Considering Blue Star Memorial Highways

On Memorial Day weekend, my attention is focused toward honoring those who gave their lives in defense of our country.  If current plans hold, I will spend some time at Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, which has some rather strong Memorial Day ties, even a good claim to be the “first” town to hold a Memorial Day.

One of my favorite activities, no matter where I am this time of year, is to visit a war memorial.  I’ll often select a memorial in an often overlooked location (and many sit on courthouse lawn, in plain sight, overlooked by hundreds if not thousands).  During these visits I focus my thoughts on the memorial’s components – artwork, text, composition, and location.  To me, these components tell us much about the people honored by the memorial, but perhaps more so how the people who placed the memorial felt.  I have not selected my memorial this weekend.  Likely it will be one of many in Central Pennsylvania as we are weekending with family.

But I’ve already “driven over” one war memorial – A section of the Blue Star Highway.   Indeed, if one travels any distance at all this weekend, you would be hard pressed NOT to use a part of the memorial highway system.

Blue Star Memorial Highway Sign at New Market, Virginia (Wikipedia Commons)

The Blue Star Memorial Highway dates back to World War II when first began by the predecessor of the National Garden Club.  The intent was to link the club’s goal of beautifying by-ways with that of honoring the servicemen and women.   While similar set-asides and parks have been around practically since the beginning of our nation, the highway project was the first (and only, to my knowledge) to approach such a grand scale.  By adding trees, shrubs, flowers, and other landscaping features to the roadways, the club turned entire strips of land into war memorials.

However, I must clarify one point with regard to the Blue Star signs and the Historical Marker Database.  Some time back we opted, for editorial purposes, to disallow Blue Star signs.  Yes, at first glance those signs, such as the one pictured above, look like “historical markers.”   But we felt the signs themselves lacked the requisite properties to be classified either as markers, or by themselves, as memorials.  Our reasoning was the memorial was the highway itself, not the sign.

The highway itself… and that tells me something about how those who made the initial designation, and to a degree how we Americans to this day, view military service.

The highway is Blue, not Gold, Star, thus is honoring all who served (Gold Star is reserved for those who died in service).  Perhaps, and such is my opinion not that of the founders of the system, the designation indicates any service in the armed forces should be respected and honored.   Service for the country, no matter how routine the assignment, means subordinating one’s needs to those of the country.   While higher honors and memorials often relate to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and thus are Gold Stars, the highway system looked at sacrifice in a broader context.

Consider the use of flora and landscaping.  Yes, the club’s over-arching goal is to add beauty to America, by reducing blight.   But I find it somewhat symbolic of how we Americans perceive military service.   No matter how brutal, we tend to look towards a war’s end state as renewal.  Americans didn’t focus on conquest but rather to set the world right.  While some might well contest that perception, given military actions of the last fifty years, but in 1945 we looked to rebuild a better world.  How better to honor service which brought forth that end state than a garden.

Instead of placing that garden in a town center or cemetery, these memorials stand at intersections, round-abouts, traffic control points, rest stops, or plots beside the highway.  In almost direct contradiction of the Civil War generation, or even that of the World War I generation, those of the World War II era (and we today) sought to bring the memorial out from the town square.  The highway links Americans as a vital part of our infrastructure.  World War II bonded Americans, perhaps as never before or since, and the service of those men and women was the link that held that bond.

But highways are so commonplace that we seldom consider them in our daily lives.  We drive on them daily, but how often do we consider the importance?  We thrive under the peace and stability, but do we often think of the sacrifices made to ensure those?  Perhaps without intending to, those who created the Blue Star Highway provided an analogy for us to consider.

The only issue I’ve ever raised with the Blue Star Highway has been that signage.  While it is nice to have the signs to remind us, and certainly proper to indicate the local organization which supported the local improvements, I just find the text of the signs lacking.   Some of the signs offer a bit more background than others.  But other than mention of the local club or chapter, nothing links the memorial to the locality.   My suggestion, to anyone listening, is to add references to local heroes or locally raised units.   I think it would be nice to know a Medal of Honor awardee lived nearby, or similar bit of local history.  Such would fully tie the memorial to the locality.

