From the Collections of the Old Court House
Grenades and Torpedoes
By Trish Ridgeway
The mission of Old Court House Civil War Museum (Winchester, Virginia) is to present the war from the viewpoint of the common soldier. One of the major themes of the museum's exhibits is the effect that the evolution of weaponry on soldiers. The museum exhibit details the evolution of arms during the Civil War from smoothbore to rifled, from single-shot to repeating, and from muzzle-loading to breech- loading and explains the horrific consequences to troops when technology outpaces tactics. A great deal of experimentation in small arms and in artillery occurred during the war.
Some of the weapons displayed in the museum surprise the average visitor. The
hand grenades and torpedoes are especially interesting.
Grenades had been used since the 17th Century, but even with newer designs, still were not effective in the Civil War. For example, Ketchum's grenade, on the right in the photograph, was from one to five pounds in weight, made of iron, would explode only if it landed directly on the plunger (at the bottom in this photograph). The wooden tail with its heavy paper fins was designed to make the grenade fly through the air correctly, but a perfect hit was difficult to achieve and the grenade had little explosive power.
When William F. Ketchum demonstrated his new invention of a grenade that could be thrown like a dart, observers were very impressed with its explosive power. However, Union troops who used the Ketchum grenade in great numbers in their attacks at Port Hudson found its limitations. Lt. Howard C. Wright, described the scene from the Confederate side of the assault:
"The enemy had come this time prepared with hand grenades to throw into our works from the outside. When these novel missiles commenced falling among the Arkansas troops they did not know what to make of them, and the first few which they caught not having burst, they threw them back upon the enemy in the ditch. This time many of them exploded and their character was at once revealed to our men. Always equal to any emergency, they quickly devised a scheme . . . Spreading blankets behind the parapet, the grenades fell harmlessly into them, whereupon our boys would pick them up and hurling them with much greater force down the moat they would almost invariably explode."
Dickey and George, who quote this account in their work Field Artillery Projectiles of the American Civil War (1980, p. 459), also note that although over 100 Ketchum grenades, both 3 and 5-pounders, were recovered at Port Hudson, not one grenade fragment was found.
Iron balls were also used as grenades and were thrown like a ball after the fuse was lit, a dangerous undertaking. The small Confederate ball on the left is 2½ inches in diameter and carried a very small amount of explosive powder.
A Civil War torpedo was not a projectile fired from a submarine, but an underwater stationery mine. The Civil War was the first conflict in which torpedoes were systematically used. When Union Admiral Farragut instructed officers on his gunboats to "Damn the Torpedoes! Full speed ahead," he was directing his flotilla to run through mines that Confederate forces had placed in Mobile Bay.
The Confederate developed many different types of mines to defend harbors and channels, and 27 federal vessels were sunk by torpedoes. A frame torpedo such as the one in the collection was typically placed on an underwater timber frame in locations where boats or ships would run into the torpedo. The one in the collection, however, was probably used as weight to hold down a floating (pontoon) bridge. The museum also has an 18-inch ball that was used to anchor a wooden keg torpedo.
The Old Court House Civil War Museum has over 3,000 relics on display and is open year round on Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. The museum is located in the historic 1840 courthouse on the Old Town Winchester walking mall. Full directions and information are found on its web page: civilwarmuseum.org.
Article published: "Crossroads to History"