The Story Behind “Infernal Machines”


by Lana Krumwiede
InfernalMachineIn the summer of 1861, the Confederate Navy teamed up with Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond to build a pair of submarines. One of these was a small, three-man boat designed by William Cheeney, an expert in underwater explosives. The experimental vessel was demonstrated successfully in mid-to-late 1861 in the James River near Tredegar. No one knows exactly what happened to these early submarines. After the war, they were never found.

During the Civil War, women, slaves, teens and older children were often recruited as spies because no one paid much attention to them.  A female spy, Mrs. E. H. Baker, was sent to Richmond to see what she could discover about the rumors of “infernal machines” being manufactured at Tredegar Iron Works. Mrs. Baker had friends in Richmond, the Atwaters, and arranged for an extended visit with them. Captain Atwater attended an exhibition of an early submarine at Tredegar, accompanied by his wife and Mrs. Baker. After the demonstration, Mrs. Baker made detailed notes and sketches of the submarine and smuggled them out of Richmond. Much of the submarine scene in this story is based her descriptions.

After the war, Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union intelligence network, wrote a book about undercover activities during the Civil War. It was supposed to be a true account, but many people pointed out that some dates and facts in the book do not match up with history. The chapter about the Tredegar submarine does seem to have inconsistencies.

I wondered if Pinkerton’s inconsistencies came from trying to protect his agents. When the book was written in 1883, many of them would have still been living. Perhaps Pinkerton felt he could not be completely accurate without exposing their deceitful pasts. I was particularly curious about Mrs. E. H. Baker, as she does not appear in any other part of Pinkerton’s book aside from the submarine incident, and she seems to have disappeared after the Civil War.

What if there never was a Mrs. E. H. Baker? What if Pinkerton used a false name and changed some of the details of the incident in order to protect someone’s identity? Maybe he was trying to protect a young person. And maybe the spy at Tredegar that day was a girl.