Next time you happen to travel on a Blue Star Memorial Highway, take some time to consider the memorial and what it means.  Consider the components of the memorial, and perhaps complement or refute the interpretations I’ve offered here.  But above all, please recall the highway is a memorial to those who served.


HMDB Civil War Updates – Week of May 24

This week’s additions to the Civil War category at the Historical Marker Database cover sites in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.  All told fifty-eight new entries:

– Adding to a state marker (added earlier this month) a memorial near Kennesaw, Georgia stands at the site where Confederate General Leonidas Polk was killed.  “Thus standing a cannon shot from the enemy’s guns crashed through his breast, and opened a wide door through which his spirit took its flight to join his comrades on the other shore.”

– Three new entries from a marker cluster in Rome, Georgia related to the Atlanta Campaign.  Markers note the advance of Davis’ Federal Corps, French’s Confederate Division which resisted the advance, and the Federal occupation of the town on May 18, 1864.

– A plaque in Mattoon, Illinois notes the spot where U.S. Grant first took command of the 21st Illinois, the first command in the war for the General.

– A simple plaque in Oakland, Illinois is the locality’s Civil War memorial.

– Troy Grove, Illinois is the birthplace of James Butler Hickock, Federal scout who was more famous by the name “Wild Bill” and for his exploits in the west after the war.

– The veterans’ memorial in Strasburg, Illinois lists the town’s Civil War veterans.

– A state marker in New Albany, Indiana notes a stop on the Underground Railroad.

– Several markers this week around Richmond, Kentucky, but not all directly related to the August 1862 battle there.  A state marker indicates the site of a Federal field hospital used in the battle.  A tour marker notes the site of a Confederate Cemetery on the battlefield.  A nearby wayside tavern served as a field hospital during the battle, then later in the war by General Grant who was passing through.  A masonic memorial honors both Union and Confederate soldiers.  Cassius Marcellus Clay, US Minister to Russia during the war, is buried in Richmond.

– 20th century Marine General Field Harris, buried near Versailles, Kentucky, came from a family of military leaders, including Confederate General Charles Field.

– A batch of markers from Fayetteville, North Carolina this week.  C.M. Stedman, from Fayetteville, was the last former Confederate officer to serve in the US Congress.  A Civil War trails marker at the old Parade Ground relates the story of the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry who went to war as Company H, 1st North Carolina Infantry.

– Also in Fayetteville, a Civil War trails marker discusses Cross Creek Cemetery where many Confederates were buried.   A Confederate memorial in the cemetery was carved by George Lauder, a stonecutter of note.   Warren Winslow, a congressman in 1861 who negotiated the surrender of the Fayetteville Arsenal in 1861, is buried in the cemetery.

– And as any Airborne(!) trooper knows, Fort Bragg, outside Fayetteville, was named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg.

– A Civil War trails marker in Tarboro, North Carolina discusses the brief occupation of the town by Federals during Potter’s raid of July 1863.  Also in the town common is the Edgecombe County Confederate Memorial.

– Three Civil War related markers from Greensboro, North Carolina this week.  The Piedmont Railroad, a vital supply line to Danville, Virginia, had its southern terminus in the city.  Jefferson Davis met with the Confederate cabinet on April 12-13, 1865 in Greensboro while fleeing south.  The cabinet remained in Greensboro until April 15, meeting in a railroad car.

– The home of Confederate General Matt Ransom, who later served as minister to Mexico after the war, was near Jackson, North Carolina.

Six markers in Pennsylvania and Maryland provide interpretation for the Battle of Monterey Pass.  The battle, fought during the retreat from Gettysburg, was the second largest action in Pennsylvania during the war.

– Seven entries this week round out the set of markers and memorials at Fort Sumter, South Carolina (with map showing marker locations).

– A marker on the east end of Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, South Carolina notes the location Breach Inlet.  The inlet saw fighting in the Revolutionary War and during the Civil War Battery Marshall was part of the Confederate defensive line deterring Federals.

– In North Augusta, South Carolina, in the Wade Hampton Veterans Park, stands a tribute memorial to those who served in the Civil War.

