperation between the Army and Navy, as Hunt was on assignment from the Army to work on this project.
What emerges is not simply a history of the Sea Miner project, but a book that underscores the brilliant scientific mind of Hunt. The story is primary, while many of the scientific details are left to the appendices; this allows the story to flow without becoming overly technical.
Review by Robert P. Largess for the Naval Historical Foundation, 3 June
(ref. author's notes at bottom)
Chuck Veit is something of a master in recreating the world of Civil War America and the personality of real individuals of that time through contemporary newspapers, letters, speeches, and diaries. In The Yankee Expedition to Sevastopol, he did a remarkable job of bringing salvor, inventor, and self-taught engineer John Gowen to life. In Sea Miner, he takes aim at a potentially even more interesting character, Major Edward B. Hunt. Graduating second in his 1841 West Point class, Hunt was a member of the Army Corps of Engineers and a husband of the poet and advocate for the American Indian, Helen Hunt Jackson. He was also an accomplished mathematician and physicist, with many written contributions to scientific journals, as well as the professional literature of Army engineering. While in command of the construction of Fort Taylor at Key West in 1862, he submitted a proposal to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles for a new weapon he called “Sea Miner,” promising it “will totally revolutionize sea warfare and become our main resource for defense.” Sort of a predecessor to the self-propelled torpedo, it was a rocket launched from an underwater tube, intended to travel under water and penetrate the hull of an enemy ship below the waterline. Welles was obviously sufficiently impressed to meet with Hunt and then authorize him to construct and test his weapon at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Throughout history, ships have often proved very difficult to sink with gunfire. In the age of sail, ship duels typically ended with boarding and capture, not sinking. During World War II, we have the cases of the Bismarck and the Hiei, battered to bits by enemy shellfire but still floating. This resistance to gunfire damage was greatest at mid-19th century with the invention of the armor-clad warship, as the 1862 fight between the Monitor and the Virginia or the 1866 Battle of Lissa showed. In both cases, ironclads pummeled each other for hours without doing much damage. Significantly, the most valuable ironclad actually sunk at Lissa was due to ramming; the solution to sinking a warship outright was breaching the watertight integrity of its hull. During the Civil War, stationary “torpedoes” or mines, and spar torpedoes employed by steam launches and primitive submarines, as well as ramming vessels, were developed for this. They had occasional successes, as did the “automobile” torpedo later in the 19th century. However, mechanical delicacy, inaccuracy, short range, low speed, and the vulnerability of the torpedo boat to gunfire made them largely ineffective against a warship under way and defending itself on the open sea, at least until the 20th century.
Would the Sea Miner have worked any better? Would it have worked at all? Indeed, how was it supposed to work? Plainly, Hunt was a man of the highest intelligence and character for Welles to give him his immediate full support, but did he grasp the details necessary to turn his idea into a practical weapon?
At this point Veit’s research runs into several serious roadblocks. The first is that Hunt left behind almost nothing of a description of his ideas, his invention, and his own process of conceiving and working it out – no notes, diaries, detailed explanations in letters. We know more about his invention (and personality) from the recollections of his wife and associates than from the man himself. Next, the secrecy of the project meant that “all plans were destroyed as soon as they had served their purpose." Veit had to use careful detective work to reconstruct what the Sea Miner actually was, and the gaps in factual knowledge had to be bridged with conjecture. For example, Veit created his own equipment, a “balancing board,” to model and understand Hunt’s ingenious device for maintaining the rocket’s center of gravity as its fuel was consumed.
The first test of Sea Miner ended in failure and the end of the project – an oversight led to an explosion and Hunt’s death.(1) But would it have worked anyway? I believe Veit mistakenly extrapolates from data for early Whitehead torpedoes to obtain a very misleading estimate of the range, speed, and penetrating power of Hunt’s rocket torpedo. “If we apply the simple ratio of one horsepower to two knots from the Whitehead to Hunt’s final 12-inch torpedo, the result is an incredible 1,520 knots (1748 mph) – a number that beggars belief.” But if I (another amateur) am correct, doesn’t surface friction drag rise exponentially, at the square of the velocity, and so speed and range would be much less? (2)
As a writer on naval technology, I understand how easy it is to be tripped up by my own incomplete understanding of engineering. In our defense, most scientists never tell their own stories, but depend on us historians and wordsmiths to do so. (And the problem works both ways; scientists often commit similar howlers when pronouncing on subjects such as history or philosophy of which they know little.) But could it be that Veit isn’t aware of this because Maj. Hunt wasn’t either? (3) Serious study of ship hull resistance seems to have begun with William Froude about 1861, who began towing models and constructing the first towing tank facility in the late 1860’s. So it seems quite possible that Hunt wouldn’t have appreciated the problem. Capt. Cowper Coles, the inventor of a revolving gun turret, designed the HMS Captain, laid down in 1867, to combine the fighting qualities of a low-freeboard turret ship with the seagoing endurance of a full rig of masts and sails. He apparently ignored Froude’s work on the effects of hull form on stability published in 1861, and indeed, Captain capsized in a gale in 1870. This was a period when the engineering imagination often preceded the science necessary to explain it; engineering often proceeded by empirical trial and error, and disastrous failures were not uncommon, in an age when the confidence in the power of technology to solve any problem seemed unlimited.
