John A. Dahlgren: Lincoln's Seasick Naval Genius

John A.

Dahlgren: Lincoln’s Seasick Naval Genius

John Dahlgren was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s favorite naval officers.

Both he and the president shared much in common, most notably a fondness for gadgetry and a propensity for seasickness.

As a naval officer, John Dahlgren did not excel at sea.

Prone to debilitating bouts of seasickness, he fo und service at sea a miserable experience.

But ashore, his expertise in metallurgy, mathematics, ballistics, and gunnery would make him invaluable to Lincoln and the United States Navy.

Before reporting to the Washington Navy Yard in 1847 as a lieutenant, Dahlgren served in the US Coast Survey,

where he received training in mathematics, precision instruments, and scientific theory.

At the navy yard, Dahlgren soon launched the Navy’s first sustained scientific research and development program,

which developed and tested revolutionary cannon designs,

enhanced quality-control techniques for the manufacture of ship ordnance and naval ammunition, and tested the ballistic characteristics of ship armor.

Dahlgren’s scientific approach to ballistics resulted in the creation of a gunnery range to test-fire cannons, with shot and shells Hying down the Anacostia River.

He also created ballistic test pits for scientifically testing the penetrating capabilities of large- and small-caliber weapons under an array of controlled conditions,

firing the guns into a variety of different materials to gauge and improve their destructive capabilities.

This Mathew Brady image of j ohn Dahlgren on board USS Pawnee, taken on 21 April 1865, is perhaps the most famous image of the Rear Admiral.

Dahlgren is shown leaning against one of his 50-pound rifles. The devastated remains of Fort Sumter appear over his shoulder.

John A. Dahlgren: Lincoln’s Seasick Naval Genius In November 1863 Dahlgren wrote a friend, saying:

“Perhaps you might like to see what’s before my eyes-Sumter crumbling away before our cannon, which sound incessantly. “

By the time this photograph was taken, the fort had largely been reduced to a pile of rubble.

The advent of armored ships in the Civil War raised questions as to the best means of both protection and offensive firepower.

Debates raged over how thick to make iron plating to cover a vessel, whether to employ one thick plate or a combination of thin armor plates,

John A. Dahlgren: Lincoln’s Seasick Naval Genius whether to slope armor or not, how much powder to use to penetrate iron,

whether a round projectile was better than a Bat-point projectile, and whether shells were better than shot.

Opinions and debates raged until practical experimentation and experiences provided definitive answers.

For the Union Navy, these questions were largely put to John Dahlgren ro resolve.

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