–  The Bethel Community Training Ground in Simpsonville, South Carolina served as a muster point for the “Jeff Davis Guard” which became Company F of the Hampton Legion.

– A state marker in Nashville, Tennessee discusses the black laborers who helped build nearby Fort Negley.

– In Charlotte County Courthouse, Virginia, a Civil War trails marker discusses the passage of Federal raiders on June 25, 1864 (part of the Wilson-Kautz Raid).  One quote from the marker stands out – “People complimented us very highly. Seemed very thankful that we did not rob or burn.”  Nearby stands the county Confederate memorial.

– Also in Charlotte County, the Wilson-Kautz Raid passed through Drakes Branch and Saxe, which are now marked with Civil War trails waysides.

– Continuing with additions to the Wilson-Kautz Raid Civil War trail, a wayside in Halifax, Virginia discusses the raiders activities on June 23, 1864.  A state marker mentions the stay of General George A. Custer in April 1865.  Nearby stand the Halifax County Confederate Memorial and the war memorial, which includes a roster of men of the county who served.

– Markers in Boydton, Virginia continue the Wilson-Kautz tour.  A Civil War trails marker near Boyd Tavern notes the muster of men to serve the Confederacy, and the passage of the Federal raiders.  And again we find the county’s Confederate memorial nearby.

– County line markers for Dinwiddie County and Prince Edward County, Virgina note the birthplaces of Generals Winfield Scott and Joseph E. Johnston.

Dahlgren Boat Howitzers, Part 4

In earlier posts I discussed the design history, carriages, and variants of the boat howitzer family.  Now I turn to discuss the ammunition used by the boat howitzers.  While generally similar to projectiles used in land service, the naval ordnance offered a few notable differences.  In A System of Boat Armament (1852) , John A. Dahlgren recommended shell, shrapnel (case shot), and canister.   Grape shot, while mentioned, was not considered standard.

Particulars for Shell and Shrapnel Case, Dahlgren, 1852

Dimensions for the Navy’s 12-pdr shells matched almost perfectly to Army shells of the same caliber.  The Navy’s 24-pdr shell, with a 5.72 inch diameter, had less windage compared to the Army’s 5.68 inch diameter shell.  But for reasons not noted, the Navy’s projectiles were listed as slightly heavier than the Army’s.  Otherwise the specifications were the same.  (See page 34-35 of the Army Ordnance Manual of 1862 for details.)

Similarly, the Navy’s specifications for shrapnel case appeared similar to the Army’s comparable projectile, called spherical case shot.  As with the shells, the Navy’s 24-pdr retained the slightly larger diameter.  While in 1852, the Army’s specifications closely matched the Navy’s, by 1862 the Army opted for Bormann fuses requiring different diameters for the fuse-hole.  As result, empty Army case shot was slightly heavier.  Both Navy and Army case were filled with a mix of lead balls and sulphur.  The Army specified 82 lead 0.79 caliber musket balls for a 12-pdr case shot, and 175 for a corresponding 24-pdr.  Dahlgren specified 80 lead 0.65 caliber musket balls for his 12-pdr shrapnel and 175 for the 24-pdr.

Dahlgren, a strong proponent for shells, also championed the use of shrapnel.   In addition to a detailed discussion of the history of shrapnel, Dahlgren offered the results of tests performed to determine the dispersion of fragments.  Test indicated the optimum bursting height for 12-pdr case was 15 to 20 feet above and 50 to 75 yards in front of the target.

Navy canister differed in construction with the Army’s.  Navy 12-pdr canister consisted of 39 1-inch diameter cast iron balls stacked inside a tin case.  The 24-pdr used the same number of 1.3-inch balls.   The Army opted for 48 1.17-inch balls for the 12-pdr and the same number of 1.35-inch balls in the 24-pdr howitzer’s canister.  The Navy’s 12-pdr canister weighed 7.75 pounds complete.  The 24-pdr was 14.55 pounds when dressed out.  With more and larger sub-projectiles the Army’s weighed 10.8 pounds and 21.25 pounds respectively.  Of interest, the Army’s 12-pdr Mountain Howitzer fired a 11.2 pound canister with 148 0.69-inch led musket balls.  (See the Navy Ordnance Instructions of 1866 and The Army Ordnance Manual of 1862 for more details)  Tactically, the differences between Navy and Army canister was negligible, but the lesser weight of each round was a mobility factor.

