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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Makers of Naval Tradition

Carroll Storrs Alden
and Ralph Earle

published by
Ginn & Company, 1942

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 8

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p130  Chapter VII

John Adolphus Dahlgren (1809‑1870)

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John Adolphus Dahlgren

From a photograph taken on the U. S. S. Pawnee, off Charleston

"The gunner, that honest and godly man, learned in arithmetic and astronomy, was master of a terrible craft — his saltpeter gathered, it was said, from within vaults, tombs, and other desolate places; his touchwood made from old toadstools dried over a smoky fire; himself working unscathed only by grace of Santa Barbara, the protectress of all artillerymen."

This, the mystery attached to ordnance in the Middle Ages, persisted in large part well down into the nineteenth century, and because this branch was seemingly occult most officers of the navy left it severely alone. Indeed, for three decades following the War of 1812, no real advance took place either in the United States or in Europe. To rouse our Service from this lethargy required an officer of genius and unusual force. Such a one Dahlgren proved to be.

His ordnance system was founded upon two principles which he formulated: (1) "Speed is an essential requisite for a first-class ship of war, but essential only to go into action, not out of it"; (2) "The greatest strength will be found in the simplicity and concentration of guns of one caliber, if this caliber is the largest which it is practical for ships to carry." These principles resulted eventually in the displacement of wooden vessels by ironclads. In the days when fleets fought according to the tactics of the eighteenth century, with guns that had changed very little almost up to the  p131 time of the Civil War, ships of the line and frigates often pounded away for hours or days, gaining no decision and inflicting very little damage. When Dahlgren produced guns which were much heavier and more accurate, and substituted for solid shot shells which tore out the very vitals of the enemy wooden ship, it was plain that a better defense must be afforded, and armor was a logical development.

Dahlgren, born in Philadelphia, came of good old Norse stock. Both his grandfather and father were graduates of Upsala University, Sweden, and their character and standing were quite equal to their education. His father, adventurous by nature, at the age of twenty got into trouble because he assisted in the distribution of some republican literature — a heinous offense in the eyes of monarchy. In consequence he was obliged to flee, and his property was confiscated by the crown; but political offenses are often such as carry with them little or no blame. It was not long before he had won recognition in Philadelphia (where he made his new home) as a merchant of ability and signal integrity. Soon he was appointed Swedish consul there, a position which he held until his death. Nor was the future admiral less fortunate in his mother, Martha Rowan of Philadelphia. She was descended from one of the earliest settlers of Pennsylvania, and her father had fought in the battles of Germantown and Princeton.

Dahlgren early conceived a longing for the sea. The sight of deeply laden ships to be seen from his father's doorstep, a glimpse of the navy yard, which he visited on a holiday ramble to gaze at the dreaded three-decker Pennsylvania, and the reading of Cooper's sea tales, particularly "The Pilot," decided the lad at the  p132 age of fifteen to apply for a midshipman's warrant — only to be promptly refused. His father had died the year before, leaving the family in straitened circumstances. As he was the eldest child he had to depend on himself, but he showed no faltering in his pursuit of a career. He induced schoolmasters, a judge, a doctor, his representative in Congress, and other friends of standing to write to the Secretary of the Navy, and while this well-organized campaign was in progress he gained a first‑hand knowledge of the sea by shipping before the mast on the brig Mary Becket, bound for Trinidad de Cuba. Before his return the Secretary had signed his warrant as midshipman.

His first cruise, which was on the frigate Macedonian, began the same year (1826). The long voyage, though occurring in a period that presents a blank page in naval history, was not without excitement for the eager boy. He witnessed a fight off the east coast of South America between Brazilian and Argentine vessels, met with slave ships from Africa, and chased a buccaneer.

Duty valuable as preparation for his later work came to Dahlgren in the years 1834‑1837 in the Coast Survey. Before its conclusion he was suffering acutely from eyestrain because of close application; and the trouble was so serious that for five years it interrupted his active naval career, at one time threatening to terminate in blindness. Treatment in Paris under a renowned specialist brought no immediate relief; but courage, building on a strong constitution and aided by thorough rest and by falling in love with a noble woman whom he made his wife, in time repaired all damages.

