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by Carole E. Scott

Perhaps it was because Gabriel was 14 years older than George that, although the they were a lot alike, the "Bomb Brothers" were not close, but during the War Between the States they worked together like a hand and a glove. One made bombs, while his brother provided the powder that filled them.

Born in North Carolina, both graduated from West Point; Gabriel in 1827 and George in 1842. Gabriel stayed in the Army until he resigned to join the Confederate Army. Gabriel, who graduated 13th in his class at West Point, served as an infantry officer in both the Second Seminole War and the Mexican War and was known for his experimenting with explosives. George, who graduated 3rd in his class, served in both the Corps of Engineers and artillery. 

George, who taught chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at West Point, resigned in 1856 to become president of an iron works in New York. Like his brother, he joined the Confederate Army. Gabriel rose to the rank of brigadier general; George rose to the rank of colonel. Both served in the Ordnance Department, but they served in different branches. After a not very successful stint as a brigade commander, Gabriel became the head of the of the Torpedo Bureau. George headed the Niter and Mining Bureau.

Gabriel developed a mine that could be used on both land and water. His mines were made of sheet iron. Each contained a fuse that was protected by a thin brass cap covered with a beeswax solution. Whether used on land or in the water, they were called torpedoes. He first planted mines in the form of Columbiad artillery shells equipped with sensitive fuse primers while still leading a brigade as a method of distancing his men from Union cavalry. Whole Union companies bolted in panic when they began to go off.

Union General W. T. Sherman reported that "the rebels' land torpedoes at Fort McAllister (near Savannah) killed more of our men than the heavy guns of the fort." Like Sherman, many Union officers railed against the use of mines, saying their use was unethical. Although he had benefited from them during a retreat, Confederate General James Longstreet also condemned them. Responding to this criticism, the Confederacy's Secretary of War decreed that they not be used "merely to destroy life without other design than that of depriving the enemy of a few men."

Gabriel's land torpedoes were mainly used to defend fortifications. Marine torpedoes, it was claimed in a postwar U.S. Navy report, contributed far more to the Confederacy's defense than did all the vessels of the Confederate Navy. In 1864, an unsuspecting Union Navy sailor tossed what he thought was a piece of coal into a boiler of the U.S.S. Greyhound. Within moments the ship erupted in flame and sank. What he had tossed into the boiler was a bomb designed by a Secret Service officer, Thomas E. Courtenay. It was a black iron casting that had been smuggled aboard his ship by Confederates.

Although due to corrosion resulting from their long submersion, Gabriel's naval torpedoes only sank one of the U.S Navy ships attacking Mobile, torpedoes detonated from shore sank 7 of 12 Union ships trying to capture a Confederate fort in North Carolina. (At Mobile Union officers heard the almost constant snapping of the primers of contact-type torpedoes that would have exploded if they had not been damaged by corrosion.)

Gabriel had to deal with shortages of many vital materials. He dealt with an inadequate supply of wire for marine torpedoes that needed it for an electrical firing system by sending female "wire-stealing crews" behind Federal lines. In addition to destroying its men and equipment, fear of running into his torpedoes diminished the effectiveness of Federal operations.

When war broke out, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a former U.S. Army Officer and Secretary of War, lamented that there was available in the Confederacy only enough powder for one-month of "light fighting." No powder was produced in the Confederacy when the war began. Ultimately, one half the powder it used was domestically produced.

While Gabriel was designing what may have been the Confederacy's most important defensive weapon,George was solving its gun powder problem. Describing his initial activities, George said that "I almost lived in railroad cars devising plans, examining the country for locations, hunting up materials, engaging workmen, making contracts, and employing more or less every available machine shop and foundry from Virginia to Louisiana."

First he located sources of the potassium nitrate (usually called saltpeter or niter) needed to make gun powder in caves in Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia and put crews to digging it out. He also resorted to "mining" outhouses and chamber pots, establishing niter beds from this waste material. He also smuggled about 2.8 million tons through the Union blockade. In Augusta, Georgia, the site of a pre-war arsenal, George supervised the construction of the Augusta Powder Works. The world's second-largest powder works, he patterned  them after the most up-to-date powder plant in the world, England's Waltham Abbey Works. At the Augusta works he produced powder at well below the cost of imported powder. The plant's copper boilers were made from turpentine and whiskey stills. The plant did not close until the war ended. After the war the U.S. Army used left over powder from this plant for artillery practice that it classified as "very superior--the very best."

After the War George taught and served as dean at the Medical College of Georgia. In 1894, he went into business in New York. Gabriel first settled in Atlanta. Then he moved to Charleston, where he served in the U.S. Army's Quartermaster Department. George died in 1898 at the age of 81. Gabriel died in 1881 at the age of 78.

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National Park Service Photo

Reproductions pictured at left are:

Foreground: 6 pound solid shot

with powder bag attached

Center: antipersonnel shell

Back: cannister round

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