The Navy’s ordnance manuals of the Civil War era did not identify grape-shot for the boat howitzer calibers.  I would assume from the omission that Dahlgren only mentioned grape-shot to cover all options.   For arguments’ sake, the Army’s 1862 Ordnance Manual listed particulars for both 12- and 24-pdr calibers.  Grape-shot always took the form of a stack of nine cast iron balls – three rows of three each.   12-pdrs used 1.14 pound, 2.06-inch diameter cast iron balls.   The 24-pdr grape-shot used 2.4 pound, 2.64-inch diameter.  Overall grape fell into disfavor as canister became practical and popular.  While offering some range advantage over canister, grape was best used against rigging.  And of course with the advent of steam power, rigging was less critical to a ship’s operations.

For the 12-pdr and 20-pdr rifled howitzers, the Navy issued Hotchkiss, Schenkel, and Dahlgren’s own projectiles.  The listed weight of a 12-pdr shell was 11 pounds, while that of a 20-pdr was 18 pounds.  The Navy Ordnance Instructions do not mention bolt or canister projectiles for these cannon.

One discrepancy arises when comparing service charges listed in the Ordnance Instructions against Dahlgren’s notes and physical dimensions of the boat howitzers.  The instructions note two pound charges for the 24-pdr smoothbore and 20-pdr rifle.  The 12-pdr heavy and 12-pdr rifle used one pound service charges.  But, although the 12-pdr medium and the 12-pdr small featured the same chamber dimensions, the Ordnance Instructions list 0.625 pound service charges.  Such loading would either require a special sabot, which is not noted in any instructions, or leave an unacceptable air gap between the charge and projectile.  (UPDATE:  Dahlgren Boat Howitzer service charges)

The Navy transported the boat howitzer projectiles in boxes with either nine projectiles.   The 24-pdr boxes measured roughly 22 x 21 x 14 inches, weighing 270 pounds loaded with shells.  And the 12-pdr, measuring 19 x 18 x 12 inches, weighed 140 pounds.  Often the boxes were issued in sets.  As time progressed, the field carriages were modified with braces, with cleats, to mount these boxes beside the cannon.  This of course added 300 to 500 pounds to the weight in action.

In summary, the Navy used projectiles similar to the Army’s in most regards, but with slight variations in weight and composition.   Perhaps, if I were carrying about canister rounds in a haversack, I would appreciate the two-and-a-half pound difference between 12-pdr rounds!

Dahlgren Boat Howtizers, Part 3

In part 1 of this set, I discussed the background and design evolution of the boat howitzers.  Then in part 2, I focused on the carriage designs.   Now in this part I turn to the variants within Dahlgren’s system of boat howitzers.

When considering operational requirements for the boat howitzer system under development in the late 1840s, Lieutenant (later Admiral) John A. Dahlgren noted, “The weight of pieces intended for boat service should never be so great as to be burdensome, whether carried in the bow or stern….”  Thus the draft and free-board of a ship’s boat governed the weight of the howitzer.  But Dahlgren continued, “The boats belonging to the several rates of ships vary materially in their capacity and structure, and hence arises the necessity for pieces of different weights.” (Dahlgren, A System of Boat Armament, p. 20).   Under Dahlgren’s system, with variants off a standard boat howitzer design, offered bigger guns for bigger ships.

The boat howitzer system, or family as we might call it today, initially included three types (Dahlgren, p. 22):

  • A 24-pdr howitzer of 1310 pounds for use on the launches of 74-gun Ships-of-the-Line, or as needed the launches of the large frigates.
  • A 12-pdr medium howitzer of 760 pounds for use on launches of frigates and smaller boats from the Ships-of-the-Line.
  • A 12-pdr light howitzer of 430 pounds armed the launches of sloops, and any small boats which could not bear the heavier cannon.