The duty that followed also should be regarded as important in the period of preparation; he was ordered  p133 to the Cumberland, cruising for three years in the Mediterranean. Four Paixhans (shell guns) were assigned as his division, and it was then that his bent for ordnance first came to notice. There existed a strong prejudice against shells, a type of projectile new to both officers and men, but Dahlgren at once realized their great superiority. To overcome the distrust felt by the crews he laid the guns himself, and his analytical mind recognized the difficulties which must be overcome. After each discharge the crews on the gun deck, being enveloped in smoke, did not know how to give the right elevation to their pieces. Dahlgren at once originated a plan for point-blank fire, laying the dispart by the horizon. The motion of the ship made necessary some such means for correcting the level. The beauty of the scheme was its simplicity, for it was not beyond the comprehension of the ordinary sailor; yet this was the forerunner of the directorscope of World War days. Dahlgren was indefatigable in drilling his division, and results were not lacking. He writes:

The second (my own) did the best firing; their volley was like one crack. I always tell them that I must have them the best in the ship, and one would smile to see how they go ahead when I say, "Come, Second Division, we must not be last."

A few months later an entry in his journal shows that he had made a beginning in what was to prove an imposing array of inventions relating to ordnance:

I am much occupied with having made a model of a spring percussion lock, which is to overcome the insuperable difficulty that has hitherto prevented its use. The exploding powder escaping by the vent has always destroyed the lock hitherto.

 p134  It was in 1847, when Dahlgren was between thirty-seven and thirty-eight years of age, that his distinctive service began. In January he was ordered to the Washington Navy Yard and given the especial assignment of making Hale's rockets. He writes, "At this time there was no ordnance establishment; the fuze stocks and cannon locks and shells were made and fitted in the plumbers' shop." Small presses located in a little frame house furnished the apparatus required for this work. At once Dahlgren became interested in devising improved presses and other machinery. Within a few weeks the scope of his duties was extended. He had not been there three months before he had put before the Bureau of Ordnance a plan for an ordnance workshop at the Navy Yard to which the bureau gave its approval. This was the beginning of the famous gun factory that was to supply the naval ordnance of the Civil War and the World War. A month later one of the bureau told him that there was a prospect of giving some permanency to his present assignment. The new 32‑pounder system was being introduced at this time, and to Dahlgren was set the task of fitting to the guns tangent sights, which had just made their appearance. This was done by actual firing and plotting the fall of shot, using Coast Survey methods.

In October of this year the position of head of the department of Gunnery at the new Naval School (Academy) was offered him; but his enthusiasm for the work lately begun, in which he saw large possibilities, compelled him to decline. Later, at the urging of the Secretary of the Navy, he gave his assistance by going to Annapolis twice a week and instructing midshipmen — this in addition to his regular duty.

 p135  Realizing the need of guns suitable for ships' boats, Dahlgren two years later designed and built the boat howitzers and their carriages. The idea at first encountered great objection from the Service, but these guns were the 12‑pounders and 24‑pounders that were destined to prove so serviceable on the rivers and in cutting out and landing expeditions during the Civil War. They also were used in the tops of Farragut's squadron when running the batteries on the Mississippi.

Next he gave himself to the construction of what was to revolutionize the armament of the ships of war and increase their effectiveness tremendously by introducing all big guns. In 1850, though still only a lieutenant, he submitted to the Chief of Ordnance plans for a 9‑inch shell gun weighing 9000 pounds, made on strictly new lines. In the same month he designed also a 50‑pounder of 8000 pounds. These guns, which were experimental, were made at the West Point iron foundry, near Richmond.​a They were of iron, cast solid, and smoothbore. Their distinctive feature was their huge size and curve of pressure. They were the first to exhibit in their form the fact that greater strength was required at the breech than along the chase and at the muzzle, their unusual shape gaining for them the sobriquet "soda bottles." They embody the first recognition that guns must be designed scientifically so as to stand the varying pressures in the bore.

There had been much professional criticism of the models, many officers taking the view that the guns would present an excessive weight and prove unmanageable; but weight is of no concern if proper means are applied for handling it. Both guns gave satisfactory tests; indeed, it was the larger, the 9‑inch, that Dahlgren much preferred when it came to practical use.

 p136  Nor did he stop here in urging large ordnance. While the government still leaned to the idea of light steamers withdrawn from commerce as a valuable asset in time of war, he advocated screw frigates armed with 9‑inch shell guns throughout on the gun deck and 10‑inch pivot guns on the spar deck, but, as he remarked, "Public opinion is evidently not for shell guns solely, nor for heavy cannon." Many years were to elapse before he was to see ships armed as he advised. Nevertheless he went ahead in his experimenting, and instead of compromising with those who wished little or no change he next constructed an 11‑inch and then a 15‑inch; he made designs even for a 20‑inch — this, however, was never fabricated. It did not in the least trouble him that the old sailing ships of the navy were not planned to carry such guns. As he enthusiastically wrote to Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury in December, 1850:

The only 9‑inch gun in the United States is that which has been cast after my proposition and draught. . . . I never would patch up an old idea to carry out a new principle. Leet us have new ships for heavy ordnance and steam, and the old frigates will make excellent coal ships. A merry Christmas to you and yours, and I hope another year will enable us to say to the new navy — "A merry Christmas."

