Monday, July 26, 2010

Some Artistic Representations of John Ericsson in Washington, DC

John Ericsson’s design for the USS Monitor was crucial to the Union in the early years of the war and proved so important that it became the namesake of that style of ironclad warship. The United States Navy needed their own ironclad to go up against the CSS Virginia, and Swedish-born Ericsson—already a technological inventor and engineer of some renown—saved the day with his idea that seemed "the image of nothing in heaven above, or the earth beneath, or the water under the earth."

Ericsson has a rightful though often forgotten place in American history and one of the best ways to reconnect with slightly obscure figures is to experience artistic representations of their person. A quick search reveals that the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC has at least twelve pieces of Ericsson-related art ranging from a marble sculpture to traditional oil on canvas to albumen silver print. Most of these portraits are viewable online and this portrait of Ericcson as well as this 1862 group portrait entitled Men of Progress are viewable in person in the National Portrait Gallery’s American Origins exhibit.

After seeing Ericsson’s portraits, don’t forget to visit the John Ericsson National Memorial, located in West Potomac Park, south of the Lincoln Memorial. Here a six-foot-five figure of Ericsson sits surrounded by figures representing “adventure,” “labor,” and “vision”—three qualities that Ericsson and the Civil War Navies truly exemplified.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

USS Fort Donelson (ex-Robert E. Lee)

This is an 1864 picture of USS Fort Donelson in Norfolk shortly after being repaired. This sleek looking warship was formerly the Scottish-built blockade runner Robert E. Lee. As a blockade runner, the vessel gave the U.S. Navy fits as she was able to evade blockaders and leave them in her wake. Her luck ran out on November 9, 1863 when the blockaders USS Iron Age and James Adger caught and captured her. 

Robert E. Lee/Fort Donelson is an excellent example of a Civil War blockade runner.  Some of the best designed ships of the war were the blockade runners.  Sleek in design, they had to achieve high speed while being able to carry a large amount of cotton (if going outbound) or ordnance and clothing (if coming inbound).  Scottish and English shipbuilders were more than happy to accommodate Confederate and British outfits with ships that fit these needs.  The result was some of the fastest ships in the world. 

The U.S. Navy did work off the theory that the best way to capture a blockade runner was with another blockade runner, particularly one as well designed as Robert E. Lee. Thus, Robert E. Lee was refitted, reflagged, and recommissioned Fort Donelson (after the 1862 battle on the Cumberland River). She served with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and participated in the second Fort Fisher campaign.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Establishment of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance

John A. Dahlgren, commander of the Washington Navy Yard, certainly knew his way around naval weaponry and was a natural first choice to head the new Bureau of Ordnance. The Bureau was formerly known as the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, but a July 5, 1862 law reassigned the hydrographic duties to the newly established Bureau of Navigation, leaving solely ordnance functions and the necessity of a new name. The responsibilities of the Bureau of Ordnance included the procurement, storage, and issue of ordnance and related equipment along with the production of ordnance and operation of storage facilities. On July 23, Dahlgren was officially appointed Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance. On August 5, he was promoted to captain. Interestingly, his commission was antedated, retroactively making his rank captain when he became Chief less than two weeks prior. At this time, Captain Andrew A. Harwood took over as commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. It can be presumed that since Harwood was the former commander of the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, the July changes to the bureau system displaced him. Therefore, his and Dahlgren’s jobs were essentially switched at that time.

The Washington Navy Yard was an important part of the Bureau of Ordnance. In an 1866 series of pictures taken by Brady & Company there are several shots of the ordnance foundry and ordnance yard as well as several buildings bearing Bureau of Ordnance shields.

This photo looks east-southeast and shows the Washington Navy Yard’s ordnance yard in June of 1866. Old guns can be seen half-buried in the ground for decorative and marking purposes. There are large mortars, round shot, and Dahlgren guns stacked in the yard. The ordnance foundry is the large building to the right.

Henry Hibben, “History of the Washington Navy-yard,” Naval History and Heritage Command, (accessed June 30, 2010).
“Records of the Bureau of Ordnance,” The National Archives, (accessed June 30, 2010).
United States Navy. "Photo # NH 57941 Picture Data." Naval History and Heritage Command. (accessed June 30, 2010).

New Poster: Welcome Sarah Adler

One of the aspirations of the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial Committee is to foster research and writing of the Civil War Navy at the undergraduate level. We are very happy to announce the edition of a new member to the Commmittee, Sarah Adler.
Sarah A. Adler is an undergraduate student at American University in Washington, DC majoring in History and American Studies. She realized her passion for Civil War history when she was thirteen and has been constantly seeking out more information and experiences ever since. Lucky enough to grow up in Hanover, Pennsylvania, a town only minutes from Gettysburg and itself the site of a cavalry battle, Sarah had the opportunity to work with the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College during her high school years. Her time at the Civil War Institute as well as a few of her own ventures introduced her to many historians--some of whom would become invaluable mentors--and approaches to studying the Civil War. When Sarah began attending American University in Fall 2009, she realized the necessity of exploring some areas of specialization within the field. After some exploration, she discovered an interest in Civil War naval history, especially that pertaining to the District of Columbia. Sarah is currently researching the wartime Washington Navy Yard as well as the life of Admiral David Dixon Porter.