Book Review: America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War

It is not often that one reads a book on a specific subject written by a person who has been awarded for attempting to get rid of the topic itself. Author Kenneth R. Rutherford gives readers such an opportunity with his excellently-composed America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War. Rutherford is a co-founder of the Landmine Survivor’s Network. Additionally, he has led the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Dr. Rutherford currently teaches political science at James Madison University, where he directed the university’s Center for International Stabilization and Recovery. With such glowing credentials in the effort to rid the world of landmines, readers know immediately that this will not be a normal history read.

The topic is one about which most know little. Other than Sherman’s usage of Confederate prisoners to clear the landmine fields at Fort McAlister in 1864, landmines are rarely discussed, at least in this reviewer’s experience. The truth is much different. Mines, also called torpedoes, were used almost exclusively by the Confederates. They were not approved of even by the Confederate high command, but they were indeed force multipliers. The first area in which mines were set was at Drewry’s Bluff, prior to the Peninsula Campaign. They were naval mines set across the James River and were Matthew Fontaine Maury’s project. Maury was a technical and nautical genius who has lately fallen into disrepute. He offered his ideas to Stephen Mallory, the Confederate Secretary of the Navy. Maury also mined Columbus, Kentucky, with his “infernal machines.”

By 1862 victim-activated mines had been placed all along the Virginia Peninsula. Union General McClellan was furious at this development, as were several other commanders, both Union and Confederate. The dreaded, terrifying landmines did their deadly work on the bodies of men and horses, while their presence also operated on the minds of the soldiers. Entire units simply stood in place, unable to move for fear of bloody death. The average soldier had agreed to put himself in harm’s way if there was an even chance on the battlefield. Landmines were never in the equation. 

Brigadier General Gabriel James Rains was the Confederate inventor of mines based on those used in the Crimean War, which needed a trip mechanism to be triggered. They were buried in the ground in large fields surrounding vital points of a possible attack such as entrances and roadways. The minefields make attacking very dangerous; it was just as dangerous even if the area being attacked had been evacuated. The mines had to be disarmed and removed–a job no soldier wanted to do. Federal troops fought not only Johnston’s forces up the Peninsula, but they had to do it almost on tip-toe and afraid the next step might be their last. 

It was only as awareness of landmines increased that casualties began to lessen. Engineer teams were sent ahead to clear fields–dangerous and time-consuming work. “We passed on, feeling our way cautiously along the road thus prepared for us by those, who too weak to trust to honorable warfare, thus indulge their devilish instincts of hate.” (New York Times, May 7, 1862, 29). Author Rutherford continues his story throughout the war, making the readers painfully aware of the effect of land mines, naval mines, and even torpedoes launched from submarines. The development of the Hunley–the Confederacy’s only successful submarine–gets a chapter of coverage. The little craft’s eight-man crew rammed an underwater torpedo held on a spar into the USS Housatonic and brought down one of the mightiest of the Union’s sloops of war. Then it sunk, all hands aboard. As exciting as the story of the Hunley has always been, America’s Buried History retells the facts so that readers might legitimately question the morality of mined warfare in all its iterations. Rutherford never lets his own opinions distract readers, but he plants a seed of doubt about using such instruments of war.

Although mainly used in the Eastern theater, especially Virginia, landmines were also used at Port Hudson, Louisiana, and in Georgia. The southern harbors and rivers in multiple states were extensively mined, and in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to defeat the federal troops, they were used in the Carolinas during the closing weeks of the war. Mines altered their definition as the “tool of cowards” to an acceptable weapon of war, at least until the 1990s. Kenneth Rutherford writes with fairness about this change, discussing the ongoing debate about the ethics of mine warfare. By the early 1990s, landmines, both new and from other times, were responsible for over 26,000 deaths annually. This number increased significantly when combatants in the Middle Eastern wars began to use IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) to expand their deficits in forces and materiél. 

America’s Buried History explains clearly to even a novice war buff how the American Civil War developed mined weapons. The maps are numerous and, once one gets used to looking for the clusters of little dots, make the extent of mine usage shockingly clear. The debate continues concerning the ethics of mine usage, but the slow acceptance of “weapons that wait” began in the 1860s. Rutherford’s excellent book explores a rarely-examined aspect of the Civil War, bringing the reader out from the past and into modern times and today’s debates.

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Kenneth R. Rutherford, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War
Savas Beatie, 2020
216 Pages
Maps, Glossary, Biography, Index

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
This entry was posted in Arms & Armaments, Book Review, Books & Authors, Leadership--Confederate, Weapons and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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