There was too much inertia in the navy and too great indifference on the part of Congress and the nation to witness more than the beginning of the suggested change in a twelvemonth, but Farragut, Foote, Rowan, and Drayton, master minds of the navy, all encouraged Dahlgren to the utmost.

His life in these years was full indeed, for in addition to an enormous mass of routine work there were constant  p137 interviews with the Department and with committees of Congress. On 15 May, 1854, "the cradle of ordnance," as Dahlgren had termed the old building assigned to ordnance at the yard, was superseded by a structure erected for the purpose and fitted with appropriate machinery. The ordnance plant in 1856 comprised a gun factory, machine shops, carriage and mount shops, besides facilities for the fabrication of all types of accessories and spare parts, and an experimental battery.

In 1855, when the superiority of Dahlgren's guns was beginning to be known not only throughout our own service but also abroad, he was promoted from lieutenant to commander. He was now forty‑six years of age; and a large family then, as now, presented to an officer in the Service problems in addition to those more directly related to his profession.

Dahlgren early had realized the great economy that could be effected by arming a few strong frigates built to carry the heavy guns he had designed. By a convincing analysis he showed that their broadside would each be only one hundred and fifty-four pounds less than that of the largest three-decker afloat, and he urged what has been recognized since: the great increase in offensive power that comes from concentration such as could be afforded only by ordnance of large caliber.

When Congress finally authorized six frigates, he labored with great persistence that at least one might be fully armed according to his plans. On winning the assent of the Secretary and submitting designs for the Niagara, the complete realization of his plans was frustrated by the opposition of Mr. Steers, the constructor; the latter objected to an armament of all  p138 big guns for fear it would injure the vessel's speed. As a result her armament represented a compromise, Dahlgren's plans being accepted for the gun deck, and Steers's plans for the spar deck.

The Merrimac, commissioned in 1856, was the first vessel equipped with 9‑inch Dahlgrens. The gun trials were thoroughly success­ful; the large pieces were not unmanageable and proved to have greater range and accuracy than those previously used. Further, as experimental tests had shown, the curve of pressure greatly increased the life of the guns. Whereas the best of the earlier heavy guns, the "Columbiads," had rarely exceeded 800 rounds, the Dahlgrens lasted seldom less than 1800 rounds and in several instances exceeded 4000. The tests were convincing.

In this same year Dahlgren published a work on "Shells and Shell Guns," which attracted wide attention abroad as well as at home. The London Morning Post wrote:

To no one — not even to Paixhans himself, it may be — is the naval shell system more indebted than to the author whose able and interesting work now lies before us. Paixhans, indeed, had the intelligence to perceive the application of shells fired from long guns, and employed in naval warfare, but Dahlgren was the first to carry it out as an exclusive system of naval armament. . . . This great revolution of naval armament is chiefly attributable to the authority of Commander Dahlgren.

To his great satisfaction he was now informed that he would command the Plymouth, which he might arm as he wished and use to test his ordnance projects. In due time she was fitted out at the Washington Navy Yard with one 11‑inch and four 9‑inch Dahlgrens, besides three howitzers. In addition, Dahlgren added  p139 one hundred rifled muskets, an arm of his own invention, the first rifled shoulder pieces in our country.

When the Plymouth had put to sea, practice with the 9‑inch and 11‑inch guns began and continued day after day. The efforts used to make the gunnery seem like a game and to arouse emulation resembled those of recent days; there was rivalry between the different crews and premiums were given to the three individuals most skillful in the general handling of the guns and to the three best shots.

In a cruise of six months, from June to December, 1857, Dahlgren visited the Azores, Lisbon, the Texel, and Southampton. Encountering heavy weather he found opportunity to demonstrate that the large guns could be fired in spite of unfavorable conditions. Some 121 shells were discharged without great difficulty from the 11‑inch pivot gun.

From May until December, 1858, Dahlgren cruised along the Mexican coast in the interests of American citizens, mainly at Tampico and Vera Cruz. He showed himself a master of international law and found occasion to urge many things upon the Mexican government. Our consul at Tampico wrote: "You have done more for the commerce of this place than all the ships and squadrons belonging to the United States have done since I have had charge of this consulate."

