Researched by Maurice Rigby
(The original text of this article appeared as 'Charles Ambrose McEvoy, Inventor' in 'Crossfire', the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) no. 55 - December 1997)
In volume XVI (1908) of the Confederate Veteran and in The Times of April 17, 1905, mention is made of the death of one Ambrose McEvoy, a Briton who espoused the cause of the Confederacy.
The Confederate Veteran states that Ambrose McEvoy, once of Virginia, was the celebrated inventor of submarine mines, and who manufactured many explosives for the Confederate Navy. The writer of the notice, a Mr Hayden Church, goes on to remark that Ambrose McEvoy died in Europe in 1905 and that "It would be a tragical thing if America knew how her old veterans are living and dying all over Europe". Mr McEvoy had the wolf more than once approach his door.
The life of this remarkable man is filled with stirring incidents. He was a native of Wexford County, Ireland, and went to Baltimore, MD, with his parents in 1828. He ran away from home at the age of sixteen and embarked for Cuba, but was wrecked on the Virginia coast near Cape Henry. Later he was adopted by a wealthy Norfolk family.
He joined the Militia, and was one of the force who captured John Brown. He told his son in later years that he was permitted to visit the noted abolitionist in his cell. With the outbreak of the war Ambrose entered the service and became a captain in the Confederate army. He numbered Lee, Jackson, and Mosby among his friends, and a Confederate physician named Whistler was also his friend, the relation later leading the inventor to form a friendship with the physician's famous brother, James MacNeill Whistler, (pictured) which lasted for nearly half a century.
Ambrose McEvoy's first invention was a fuse for the use of shells, and this was brought to the notice of General Lee, "Go and see Brook," was the General's instruction: this was Colonel Brook, residing at Virginia Military Institute, at that time in charge of the ordnance department.
Mr Church says: "Brook instantly saw the merit of McEvoy's idea, adopted it forthwith, and shells of the type suggested thereafter were turned out in millions at the Richmond arsenal. It was many months later that McEvoy turned his attention to the problem of submarine mines, which he solved brilliantly." He went to England after the war, married, and settled there.
"As the only man who knew anything about submarine mines," says Mr Church, "he did not lack for attention from the British admiralty, and England is defended today by his mercurial circuit-closer. Another of Mr McEvoy's later inventions was the 'Spar' torpedo, which remained in general use until the advent of the 'Whitehead,' and the famous 'Elswick Sights' were also devised by him.
In his 'Times' obituary notice, we read that "Captain Charles Ambrose McEvoy, the well known inventor and authority upon naval ordnance matters, died at Codicote, Hert(fordhsire), on Wednesday evening, in his 78th year. Captain McEvoy was born in Glasgow of Irish parentage, and although he was taken as a child to America and spent the first 40 years of his life there he always remained a British subject. He went through the Civil War as a partisan of the Confederate cause, and it was as an officer of the Bureau of Ordnance at Richmond that he made his first reputation in connexion with torpedo construction. Indeed, from that time he has continued to hold a high reputation as an authority upon the torpedo and the submarine mine.
Captain McEvoy, who retained to the last all the characteristics of a typical Southerner, had passed through many interesting experiences, and was one of those who were present at the capture of John Brown at Harper's Ferry".
© Maurice Rigby 1997 & 2001
Register of Officers of the C.S.N. page 12 - Charles A McEvoy appointed from Virginia, Acting Master March 10. 1862, Master not in line for promotion of provisional navy June 2, 1864, paroled May 20, 1865, Richmond, Va.
Ink drawing of James McNeill Whistler: courtesy of Art Today.Com