The Washington Navy Yard
Admiral Dahlgren and Naval Ordnance


     After the unfortunate accident when experimental cannon exploded aboard Princeton in February 1844, killing President John Tyler's Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy, the Navy was dire to develop a precise program in providing the safety and effectiveness of Naval Ordnance.

     Three years later a young officer reported aboard the Washington Navy Yard to oversee the development of a brand new piece of ordnance, the rocket. Lieutenant John Adolphus Bernard Dahlgren was his name and he was a highly skilled mathematician, who began his Naval Career in 1826.

     In 1861, President Lincoln became so impressed with the ability of this fine naval officer; he was determined to place him in command of Naval District Washington. The commandant's billet, however, was established for the rank of Captain or above, so only with the blessing of Congress, John Dahlgren now a commander was ordered to the Washington Navy Yard as its new commandant on April 22, 1861.

     During his fifteen year tenure in the nation's capitol, Dahlgren, dubbed "the Father of Naval Ordnance" had established an "experimental battery" on the waterfront testing all caliber artillery weapons by firing down the Anacostia River. His design for the newly established "Dahlgren Gun" with a soda pop looking shape to the barrel became the talk of the entire world in regards to shipboard cannon.

     The Washington Navy Yard became a spot where the President of the United States would slip into his carriage and get away from the strain of politics. Abraham Lincoln would visit "the Yard" on a frequent basis and the new commandant established himself a wonderful friendly relationship with his Commander In Chief, talking naval affairs over coffee and cigars.

     Washington had been surrounded on all sides by southern sympathizers and the Yard required fortification from an unexpected attack from all directions. With a handful of marines and the recent manpower increase provided by the 71st New York Infantry, the commandant was able to make a good show of defense. While these service men waited and watched, the arsenal itself remained in operation round the clock producing munitions of war for the Federal Government.

     During the sectional conflict of the Civil War, Dahlgren's cannon found themselves mounted on more Navy ships both north and south than any other. The Monitor being no exception to the rule, used her Dahlgren's against the Merrimack, likewise mounted with Dahlgren cannon before she was recommisioned CSS Virginia.

     In 1862, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles appointed Dahlgren, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance with the rank of Captain, as he remained tending to the needs of the Navy from his office at Naval District Washington. Dahlgren grew increasing weary of his duties at the Yard and continued to petition Washington for a combat command, which was granted in the summer of 1863. At the rank of Rear Admiral, he now commanded the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

     The admiral's career would end once again at the Washington Navy Yard five years after the end of the American Civil War. It was here that he would die in 1870, giving to the United States Navy probably the best gift a sailor ever had; faith in the very guns he was ordered to pull the lanyard on.


Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2003

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at dmoran@us-civilwar.net