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

  1. Matt McKeon says:

    Very interesting!

    • Meg Groeling says:

      Yes. Yes, it is very interesting. At first I wondered–but the author is such a compelling writer that he makes this subject both understandable & fascinating. I found myself really enjoying it.

  2. David Dixon says:

    I came across this topic while researching a Union man in North Georgia who had been accused of placing a torpedo on the Western and Atlantic train tracks during Federal occupation in 1864. Turns out it was Confederate guerrillas that did the deed and placed the blame on my subject. Have not read the book, but I wonder how often these bombs were used to disrupt enemy supply lines on the railroads. I know bridges were a frequent target.

  3. Alton Bunn says:

    Very interesting. I’ll have to pick it up for my reading queue. As for Matthew Fontaine Maury, he’s only fallen into disrepute because of his confederate service. That naturally has to nullify his accomplishments before and after the war in some eyes.

  4. Thanks for the in-depth Review Meg. Glad you enjoyed the book. We have SIGNED AUTHOR BOOK PLATES with the copies at no extra charge at https://www.savasbeatie.com/americas-buried-history-landmines-in-the-civil-war/

    And it is available as a e-book (all formats) and is new in audio!

    • Meg Groeling says:

      This one is a real winner. Just when you think you know “da war” pretty well, something like this comes along. Trust SB to publish the best.

  5. Joel Manuel says:

    In the interest of disclosure, I helped with the proofreading on this book, and enjoyed it. I walked a little more carefully around Fort Desperate the first time I visited Port Hudson (my “local battlefield”) after reading it.

  6. Meg Groeling says:

    As shall I!

  7. Thank you Meg for your positive comments and detailed review. It makes me happy that you enjoyed the book. It was a labor of love and passion. Eight years of research, traveling around Civil War Battlefields and archives, and writing nearly every day at 4AM before my family woke and commuted to work. After 25 years of experiencing a landmine in Somalia, and traveling the world with U.S. Dept. of Defense and Dept. of State landmine work, honored that Savas Beatie published this book. Could think of no better partner and wish every author was blessed to work with such a publisher. With appreciation. Ken.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      Nothing is better than knowing an author red your review, so thanks for this. My next writing assignment was a short piece on Fort Hudson & Clara Barton. I had those landmines in my head every moment I wrote–just awful! Thanks for the kind words.

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