All three were bronze weapons following the same form including a hemispherical breech, near perfect cylinder around the seat of the charge, then with the exterior gradually tapering to the muzzle.  As mentioned before a loop on the underside replaced trunnions.  A bracket supported the lock-piece to fire the howitzer.  Internally, the howitzers used the gomer chamber specified in the design.  One difference for production weapons over the original designs, however, was the knob and breeching loop.  Earlier I used this illustration (as it offered eye-catching color) to back up my description of the breech end of the howitzers:

Cut Away of Breech and Chamber

Note the threaded section at the very end, taking the form of an eye loop, was to engage the elevating screw.  A breeching loop, complete with pin and block separates the elevation screw from the breech.   However, during tests Dahlgren determined recoil force was minor and dispensed with the breeching loop.  Production boat howitzers conformed to this (less flashy) illustration:

Cut Away of Production Boat Howitzer

Production of the boat howitzers began in 1849, with the first, a 12-pdr light howitzer, going to the sloop John Adams. Production remained slow, however, as the Washington Navy Yard remained the sole production source during the pre-war years.  Even with expanded facilities, the Navy Yard could not keep up with demand.  So during the war, Cyrus Alger and Ames Manufacturing produced additional boat howitzers to the Dahlgren pattern.

Confusing the nomenclature somewhat, the Navy’s Ordnance manuals referred to the 12-pdr medium as the 12-pdr heavy.  This does not appear to be a model change but rather administrative change.  Cannon historian Warren Ripley reconciled the terminology as the logical association of “heavy” with “light” when annotating the particulars.  I would accept the Ordnance Manual’s nomenclature as definitive, over the pre-war instructions written by Dahlgren, simply because the former outlined the official record keeping standards for inventories.

The Navy added more weapons to the “family” as time passed.  Either as an experimental batch or perhaps just a limited production run, a fourth smoothbore bronze piece joined the family in 1853.  Often called the 12-pdr “small” boat howitzer, it weighed 300 pounds.

At the onset of the Civil War, the Navy introduced a 12-pdr rifled howitzer based upon the 12-pdr heavy pattern but with a 3.4-inch diameter bore and 12-groove rifling (although some early examples had 3-groove).  The rifle weighed 870 pounds, but otherwise worked with the same carriages.

The Navy added another rifle to the system in the middle of the war.  Using a similar gun tube pattern to the 24-pdr howitzer, a 4-inch (or 20-pdr) 3-groove rifle weighed 1,350 pounds.  But the 4-inch rifle re-introduced trunnions in place of the under-loop (and does not appear to have had a field carriage).   Thus the “family” of Dahlgren boat howitzers came to include six types with the particulars as noted in the chart below.

Dahlgren Boat Howitzer "Family"

The Dahlgrens compared well to contemporary Army field howitzers:

Comparison of Navy and Army Howitzers (Updated)

While the Dahlgren boat howitzers dominated the class, they were by no means the only weapons designed for use on small craft during the Civil War.  Norman Wiard provided a batch of steel rifled 3.4-inch boat howitzers for the Army’s North Carolina expedition in 1861.  Tredegar produced boat howitzers in both 12- and 24-pdr patterns.  And Tredegar also produced an iron rifle, often cited as a Confederate Parrott, but with an underloop for mounting on boats similar to Dahlgren’s system.  All certainly worthy of a separate post for later discussion, but one should not confuse these types with the true Dahlgrens.

The Dahlgren boat howitzers, much like the Army’s little mountain howitzer, continued to serve well after the war.  Only near the beginning of the 20th century, with the arrival of light breechloading steel rifles and machine guns, were the Dahlgren boat howitzers phased out of service.   Anywhere U.S. sailors or marines went ashore, a Dahlgren boat howitzer was not far behind. If the brass cannons could speak, they likely would relate salty tales of landings on southern shores or of far away exotic lands.

Over the next posts on this theme, I’ll look at the ammunition used by the boat howitzers and also discuss the employment of the type.


Aside from on site notes and links provided above, sources consulted for this post were:

Hazlett, James C., Edwin Olmstead, and M. Hume Parks. Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War, Revised Edition. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Olmstead, Edwin, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker. The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon. Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997.