In 1859 Dahlgren resumed work at the Washington Navy Yard on rifled ordnance, the 10½‑pounders being the first guns finished. Abroad the Armstrong rifled gun was now coming into use. Except for an unsympathetic Chief of Ordnance, Dahlgren would have developed and manufactured, before the Civil War, rifled ordnance capable of piercing any armor. When the war came it interrupted all progress in this direction.

 p140  As nearly as the mistakes in her construction permitted, the Niagara was now armed with the battery Dahlgren had desired. She was one of six steam frigates built for the navy, the others being the Merrimac, the Colorado, the Wabash, the Minnesota, and the Roanoke. They were 375 feet long, 53 feet beam, and of 5200 tons' displacement. Their batteries were of 11‑inch Dahlgrens.

For some years recognition had been coming from far and near. Commander A. H. Foote of the navy, writing of the attack on the Barrier Forts, near Canton, China, 1857, says of Dahlgren's howitzers: "These pieces of our squadron have gained everlasting fame. The English and French say they are the best pieces that they have ever seen." The commanding officer of the Merrimac, on her first visit to England, wrote:

Your guns were particularly admired, the naval and military men admitting that they were constructed upon proper principles. Repeated applications were made for their dimensions, which, as a matter of course, we declined to give.

Dahlgren's "Boat Armament" was now adopted in the Prussian service. A most comforting form of recognition at home was that afforded by Congress in 1860, when, though no additional rank was conferred, he was granted the pay of the next higher grade.

A resolve consistently adhered to which exhibited Dahlgren's enthusiasm for his work and also his fine sense of obligation to the nation, was that he never sought any pecuniary advantage through patents and royalties for his inventions in ordnance; and when Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Rodman and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Parrott used his basic idea in their improvements in ordnance he took action to prevent the navy from paying them undeserved royalties.

 p141  Dahlgren's service in the Civil War will be dealt with rather briefly, though not because it was not of the first quality. At the outbreak of hostilities he unexpectedly received command of the Washington Navy Yard for the reason that all senior to him at this station, headed by Franklin Buchanan, had abandoned their duties and joined the Confederacy.​b As commandant of the yard it was his responsibility to patrol the Potomac and guard the capital, a work which often threatened to go quite beyond the means at his disposal.

In July, 1862, he was made Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, a post which had been offered him a year before and which he had then declined, and seven months later he was promoted to the grade of rear admiral. About the same time he received the thanks of Congress for distinguished service in the line of his profession, improvements in ordnance, and exceptionally zealous and efficient work.

The affairs of the navy had now reached the point when the cry of "on to Charleston" was comparable in its public intensity to that of "on to Richmond." Two unsuccessful attempts in force by the blockading squadron under Rear Admiral Du Pont had resulted only in the press's assuming an unreasonable tone. Thus, when Dahlgren took command in July, 1863, hoisting his two‑starred blue flag on the Wabash, he realized that he was confronting a difficult and embarrassing situation. He must quiet, if possible, the public clamor, yet avoid the useless sacrifice of men and ships.

Dahlgren's reputation with officers of the navy was that of a scientist rather than that of a sailor and fighter. They thought a gunnery man placed in high command at sea would not prove an efficient leader;  p142 but Dahlgren soon convinced all those about him that he was as good a fighter as he was a thinker, and he won their esteem and affection by his ability and personal bravery. He never required one to take a risk greater than he himself accepted. A characteristic action that was merely the beginning of his service for the next two years, showing the man of action, occurred on the fourth day after his assuming command, when he led a bombardment of Fort Wagner, during which the monitor Kaatskill, flying his flag, was hit sixty times by heavy shell.

Minor engagements followed at frequent intervals. The blockade was more strictly enforced. Sumter was hammered to a mass of ruins; and twice, at the request of the Department, Dahlgren held a council of the captains of his ironclads to consider the advisability of entering Charleston. Courage was shown as much in resisting public opinion and not undertaking a foolhardy enterprise as it was in some of the great personal risks which he assumed.

In the early winter of 1864‑1865, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sherman, advancing from the west, invested Savannah, and Dahlgren, with his formidable fleet not reduced by useless sacrifices, coöperating with him, compelled the evacuation of both Savannah and Charleston.

