Blasting His Way into the History Books: Assessing the Role of Cdr. Hunter Davidson

ECW welcomes back guest author John M. Coski

Confederate Navy Commander Hunter Davidson shortly after the Civil War. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

At 2:00 a.m. on April 9, 1864, the small, steam-driven boat Squib, commanded by Confederate Navy Lieutenant Hunter Davidson, exploded a 53-pound spar torpedo against the hull of the U.S. steam frigate Minnesota. Despite small arms fire at point-blank range and a temporarily stalled engine, the Squib managed to escape the scene without damage or casualties.[1]

The Minnesota “has not sunk,” Davidson reported to Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory, “and I have no means yet of telling the injury done.”[2] Echoing hopeful intelligence received from secret service operatives, Mallory reported that the damage was “believed to be serious.” He commended the “cool daring, professional skill, and judgment exhibited by Lieutenant Davidson in this hazardous enterprise”—for which Davidson was promoted to commander.[3] Davidson later boasted that “This was the only instance during the war that I know of where offensive torpedoes were used successfully without the loss of the attacking party.”[4]

Less than a month later, on May 6, 1864, the United States gunboat Commodore Jones, a converted ferryboat, struck a Confederate torpedo filled with 2,000 pounds of gunpowder and was blown “to splinters” on the James River, killing approximately 69 men. The torpedo, detonated electrically from shore, was the work of the Confederacy’s Submarine Battery Service commanded by Cdr. Hunter Davidson.[5] It was, Davidson insisted, the first time in history that an electrically detonated torpedo sank an enemy warship.[6]

Most students of the American Civil War are familiar with the surprising success of the agrarian Confederate States of America in employing torpedoes (mines, in modern parlance) and submarines. The sinking of the warship, Housatonic, by the submarine, H. L. Hunley, in February 1864 and the sinking of the ironclad monitor Tecumseh by a mine at Mobile Bay in August 1864 often make the American Civil War highlight reel, thanks in part to the enduring mystery of the Hunley’s fate and to Adm. David Glasgow Farragut’s legendary quote (“Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!”). Neither the Squib’s attack on Minnesota (which proved not to be badly hurt) nor the destruction of Commodore Jones makes that highlight reel, and the man responsible for them never appears on historians’ short list of notable Confederate naval officers.

In the last decades of his long life, Hunter Davidson zealously asserted the significance of his wartime accomplishments and resisted his slide into historical obscurity, but to no avail. History would benefit from rediscovering Davidson, and not just because of his work as a torpedo pioneer.

Davidson (1826-1913) was the son of a U.S. Army officer and a mother with a long Virginia lineage. After his father died of disease in the Seminole Wars late in 1840, his maternal uncle, Thomas T. Hunter, secured his appointment as an acting midshipman in the U.S. Navy. Davidson joined the famously large and distinguished group of officers with a joining “Date of 1841,” which the navy funneled through the new Naval School at Annapolis in three classes (Davidson attended in 1847-1848).

Despite suffering a demotion in rank as a result of a youthful prank at the school, Davidson enjoyed a 20-year career serving primarily in the Pacific during the Mexican War, in the Coast Survey, and in the African Squadron helping to suppress the international slave trade. He was one of a handful of officers selected to return the British Arctic exploration vessel, Resolute, to Queen Victoria and the Admiralty in 1856. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1855, and received two patents for a lifeboat-lifting device, establishing his reputation as an inventor. In April 1861, the U.S. government paid him $10,000 for the device. By the end of that month, Lieutenant Davidson, USN, had resigned his commission and offered his services to the Virginia State Navy.[7]

In the Confederate States Navy, Davidson commanded the forward gun sections on the CSS Virginia during the battle of Hampton Roads, winning high praise from Admiral Franklin Buchanan. Late in the war he commanded a vessel that outfitted the French-built, seagoing ironclad ram, CSS Stonewall. The work that became his claim to fame began in May 1862, when he assisted Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, the internationally acclaimed “Pathfinder of the Seas,” in establishing a barrier of electrical torpedoes on the James River. Davidson’s work got off to an inauspicious start on July 4, 1862, when a Federal gunboat captured his headquarters vessel along with valuable torpedo supplies and documents, including a detailed plan of the torpedoes that he and Maury had sown.[8]

The incident embarrassed Davidson, but he kept his command and, from the summer of 1862 through July 1864, developed the Submarine Battery Service into a formidable system of defense. Davidson and his chief assistant, the talented young telegrapher and electrician Roy O. Crowley, conducted experiments to improve the system of electrical batteries and wires that connected with the large tanks planted in the James River below Richmond’s outer defenses. From his floating headquarters vessel, CSS Torpedo, Davidson commanded a series of hidden torpedo stations along both banks of the river.