Ripley, Warren. Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, 4th Edition. Charleston, S.C.: The Battery Press, 1984.

Tucker, Spencer.  Arming the Fleet:  U.S. Navy Ordnance in the Muzzle-Loading Era.  Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1989.

Dahlgren Boat Howtizers, Part 2

In the last post on the Dahlgren Boat Howitzers, I related the requirements and some of the design details of the type.  In order to meet the tactical and operational demands of the intended mission, Dahlgren opted to design new carriages.  Keep in mind there was not one, but rather two carriages for the new howitzers – one for mounting on boats and one for land use.  If the recollections of Dahlgren’s widow are correct, the officer came up with the fundamental design for a carriage while sleepless one night, and proceeded to his office to layout what became a most successful model (Memoir of John A. Dalhgren, by Madeline Vinton Dahlgren, p. 133).

For use on boats, Dahlgren opted for a sled carriage somewhat similar to the carronades.  The entire “sled” sat upon a bed which pivoted about the front of the boat to allow firing forward and to each side.  A plate below the bed connected with the sled and provided resistance to control recoil.  The illustration below shows two hand screws used to fix and tighten the plate to the sled.

Medium 12-pdr on Boat Carriage

In some regards, the sled-bed and pivot recalled that of the light gunades mounted on merchant ships.   However, Dahlgren’s boat carriage dispensed with breeching ropes, partly due to a rather efficient design but due also in part to the light charges used.   According to Dahlgren’s notes, a 12-pdr with service charge only recoiled 22 to 17-inches (Dahlgren, A system of Boat Armament, p. 30).

Pivot on a Ship's Launch

Dahlgren’s design included fixtures for standard ship’s boats.  Three pivot plates, forming an equilateral triangle, provided anchor points for the front of the bed.   Supporting the carriage and cannon was a set of wood braces added to the boat’s existing gunwales and cross beams, forming a “T” under the bed.   With this arrangement, the crew would fix the bed to a pivot plate with a pin, then slide the bed along the braces for traverse.  Elevation was corrected by the elevating screw running through the knob.  These configurations allowed mounting of the cannon on the bow and/or stern.  But when use ashore was required, a metal frame field carriage was carried on either the bow or stern.

Ship's Boat with Howitzer and Field Carriage

Upon landing, the crew moved the field carriage forward (or aft as the case may be!) and positioned the axle just under the howitzer near the mounting loop.  The crew would then pull the loop-bolt thereby disconnecting the howitzer from the sled, then man-handle the piece onto the field carriage.  Once fixed to the field carriage, to include remounting the elevation screw, the weapon was run over the boat’s gunwales by use of drag-ropes.  Dahlgren stated the entire transition could be accomplished within a two minutes – from the time of fire from the boat to the time of fire from the field carriage (Dahlgren, A System of Boat Armament, p. 85)

12-pdr on Field Carriage

The field carriage, constructed of wrought iron, weighed under 500 pounds.  The illustration above seems to show wooden wheels, but most surviving carriages have iron wheels.  Aside from the two wheels on the axle, a trail wheel supported the weapon during transport.  The trail wheel was turned up, allowing the carriage to rest on a skid, during firing.  This all metal carriage used reinforcing rods from the trail to the axle for added strength.   A dozen men pulled the howitzer using a drag rope, “…a force always disposable from any boat that could carry a gun of this class.” (Dahlgren, A System of Boat Armament, p. 33)

Dahlgren dismissed the use of a dedicated caisson for ammunition.  Instead he opted to provide fittings to carry some rounds on the carriage and relying on the gun’s crew to carry additional rounds.  In short, the reasoning was the landing crew was not a force intended to spend much time ashore without extended support arrangements anyway.  If more ammunition was required, then more men would be allocated.  And a dedicated caisson might consume space needed for more valuable resources.  Navy ordnance instructions, as late as 1866, allocated two transporting boxes fixed to the axles with no mention of caissons (Ordnance Instructions for the United States Navy, p. 23).  However, photographic evidence hints that the Navy used at least some caissons.

Dahlgren’s two carriages offered flexibility to the weapon system.  Compact, light, and simple, both the boat and field carriages met the needs of boat howitzer’s varied missions.  I would argue that the carriage system was the critical component in the system.