There were critics who loudly expressed their disappointment that the fleet had not taken Charleston. The more sane view was expressed by Sherman in a letter to Dahlgren:

I now thank you in person for not having made the hazardous experiment, for when the time did come to act seriously, your fleet was perfect, well manned, and admirably suited to aid me in the execution of the plan which did accomplish the fall of Charleston, and more too.

 p143  Nor should this brief mention of Dahlgren's services in the Civil War be concluded without reference to what Dahlgren guns accomplished in the many other operations: they bombarded the Confederate forts at Hatteras Inlet; they won the victory at Port Royal; two 11‑inch Dahlgrens on the Monitor checked the Merrimac in the beginning of her triumph and sent her back to Norfolk, her career ended; the 11‑inch and 15‑inch Dahlgrens on the monitors at Mobile Bay, with those on the wooden ships, captured the Confederate ram Tennessee and enabled Farragut to take the approaches to Mobile Bay, just as they had won New Orleans for him. Passing over other naval engagements of the war (in practically every one of which the Dahlgren guns were the main dependence in the Union ships), we come to the Kearsarge-Alabama duel. As the account of the battle appeared in London, the author, Frederick Milnes Edge, characterized it as "the first test of the merits of modern naval artillery." After giving the armament of each ship and discussing the firing he concluded: "The struggle was really decided by the two 11‑inch Dahlgren smoothbores of the Kearsarge against the 7‑inch Blakely rifle and the heavy 68‑pound pivot of the Alabama." He further described it as "a contest for superiority between the ordnance of Europe and America," in which the latter showed a marked superiority.

Thus it was after the long, hard test of the Civil War that the Dahlgren cast-iron smoothbore 9‑inch and 11‑inch guns were still the favorite ordnance. The rifled gun was not yet a success, nor had experience with breech-loading rifles been satisfactory. Indeed, some years after the war the British Navy, after making a thorough trial of this type at sea, reverted to muzzle  p144 loaders; not until 1875 did they return to the breech-loading system.

After two years spent as commander of the South Pacific squadron, Dahlgren in 1868 returned to Washington as Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, but he never forgot his first love; and within a year, wishing for the more intimate personal touch with ordnance design and fabrication, he left the bureau for the Washington Navy Yard and Gun Factory, and here, eleven months later, death came to interrupt this tireless worker.

Dahlgren is the father of modern ordnance and gunnery. He found the navy asleep in all but seaman­ship; he aroused it, none too soon, and entirely changed guns and gunnery, as well as the construction of ships. He was a scientist and inventor as well as a seagoing officer of the first quality. He it was who contributed the first big guns and the first real sights, introduced the rifling of cannon and the construction of ironclads, and took the initial step toward the all-big‑gun armored warship; and he it was who organized the great Naval Gun Factory at the Washington Navy Yard that this of first importance even today — a vital element in the navy and just as significant in the recent World War as it was in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.

The old‑time Dahlgrens, which to our grandfathers seemed ponderous and awe‑inspiring, have long since become but idle ornaments in the approaches of navy yards. Indeed, so rapid has been the advance in ordnance that the guns of a full generation later, such as dealt destruction to the cruisers of Spain, have in their turn become obsolete; but this is merely evidence that the Service has caught the spirit and followed in the steps of this progressive officer who strove all his life to perfect the great naval guns and the missiles which they  p145 fired. His career is not a romantic story. He achieved success, not by popular acclaim or dramatic surprises but by the careful thinking and hard, persistent application. In his last hours his mind reverted to the naval profession and he said, "The officer should wear his uniform, as the judge his ermine, without a stain." This observation could be applied to few more fittingly than to Dahlgren himself. Two noble monuments bear his name: Dahlgren Hall, the ordnance and gunnery building at the United States Naval Academy, and Dahlgren, Virginia, our great naval proving-ground on the Potomac.

Thayer's Notes:

a So the printed text in front of me; but unless I'm very much mistaken, the only West Point Foundry was the well-known firm at Cold Spring, N. Y. — yes, near West Point; I find no trace of a foundry by the same name near Richmond. There was an equally famous mid‑19c iron foundry near Richmond, the Tredegar Iron Works. I suspect a slip of the pen, but am still unable to say which foundry is meant here.

[decorative delimiter]

b The phrasing, as regards Buchanan at least, is not accurate. Captain Buchanan submitted a letter of resignation in due form on April 22, 1861, turned over his command to Commander Dahlgren, ordering him to execute the commands received from the Secretary as to equipping several ships for war service; and was then removed from his duties by the Secretary pending acceptance of his resignation. On May 4, not having received notice from the government either that his resignation had been accepted or that it had been rejected, Buchanan applied to revoke his resignation — at which point he was informed that he was stricken from the rolls of the Navy. Buchanan then went home and agonized over what to do, finally offering his services to the Confederacy on September 6, a full four months after his resignation. (Charles Lee Lewis, Admiral Franklin Buchanan, Chapter 12: in particular pp161‑165 and p172.)

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