Federal vessels challenged the defenses in August 1863, and only an operator error prevented the destruction of the USS Commodore Barney. Federal authorities were aware of the torpedoes and took precautions to identify and remove them when Major General Benjamin Butler’s expedition ascended the James in May 1864, but “the notorious Lieutenant Davidson” (as one U.S. naval officer denounced him) took countermeasures to avoid detection and destroy the Commodore Jones. Although it took a month to do so, U.S. Navy shore parties systematically cleared the stations and their torpedoes, effectively putting the Submarine Battery Service out of business on the James.[9]

Davidson then traveled to England to assist Maury with acquiring more torpedo materials and running them through the blockade. The last days of the Confederacy found him in command of Confederate torpedo defenses of Galveston, Texas.

When the war ended, Hunter Davidson was an unemployed 39-year-old father of four young children. He had surrendered the only career he had known. In common with other Confederate officers in the same position, Davidson hoped to obtain work in commercial shipping or, preferably, with a foreign navy. In late 1865, he landed what his wife described as “a fine position in the Chilean Navy with a good salary & the prospect of making money.” What Davidson called a “Torpedo expedition”  did not, however, turn out to be a fine, long-term money-making opportunity, and the self-styled “hard up Confed” spent more than two years desperately searching for a job and even for a home.[10] During those years, Davidson solicited and received testimonials to the value of his service from Navy Secretary Mallory, General Robert E. Lee, and President Davis. Lee and Davis offered pro forma acknowledgment of his contributions, while Mallory gratified Davidson with fulsome assessments of his important service.[11]

The 542-ton gunboat USS Commodore Jones was destroyed by an electrically detonated Confederate torpedo. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Although he worked four years as commander of Maryland’s Oyster Police, Davidson continued to seek a more lucrative living by exploiting his wartime work with new naval technology. He was not alone. Several of his former Confederate colleagues, including his torpedo mentor, Matthew Fontaine Maury, were working with foreign governments. Two other officers who entered the U.S. Navy in 1841 and made major contributions to the Confederacy’s embrace of new technology, John Mercer Brooke (a designer of the CSS Virginia, inventor of the Brooke Rifle, and chief of the Confederacy’s naval ordnance bureau) and Robert Dabney Minor (the Virginia’s flag lieutenant, assistant to Maury’s initial torpedo experiments, and head of the naval ordnance works in Richmond) became essentially international defense contractors. Davidson tried to get in on their action, making an ultimately fruitless trip to Germany in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War.[12]

Davidson’s break finally came not with a European government, but in South America. In late 1873, the Argentine Republic hired him to head its hydrographic (naval science) and torpedo bureaus. He hired his wartime assistant, Roy Crowley, and unsuccessfully wooed John Brooke, P. G. T. Beauregard, and others to join him.

While in New York City preparing to depart for Argentina, he also published a short pamphlet. “The First Successful Application of Electrical Torpedoes or Submarine Mines in Time of War, and As a System of Defense” incorporated the testimonials Davidson had solicited after the war. He credited Secretary Mallory with initiating the Confederacy’s torpedo program and with directing “the distinguished Captain M. F. Maury, LL.D., to make experiments with a view to their general employment if practicable.” In Davidson’s telling, Maury “had arrived at no definite conclusion from his experiments” before he left for Europe, and Davidson’s subsequent work “differed in every essential particular from those used by Captain Maury in his experiments.” “The results” of Davidson’s system “were that the first vessels ever injured or destroyed in war, by electrical torpedoes, were by the torpedo department operating under my immediate command, and I may add, the only ones that I am aware of.”[13]

In asserting his own place in history, Davidson diminished that of Matthew Fontaine Maury, who had died a year before. Davidson confided to John Brooke that someone had accused him of doing Maury “injustice” and stealing his thunder, and asked Brooke to help defend his claims. Brooke obliged: “So far as I know, the statements made in the publication referred to are true, and I believe you are entitled to the credit of having made the first successful application of Electrical Torpedoes or submarine mines in war.”[14]

Davidson demonstrated his determination to defend his professional reputation most zealously in an exchange with Jefferson Davis. When the former Confederate president gave all the credit for the Confederacy’s torpedo work to his friend, Brigadier General Gabriel J. Rains (who had also hoped to exploit his wartime torpedo work for career advantage), and did not even mention Davidson or the Submarine Battery Service in his The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), Davidson wrote him an indignant letter. Davis replied in a manner that Davidson regarded as “an aggravated repetition of the injustice you have done me in your book” and pledged to “use whatever means I am possessed to give them all possible publicity.” He later published the exchange in several widely read periodicals and kept up his attacks on Davis for decades.[15]

It is tempting to interpret Davidson’s feud with Davis as that of an egotist determined to defend his place in the history books—as so many former Civil War officers did in the pages of popular magazines after the war. For Hunter Davidson, defending his place in history was more than exercise for his considerable ego. He was defending his credibility as a pioneer in naval technology and thus defending his personal livelihood. Ironically, because Davidson made his livelihood as a naval scientist in Argentina and chose to remain in South America after his retirement, he all but assured his own obscurity. In publishing one of Davidson’s occasional letters in 1906, the editor of Confederate Veteran magazine felt compelled to reintroduce Davidson to his readers and convey that “he still lives, even in far-away Paraguay.”[16]

Historians who focus on the evolution of torpedo technology endorse Davidson’s narrowly defined claim to historical fame—that he was the first to demonstrate the lethal effectiveness of electrical torpedoes—but the sinking of Commodore Jones receives only cursory attention in Civil War naval histories.[17]  Is Hunter Davidson an unjustly forgotten figure in Civil War naval history? Yes, but not because more people today know about the Hunley than about the Squib.  Davidson’s life offers a microcosm of a forgotten cadre of young naval officers whose innovations made it possible for the Confederacy to challenge the numerically superior U.S. Navy.


