By James W. Towart and Col. J. V. Witt, USA Ret.
Contact James W. Towart

Confederate Mines In the St. Johns River.
The mine, which was then known as a torpedo, that sank the Maple Leaf was placed in the St. Johns River by Captain E. Pliny Bryan, who was on the staff of General Pierre G. T. Beauregard who was the Confederate commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Bryan was assisted by a detachment of five soldiers from the Second Florida Battalion. The following is from the report the captain wrote on April 4, l864:59

I have the honor to report that in compliance with the instructions from Colonel D. B. Harris, Chief Engineer, I placed 12 torpedoes, containing 70 pounds of small grain black powder, in the St. Johns River near Mandarin Point, during Wednesday night, March 30. I found the channel wide, about 25 feet deep, with very muddy bottom.

This was the same night the Maple Leaf left Jacksonville for Palatka.60

The sinking of the Maple Leaf was the first use of torpedoes in Florida and as can be expected by the introduction of a new weapon, it was initially successful. After the Maple Leaf sinking, soldiers were dispatched to the scene to look for the torpedoes, and Captain Dale later testified that he had seen three of them in Jacksonville.61 That suggests that eight of Captain Bryan's devices were still in the river channel. On April 16, the transport steamer General Hunter exploded a mine near the wreck of the Maple Leaf. The report of Commander George B. Balch, the senior naval officer in Jacksonville, states the following:

The Norwich was convoying the (steam transport) Cosmopolitan and the General Hunter, the two leading vessels having safely passed and drawing 3 to 4 feet more water, when the explosion took place, and by which the Hunter was sunk in five minutes, with the loss of the quartermaster.... It is supposed that Norwich and Cosmopolitan passed very near the torpedo ....and that in making a turn in the channel the Hunter was blown off to the leeward the wind, which was fresh ....And she drifted out of the wake of the other two vessels.62

The third casualty of the Confederate mines in the St. Johns River was the armed transport Harriet A. Weed, which was sunk on May 9, 1864. Five civilian employees were killed in the explosion.63 The Harriet Weed was sunk near St. Johns Bluff, about 12 miles east of Jacksonville. The fourth and last Army steamer to be sunk in the St. Johns near Jacksonville was the Alice Price, which went down on July 19, 1864, with no casualties.

The day after the Harriet Weed was sunk, the surveying steamer Vixen was proceeding down the St. Johns River from Jacksonville bound for Port Royal, South Carolina. As the Vixen neared the wreck of the Harriet Weed, members of the crew noticed a series of six small ripples on the surface that indicated the presence of submerged objects. They anchored the Vixen and launched two boats to drag the river. They quickly hooked a mine, which they cut from its moorings and towed to shore. Then they drilled a hole in the mine and poured out the powder.

The crew of the Vixen made a sketch of the torpedo. (Picture) It consisted of a keg two feet long and a foot and a half in diameter. The torpedo had six iron hoops around it and two solid wood cones a foot and a quarter high secured at each end of the keg to provide flotation. The mine was coated with tar. A brass fitting was screwed into the keg, which contained the trigger-plunger and the percussion cap to ignite the 70 pounds of black powder in the keg.64 J.W.T.

59Report of Captain E. Pliny Bryan, assistant adjutant general in the C.S.A. to Major General Patton Anderson, April 4, 1864.ORA, V35, Pt 1, p 381. The soldiers mentioned in this report were Lieutenant J.D. O'Hern, Corporal John Brantley, Private Musco Crenshaw and Private William Taylor, all in Company F; and Private John Frisbee in Company B.
 60Board of Survey, op. cit.
 61Deposition of Captain Henry Dale, June 21, 1869. National Archives, Record Group 123.
 62 Commander George B. Balch to Commodore S.C. Rowan, April 17, 1864. ORN, p314.
 63 Brigadier General Jonathan P. Hatch to Col. E.D. Townsend, May 12, 1864. ORA V35, Pt 1, p392.
 64 Charles 0. Boutelle to Professor A.D. Bache, May 11, 1864. ORN, pp 426,427,428.