Archibald Wilson’s Infernal Submarine Armor

Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Neil Chatelain

Diagram of the Submarine Armor. National Archives

It was pelting rain across the Richmond-Petersburg siege lines on March 31, 1865. General Robert E. Lee’s attack against Fort Stedman had failed only days before and General Ulysses Grant began probing the flanks of Confederate fortifications. As ground forces under Generals Philip Sheridan and George Pickett began positioning themselves in the vicinity of Five Forks, a sailor onboard the Confederate ironclad Fredericksburg penned a letter to Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory proposing a daring and new design to strike at Union gunboats plying the James River. This proposal was not for a new ironclad warship or a novel type of cannon. It was not for an innovative engine to propel ships or a long-range rifle. Instead, Boatswain Archibald J. Wilson proposed to build a prototype submarine armor which he claimed could stealthily approach enemy ships so explosive torpedoes could be attached on their hulls.

The diagram provided in Wilson’s letter displayed a suit designed for wear by a single sailor. Equipped with a mask and primitive snorkel, a rubberized jacket fitted around the wearer’s torso and arms covered in canvas and oil on the exterior, and a metal shell covering the legs, the contraption possessed a resemblance more of a mermaid than a tool of war. Pedals attached to the feet of the wearer turned a small propeller, which pushed the armor forward. Instead of a rudder, the wearer would use their hands to steer in the desired direction. When weighted sacks were attached to the armor, neutral buoyancy could be achieved and the wearer might swim unnoticed under the waves. Wilson claimed that the wearer could either tow or carry tied to the rubber jacket a 100-pound torpedo that could be screwed into the wooden hulls of Union ships. Boatswain Wilson himself volunteered to both create a prototype and use it in experiments, citing his “years of experience with marine armors” as pretext.[i]

Archibald J. Wilson’s experience was that of a man who had taken risks throughout the course of the war and his proposal resembled something more akin to equipment used by modern special forces military personnel, not sailors in the Civil War. During the conflict, Wilson had been stationed across the Confederacy, having served in Charleston, South Carolina in 1862 and taken part in the daring capture of Union supply vessels on the Chesapeake Bay in 1863. From there, he was assigned to the James River Squadron before being captured in the Albemarle Sound as part of the crew of the CSS Bombshell in May 1864. Wilson spent the following nine months imprisoned at Fort Delaware before being exchanged in late February 1865 and joining the ironclad Fredericksburg, protecting the capital of Richmond.[ii]

Wilson styled his invention, calling it submarine armor. It was a new innovation using principles that had already been established and tested throughout the course of the United States Civil War. Confederate submarines had been experimented with in New Orleans and Mobile before the H.L. Hunley carried out its famous attack against the USS Housatonic outside Charleston harbor in February 1864.[iii] Early torpedoes had first been used effectively in sinking the USS Cairo in December 1862 before being expanded into all Southern port cities.[iv] The torpedo itself had been modified into many forms, with types moored to river and bay bottoms detonated by electric signals while others were attached to large spars extending from vessels. Ironclad warships were modified to carry the spar torpedo and specially designed torpedo boats were constructed to augment naval defenses.[v] A smaller submersible craft capable of transporting a single torpedo was only an extension of what had already been developed within the Confederate naval service.

Besides describing the armor in detail, Wilson outlined how he thought it could best be employed. He envisioned the wearer being rowed out in a small boat in the night to within an approachable distance from Union ships. The wearer would then be placed into the water, weighed down by sacks to just below the water, using the snorkel to breath. An approach to the enemy would be made using the foot crank, turning the small propeller. Once alongside, the torpedo would be screwed into the enemy hull and a delayed fuse would be set, providing the wearer enough time to escape back to the small boat before the torpedo exploded.[vi]

This fanciful submarine armor appeared dangerous to both the wearer and any potential targets, but manufacture of it was not to be. Two days after Wilson penned his proposal, Union forces commenced a general assault against Richmond and Petersburg and General Robert E. Lee ordered the evacuation of the two cities in the evening of April 2, 1865. Confederate naval forces defending the capital were split, with those manning the land batteries accompanying Lee’s army in retreat while Wilson and the crews of the ironclads and gunboats withdrew by rail to Danville, Virginia. Re-designated a brigade of artillery commanded by Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, Wilson and his fellow sailors made their way to North Carolina, joining General Joseph Johnston’s army which surrendered just a few weeks after the fall of Richmond.[vii]

The submarine armor designed by Boatswain Archibald J. Wilson was a remarkable concept. Had it been proposed earlier, it is likely that at least one prototype would have been manufactured and tested; Stephen Mallory’s naval policies involved looking for technological innovations to augment his limited forces and such a prototype of submarine armor could very well have been appealing.[viii] What result a test would have made is unknown, but it would not have changed the course of the war so late in the conflict. Instead, Archibald Wilson and his submarine armor were forgotten and became a footnote of the Confederate Navy, itself an often-forgotten aspect of Confederate military history.


[i] Archibald J. Wilson, “A.J. Wilson to Stephen Mallory,” March 31, 1865, Subject File for the Confederate States Navy, 1861-1865 (National Archives Building, Washington, DC.; United States Navy Department), National Archives Microfilm Publication M1091, Records Group 45, Subject File BM: Mines and Torpedoes (hereafter cited as Confederate Navy Subject File)

[ii] “Officers assigned to the Charleston Station, October and November 1862,” Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, ser. 2, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1884 – 1927), 317 (hereafter cited as ORN).; “Distribution of Prize Money to the Captors of the U.S. Gunboats ‘Satellite’ and Reliance,’” Confederate Navy Subject File, Subject File XZ: Prizes, Prize Money and Prize Sales (legal and financial aspects).; “Abstract Log of USS Sassacus,” May 5, 1864, ORN, ser. 1, vol. 9, 745.; “Memoranda sent to Maj. John E. Mulford,” November 8, 1864, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, ser 2. vol. 7 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1884 – 1927), 1113.; United States Navy Department, Register of Officers of the Confederate States Navy, 1861-1865 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931), 214.

[iii] Tom Chaffin,” The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008), 184-5.

[iv] Isaac N. Brown, “Confederate Torpedoes in the Yazoo,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. vol. 3 (New York: The Century Co, 1887), 580.

[v] W.T. Glassell, “Reminiscences of Torpedo Service in Charleston Harbor,” Confederate Navy Subject File, Subject File BM: Mines and Torpedoes.; James H. Tomb, Engineer in Gray: Memoirs of Chief Engineer James H. Tomb, CSN, ed. by R. Thomas Campbell (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2005), 70-1.

[vi] Archibald J. Wilson, “A.J. Wilson to Stephen Mallory,” March 31, 1865, Confederate Navy Subject File, Subject File BM: Mines and Torpedoes.

[vii] “Muster Roll of Naval Brigade, Army of Tennessee,” Confederate Navy Subject File, Subject File RB: Prisoners of War Rolls and Lists (Persons Captured by Union Forces).

[viii] Raimondo Luraghi, A History of the Confederate Navy, Trans. by Paulo E. Coletta (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), 55-69.

4 Responses to Archibald Wilson’s Infernal Submarine Armor

  1. For any reader’s information–if you click on the pencil drawing and look at it alone, the definition is pretty good, and makes the article even better. Thanks for including it.

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