Next I will look at the variants of howitzers within the “family,” the ammunition used, and employment practices.  And as time permits, perhaps discuss the wartime uses of these interesting pieces.


Aside from on site notes and links provided above, sources consulted for this post were:

Hazlett, James C., Edwin Olmstead, and M. Hume Parks. Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War, Revised Edition. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Olmstead, Edwin, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker. The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon. Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997.

Ripley, Warren. Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, 4th Edition. Charleston, S.C.: The Battery Press, 1984.

Tucker, Spencer.  Arming the Fleet:  U.S. Navy Ordnance in the Muzzle-Loading Era.  Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1989.

HMDB Civil War Updates – Week of May 17

This week HMDB contributors added forty-three new Civil War related markers.  These entries cover Civil War related sites in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.  Here’s the review in detail:

– The town of Gurley, Alabama, is named for the father of Confederate Captain Frank B. Gurley, 4th Alabama Cavalry.

– From the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama we have two more markers noting damage left behind by Federals who burned the campus in April 1865.  The remains of Franklin Hall were buried to form a mound, which remains today.  Stones in Rotunda Plaza mark the location of the original library rotunda foundation stones.

– A marker in Pine Bluff, Arkansas notes the Federal defense of the town in October 1863 when the garrison was challenged by Confederates under General John S. Marmaduke.

– In Wilmington, Delaware, a memorial to African-American Medal of Honor recipients includes a plaque listing all those from the Civil War.  The memorial further lists Medal of Honor recipients from other wars.

– In Cassville, Georgia a state marker stands over the grave of Confederate General William Wofford, brigade commander in the Army of Northern Virginia.

– A marker in Rome, Georgia notes the warning passed by John H. Wisdom, “Georgia’s Paul Revere”, who rode to warn of Federal Colonel A.B. Streight’s raid in May 1862.

– Three markers from Cobb County, Georgia this week.  One discusses the route of Polk’s Corps on the march to the Dallas Line in May 1864.   The Peters-Davenport House in Acworth served as General O.O. Howard’s headquarters on June 6-10, 1864.  Later in June, Federal troops launched some of the first assaults against the Kennesaw Line from near the Stilesboro-Sandtown crossroads.

– A “Looking for Lincoln” marker in Moweaqua, Illinois discusses Lincoln’s security guards provided by the state of Illinois, along with a couple of vignettes worth a quick read.

– A marker in Boston, Kentucky notes the passing of Confederate General John H. Morgan on his second raid into Kentucky.  His men burned the railroad trestle there, disrupting Federal supply lines.

– The Confederate Women’s Home in Fayetteville, North Carolina operated from 1915 to 1981.  The home supported widows and daughters of Confederate veterans.

– More additions from the Confederate Cemetery and Park in Beech Grove, Tennessee.  A memorial recalls the 20th Tennessee Infantry.  General A.P. Stewart’s Division defended nearby Hoover’s Gap on June 24-26, 1863.  And another memorial relates the text of General N.B. Forrest’s farewell order to his command at the end of the war.

– In San Antonio, Texas, a marker reminds us the term “Maverick” derived from Samuel Augustus Maverick, early immigrant to Texas, Texas Independence veteran,  two-time mayor of the town, and a rancher of note.  Maverick was involved in the surrender of U.S. garrisons at the beginning of the Civil War.

– When Lansing A. Wilcox died in September 1951, he was the last surviving Wisconsin veteran of the Civil War.

– The bulk of the additions this week come from Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina.  After stopping there on my vacation, I took up the task of documenting the markers at this site.  It will close a notable gap in our HMDB coverage of Civil War sites!  Should have them completed later this week.

Fort Sumter Exterior

Dahlgren Boat Howitzers – Part 1

In the decade prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Navy introduced a standard set of boat howitzers to perform light roles, particularly with landing parties.   The practice of arming light boats dated to the earliest guns taken to sea.  In the colonial era, typically ships’ boats carried small howitzers, swivel-guns, and blunderbusses.   In the War of 1812, the American Navy used howitzers, either borrowed from the Army or made to Army specifications, along with light carronades and gunades.  Generally, ships boats used what ever light weapons were on hand.