Dr. John M. Coski retired recently after working 33 years as historian and director of library, research, and publications at The Museum of the Confederacy and its successor, the American Civil War Museum. He is the author of Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron (Savas, 1996) and The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2005), and is now writing a biography of Hunter Davidson. Dr. Coski received the 2019 Emerging Civil War Award for Service in Civil War Public History.


[1] For details of the Squib’s attack, see Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 29 vols. (Washington , DC, 1894-1921), Series 1, vol. 9, pages 592-604. Hereafter cited as ORN. All references are to series 1.

[2]  Ibid., 603.

[3] War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, DC, 1880-1901), Series 1, vol. 51, pt. 2, page 858; ORN 9, 603.

[4] Hunter Davidson, “Mines and Torpedoes During the Rebellion,” in Magazine of History (November 1908), Issue 8, 260.

[5] ORN 10, 9-17.

[6]  Hunter Davidson, “Torpedoes in Our War. . . .” The Sun [New York], March 28, 1897, 3. Milton F. Perry, in Infernal Machines: The Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare (Baton Rouge, LA,1965), 32-34, endorsed Davidson’s belief that a contact torpedo sank the USS Cairo on the Yazoo River, Mississippi, December 12, 1862, rather than an electrically detonated torpedo as had been stated in other accounts.

[7] For an overview of Davidson’s life and career see John M. Coski, “The ‘Notorious’ Lieutenant Davidson,” The Civil War Monitor (Winter 2020), Issue 10, 48-55+.

[8] Coski, “‘Notorious’ Lieutenant Davidson”; For details on Davidson’s role on the Virginia, see John V. Quarstein, The CSS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender (Charleston, SC, 2012).

[9] John W. Grattan, Under the Blue Pennant or Notes of a Naval Officer, edited by Robert J. Schneller, Jr. (New York, 2000), 98.

[10] Mary Davidson to John Brooke, August 1, 1866, courtesy of George M. Brooke; Davidson to Minor, July 25, 1867, Virginia Museum of History and Culture (VMHC).

[11] Mallory to Davidson quoted in Hunter Davidson, “The First Successful Application of Electrical Torpedoes or Submarine Mines in Time of War and as a System of Defense,” (published pamphlet, 1874), 2; Lee to Davidson, June 10, 1867, R. E. Lee Letter book, November 29, 1866-September 12, 1870, VMHC;  Davis to Davidson, July 3, 1867, in Dunbar S. Rowland, ed., Jefferson Davis Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, 10 vols. (Jackson, MS, 1923), vol. 7, 109-110.

[12] Davidson to Brooke, April 25, 1867 and December 22, 1870, courtesy of George M. Brooke, Jr.; George M. Brooke, Jr., John M. Brooke: Naval Scientist and Educator (Charlottesville, 1980).

[13] Davidson, “First Successful Application,” 2.

[14] Davidson to Brooke, August 2, 1874 and Brooke to Davidson, April 21, 1874, courtesy of George M. Brooke.

[15] “Davis and Davidson,” in Southern Historical Society Papers (1896-1897) Issue 24,  284-291; Hunter Davidson, “The Electrical Submarine Mine – 1861-65” Confederate Veteran, vol. 16 (September 1908), 458-459; Herbert M. Schiller, ed., Confederate Torpedoes (Jefferson, N.C., 2011), 3-8; W. Davis Waters and Joseph I. Brown, Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau (El Dorado Hills, CA, 2017).

[16] “Hunter Davidson, C.S.N., in Paraguay,” Confederate V (September 1906), Issue 14, 396.

[17] See Perry, Infernal Machines; Raimondo Luraghi, A History of the Confederate Navy (Annapolis, MD, 1996); and Timothy Wolters, “Electrical Torpedoes in the Confederacy: Reconciling Conflicting Histories,” The Journal of Military History, (July 2008), Issue 72, 3, 774-783; James McPherson, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2012), 198; Spencer C. Tucker, A Short History of the Civil War at Sea (Wilmington, DE, 2002), 105-106.

6 Responses to Blasting His Way into the History Books: Assessing the Role of Cdr. Hunter Davidson

  1. I read your article in the Winter 2020 issue of Civil War Monitor and it made me want more. Definitely looking forward to the Davidson bio, especially regarding his activity in Latin America.

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