This book contains many good things. The guided tour Veit gives us of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1862 is well worth the price of admission – its workshops, docks, ships under construction and repair, as well as the crowd of gawkers, newspapermen, and potential foreign spies who were free to enter and poke their noses into just about anything that was going on there. But as a story, this book is rather disappointing; Sea Miner remains at the conclusion still incomplete, little understood, and probably ill-conceived.(4) Still, researchers in the field of early underwater weapons should be aware of Hunt and his work. Veit provides a valuable contribution also by summarizing in good detail the work of a number of Hunt’s contemporaries who pursued similar concepts of underwater rockets and guns. Like Sea Miner, their purpose was fore sighted, to provide a simple and easily produced device to serve the tactical function of the torpedo, in the period before the successful but mechanically complex Whitehead torpedo was developed.
Review by Charles H. Bogart for the Naval Historical Foundation,
10 April 2019
The American Civil War saw a number of innovations in naval warfare among which was the development of the submarine. Most authors focus on the Confederate Navy’s endeavor within this field, however, the U.S. Navy also explored the development of a submarine. In charge of the U.S. Navy’s design and construction of “Submarine propeller,” better known as Alligator, was Brutus-Amédée de Villeroi. The question the author seeks to answer is whether de Villeroi was a charlatan seeking to line his pockets at the expense of the Federal Treasury or were his design concepts, unfortunately, just beyond the industrial technology then available to execute these ideas?
Just who was de Villeroi is a hard question to answer. So much of his life is unknown and the parts that are known are contradictory. He was a Frenchman, born in 1794, who was granted in his home country a number of patents that never earned him any money. During his time in France, de Villeroi designed a number of man-powered submarines, some of which were built and tested.
In 1848, de Villeroi relocated to Philadelphia. Here he was involved in the opening of coal mines and bought some 32,000 acres of land. A host of unanswerable questions concerning de Villeroi’s financial status during this period complicates developing a portrait of him. With no understanding of de Villeroi’s net worth and how he derived this wealth, gaps develop in the story of his involvement in the design and construction of Alligator.
In 1850, de Villeroi signed a contract to salvage the gold lost on board Central America using a submarine called Salvage boat. While Salvage boat undertook successful dives in the Delaware River, the overall scheme was a failure. In 1861, Salvage boat was offered for sale to the U.S. Navy to attack CSS Virginia at her base at Norfolk. The proposed method of attack was for a diver, carried by the submarine, to attach a mine to the hull of Virginia, but the Navy was uninterested in the submarine.
In November 1861, the U.S. Navy entered into a contract with de Villeroi to build a larger submarine than Salvage boat. At first, this new boat would be referred to as Submarine propeller and during 1862 as Alligator. The construction of Alligator would encounter numerous problems and take far longer to build than set forth in the contract. The author paints a fascinating account of the institutional and personal conflicts that plagued Alligator while under construction, while deployed at Fort Monroe, during reconstruction, and when lost at sea. Alligator was never commissioned into the U.S. Navy.
The book contains an interesting set of drawings, accompanied by text, that explains how de Villeroi’s submarine was to submerge and attack an enemy ship. If the Civil War, technological development, or submarines are topics of interest to you, this book is a must read. I will leave it to each reader of this book to decide for themselves whether de Villeroi was a flawed genius or something else.
(1) This is a mistake. As per hard evidence presented in the book, Sea Miner passed trials in February 1863 and again in June 1863. (return to review)
(2) Recognizing that I am most certainly not a rocket scientist, I used data from those you are much more versed in the field of torpedo development. The data, as well as the formula that resulted in the unbelievable speed of 1,748 mph, came from Lt. Sleeman of the Royal Navy. Sleeman wrote in 1884 – a time when drag was much better understood and certainly factored into his calculations. I used his numbers for comparison, but expressed doubt in the book that these were ever actually attained. (return to review)
(3) Quite probably, Hunt was not aware of the drag factor. This is, however, unimportant. Whether or not the torpedo's performance was significantly affected by drag or not, the telling point is that the Navy gave a green light to production of the weapon after 14 months of development. This means it worked as far as they were concerned. Did it move at 1,748 mph? Probably not. But half or even a quarter of that speed is terribly impressive for an underwater projectile in 1863 – and is actually faster than any modern torpedo. (return to review)
(4) As regards the first two points, I couldn't agree more, and address this in the preface of the book: "Readers should not consider this to be the complete story of Sea Miner, for the paucity of records will never support such a claim. The veil of secrecy that shrouded the project continues to protect many details of this incredible weapon and the scientist-soldier who created it for the U.S. Navy." The research should be considered more as "literary archaeology," not dissimilar to a book discussing discovery of a previously-unknown ancient tomb: here's what was found, here's what evidence we have, and this is what we believe it means. The story is fascinating, but the reviewer is correct in that, while I draw some conclusions, there can be no definitive, all-knowing explanation or summation; Sea Miner was that secret. As for ill-conceived, readers will have to decide for themselves. (return to review)
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