One should note that these “light weapons” were somewhat multi-purposed.  Not only would the ship’s boat guns support landing parties, but often the same or similar weapons appeared on the fighting tops for use in close actions.  In the first half of the 19th century, as weapon ranges increased, the need for the later role decreased.  But the need persisted for artillery to support landing parties, inshore patrols, or other operations involving the boats.

Actions in the Mexican-American War demonstrated the difficulties of non-standard weapons.  During that war, the U.S. Navy used an assortment ranging from modern Army field pieces to antique light weapons found in the shipyards.   Perhaps the best of the lot were the Army’s mountain howitzers, offering light weight and a useful projectile.  But without proper naval carriages, the sailors found Army weapons hard to fire from the boats and cumbersome in landing operations.  (see A System of Boat Armament for the U.S. Navy, by John A. Dahlgren, pp. 5-11, for a contemporary view of these operations with respect to the guns.)

The carronade was most often mentioned naval weapon in this odd assortment used in the Mexican-American War.  Recalling from my article on the weapon class earlier this year, those weapons varied much within their class and calibers.  Sailors complained the old iron carronades were  too heavy for handling in landing operations.  And as with the Army guns, carriages were poorly designed for use in the boats or ashore.

The Chief of Naval Ordnance at the time, Commodore Lewis Warrington, sensed the need for a standardized system of boat artillery.  A veteran of the Quasi-War with France, War of 1812, and numerous operations to suppress pirates, the Commodore likely had some specific opinions about the use of boat artillery.  Warrington in 1848 tapped then Lieutenant John A. Dahlgren, a gifted ordnance engineer who was at the time an inspecting officer at the Washington Navy Yard.   According to Dahlgren, Warrington took great interest in the experiments, offering opinions and advice (System of Boat Armament, Page 11, also ).

Few detailed notes survive regarding Dahlgren’s experiments.  However physical evidence suggests he started with the Army’s mountain howitzers as a baseline for the navy howitzer.  Two mountain howitzers with Navy markings are listed among the trophies at the Washington Navy Yard (but are not on display at this time).  Evidently, Dahlgren also tested older carronades, as he later adopted the under-loop mounting system from those weapons, vice the trunnions of the Army howitzers.  However, the first few “Dahlgren” boat howitzers featured both trunnions and under-loops, indicating, at least to me, tests were conducted to explore mounting options.

The end result was a very clean howitzer tube, dispensing with all rings or adornments.  The breech was hemispherical in profile.  On the breech, the knob was pierced to allow elevation screws.  Small extensions off the top of the breech supported a hammer lock, designed to use the new percussion ignition system then entering naval use.

24-Pdr Dahlgren Boat Howitzer Design

Dahlgren opted for a “gomer” chamber instead of the cylindrical chamber used in the Army’s howitzers. While the Army’s howitzers had a sub-caliber “cup” with near right angle edges behind the seat of the projectile, the gomer chamber narrowed gradually, forming a “cone.”

Cut Away of Breech and Chamber

Dahlgren’s experiments showed that the standard cylindrical chamber offered no ballistic advantage.  The gomer chamber offered several advantages, not the least of which was ease to swab after firing.

Initially, Dahlgren considered new calibers for these weapons, opting for 4.5-inch and 5.5-inch bores.  Perhaps for the sake of compatibility, as it is not recorded in contemporary documents, production weapons had 12-pdr and 24-pdr bores.

Regardless of the tube design, the weapon required a flexible, handy carriage which could serve both on the open boats and on land as operational needs required.  And that I’ll explore in the next installment on boat howitzers.


Aside from on site notes and links provided above, sources consulted for this post were:

Hazlett, James C., Edwin Olmstead, and M. Hume Parks. Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War, Revised Edition. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Olmstead, Edwin, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker. The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon. Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997.

Ripley, Warren. Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, 4th Edition. Charleston, S.C.: The Battery Press, 1984.

Tucker, Spencer.  Arming the Fleet:  U.S. Navy Ordnance in the Muzzle-Loading Era.  Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1989.