Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Bomb Brothers

Colonel George Washington Rains
 War makes for strange bedfellows!

During the American Civil War, two brothers, George Washington Rains and Gabriel James Rains, were responsible for creating some of the most unique and dastardly explosives yet to be implemented in modern warfare. Both men were graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. However, they were Southerners by birth, so when the Civil War broke out, they resigned from the U.S. Army, whereupon they were commissioned into the Confederate Army. Dubbed the “Bomb Brothers,” this pair forever changed the way warfare would be handled both on land and at sea.

General Gabriel James Rains

Gabriel Rains was born in 1803, fourteen years before his much younger brother George. Their father was a cabinetmaker in New Bern, North Carolina. The brothers were never close, primarily due to their age difference, but they did share a consuming interest and passion for blowing things up!

Gabriel patented the first landmine, which he called the “sub-terra explosive shell.” In 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign, Confederate forces were attempting to stall the Army of the Potomac (Union Army) which was bearing down on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Gabriel took discarded shell casings from a broken-down munitions wagon and created some of his new fangled landmines which he personally buried in the sandy beaches along the James River where he knew Federal forces would land in an attempt to make their way to Richmond. The electronic explosive devices were set off by pressure when the weight of horses and wagons triggered the unseen explosives. The mines erupted with devastating results, causing entire Union commands to panic and bolt out of the area. Rains decided to plant even more mines in a protective pattern around the capital of Richmond. These were the first landmines used in war.

"Lump of Coal" Bomb
General Gabriel Rains came up with one of the more ingenious devices ever devised in the mind of man when, in 1864, he had a personal meeting with Confederate States of America (CSA) president, Jefferson Davis. Rains handed Davis what appeared to be a lump of coal. Intrigued, Davis scrutinized this black object, concluding that it was “perfect.” This bomb was made of cast iron, but the outside was cleverly crafted to look like any other lump of coal. Being easily transported in a pouch or pocket, this “lump of coal” could be tossed into the coal bin of a Union ship where it would eventually be shoveled into the fires of the ship’s boiler. The ensuing explosion would destroy the boiler, sink the ship, and would most certainly maim and kill the unwary. Union commanders were outraged at this deceptive enemy tactic and called upon Confederate leadership to cease such barbarity. Northern newspapers decried this devilish manner of warfare which was being inflicted on unsuspecting Union forces. The Confederate leadership eventually made certain concessions, authorizing the use of such weapons only in specific instances against enemy forces, but these devices were not to be used in the wanton killing of people in a general sense.

Booby traps soon became part of the Confederate arsenal in the Civil War. Mines were set to explode “in wells, around houses, in bags of flour and carpetbags, and around telegraph poles.”

Later in the war, Gabriel Rains was appointed head of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. Among his creations was a torpedo. These floating devices were made using demijohns which are large glass bottles with short necks and covered in wickerwork. Once the explosive material was placed inside of the bottles and the fuse was set, the bottles would be released into the James River around Richmond to impede the advancing Federal ships. Besides the torpedoes, Rains claims there were as many as 1,300 land mines guarding the various entrances to the Richmond area.

We frequently lament the use of IEDs by al Qaeda and Taliban forces against our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and rightly so. But let’s remember: these devices were first created and implemented by Americans against Americans in the Civil War. And for that, you have the “Bomb Brothers” to thank!

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