Illustration of Alarm at sea.
The prospect of using the torpedo as an offensive weapon was demonstrated multiple times during the Civil War—notably by the Confederate semi-submersible torpedo boat CSS David, which in October 1863 attacked USS New Ironsides and the submarine CSS H. L. Hunley, which in February 1864 sank the steam sloop USS Housatonic, both off Charleston, South Carolina; and by Lt. William Barker Cushing, USN, who in October 1864 took a spar torpedo boat from North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound up the Roanoake River to the town of Plymouth, where he succeeded in sinking the ram CSS Albemarle.
Post-war, the suicidal nature of this method of delivering the spar torpedo informed the development of the self-propelled torpedo and the dawn of a more advanced delivery platform—the torpedo boat.
Champion of this movement was Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, commander with Generals Grant and Sherman on the Mississippi and later with the Atlantic Blockading Squadron, who ended the war as junior only to his foster brother, Vice Admiral David Farragut. Following a tour as Superintendent of the Naval Academy on its relocation from wartime quarters at Goat Island, Newport, Rhode Island to Annapolis, Porter instigated the establishment of a torpedo station at Goat Island, and sought to establish an advisory board, finally succeeding only in 1881.
In addition to leading US development of torpedoes, it was the Torpedo Station that also identified the need for torpedo boats. Between 1875 and 1895, four such vessels operated primarily from the torpedo station as follows:
- Alarm, a spar torpedo boat built at the New York Navy Yard and tested in Narragansett Bay beginning in 1874.
- Lightning, a steam launch built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol, Rhode Island and attached to the torpedo station as a spar torpedo boat in 1876.
- Stiletto, a yacht built by Herreshoffs, converted to launch the Howell self-propelled torpedo and attached to the torpedo station beginning in 1887.
- Cushing, the Navy’s first purpose-built torpedo boat, built by Herreshoffs and delivered in 1890.
Seven years later, the Navy began taking delivery of follow-on torpedo boats (see table) and, five years after that, larger torpedo boat destroyers.