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WARFIGHTING FIRST – The Civil War fighting innovations of John Dahlgren

By Naval History and Heritage Command

When most people think about the Civil War, they think about a few common things: The people involved such as Army General Robert E. Lee and President Abraham Lincoln, where the battles took place and how many died there, as well as the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Few may consider the types of weapons used during the Civil War and the inventors who created them.

Rear Adm. John Adolphus Bernard Dahlgren, the “father of American naval ordnance,” was the savior the United States Navy needed during the Civil War and thereafter.  His intelligence, persistence, and dedication to his duties were so well known that President Abraham Lincoln, a close friend,  frequently sought his counsel and friendship.

Dahlgren began his Navy journey in 1826 when he was trained in advanced mathematics and scientific theory while serving on the U.S. Coast Survey for three years beginning in 1834.

In 1847, Dahlgren was assigned to ordnance duty at the Washington Navy Yard and within a year, was responsible for all ordnance matters at the yard which included developing rockets, inspecting locks, shells, and powder tanks among other things.

Before these weapons could be put into production, they needed to be tested first. Dahlgren accomplished this by using a firing range on the yard’s waterfront.   By measuring the splashes in the water from the ammunition, Dahlgren could figure out the power and range of each type of gun and make adjustments accordingly. 

As with all weapons testing and manufacturing, sometimes people got hurt from either personal negligence or unsafe weapons, and when testing large cannons, the results could be horrific. Dahlgren recognized this and decided that in order to make safer, larger-caliber guns for the Navy, he needed to have stronger and thicker metal around the breeches; giving them a pop bottle shape. These types of guns and cannons became known as “Dahlgren Guns.”

Not everyone was impressed with Dahlgren’s ideas and innovations, so he enlisted the support of politicians and high ranking naval officers so he could continue with his designs and manufacturing. His most well-known supporter and friend, President Lincoln, enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the Navy Yard and seeing firsthand the testing of new weapons and gadgets to help take his mind off of the stressors of his office.

Dahlgren’s ordnance capabilities, innovations, and advancements attracted the attention of ordnance experts from all over the world. Countries such as Great Britain, France, and Russia sent officials to the Washington Navy Yard so they could see and learn from Dahlgren’s designs and concepts.

As the Navy implemented Dahlgren’s ordnance designs and processes, the Navy Yard was rapidly expanding with new buildings to handle designs, testing, and the manufacturing process. Dahlgren also made sure that an adequate work force with skilled and talented labor was at the yard.

It wasn’t long before Dahlgren’s 9-inch and 11-inch guns were mainstays of the fleet and were on almost every Union ship in service during the Civil War, like the USS Monitor and the Kearsarge. Of note is that not one of his 9- or 11-inch guns failed in operations at sea.

Dahlgren became Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard at the beginning of the Civil War and it seemed, just in time.  The Norfolk Navy Yard, at the time the Navy’s largest facility, had been destroyed along with its large reserves of naval ordnance thereby making the Washington Navy Yard the most important asset for munitions and ordnance for the Union Navy. Dahlgren worked around the clock producing 200 shells, 25,000 percussion caps, and 35,000 musket balls, and making sure ships’ guns were ready for distribution.

President Lincoln, so impressed with the victorious USS Monitor at Hampton Roads, was convinced that the Navy should develop a fleet of ironclad vessels that were able to withstand the punishment of heavy shot and shell. Dahlgren was dismayed when Congress did not agree with the President and therefore disapproved the proposal.

Many would be surprised to learn that Dahlgren, a brilliant engineer and presidential advisor, was not entirely happy with testing and producing guns for warships. He wanted to be a leader on the battlefield and have a combat command to do his part for the war effort.  Unfortunately, his skills and talents were needed elsewhere and he was appointed as head of the Bureau of Ordnance which allowed him to continue his tests and experiments at the Navy Yard.  Command at sea would have to wait just a little longer.

After Dahlgren was promoted to Rear Adm., he was finally given a combat assignment which failed to give him the glory he so desperately sought. Unfortunately, being in command of the naval forces at Charleston, SC., failed to have a gratifying impact on him and coupled with the loss of his son, Ulric, who was killed leading a cavalry raid near Richmond, his despair became deeper.

Dahlgren returned to the Washington Navy Yard in 1869 and was commandant there until 1870 when he died of a heart attack. 

Rear Adm. Dahlgren left behind a legacy of engineering marvels that turned the tide in the Civil War and thereafter. His research and design facilities at the Navy Yard were still used as blueprints for later projects after the war ended.