Dahlgren Boat Howitzers, Part 6

So on June 6, the anniversary of the greatest amphibious landing in history, I shall discuss landing operations… well those of the Civil War era!

In earlier posts I discussed the design history, carriages, variants, ammunition, and employment of the boat howitzer family.   Much like the discussion of the Army’s mountain howitzer, the service history of Dahlgren Boat Howitzer begins before the war and extends nearly to the 20th century.  And like the mountain howitzers, the Dahlgrens show up in many interesting stories set in exotic places.

In Boat Armament of the U.S. Navy, published in 1856, then Commander John A. Dahlgren included several service vignettes.   The earliest involved the famous frigate USS Constitution.  On what would be the ship’s last operational cruise in 1853, “Old Ironsides” came to the assistance of American colonists (part a project to resettle former slaves) near present day Harper, Liberia.  Commander Isaac Mayo at first attempted to negotiate a settlement between native tribes and the colonists.  But after failing to make a landing due to heavy surf, and finding the tribal leaders unwilling to talk, Mayo ordered the ship’s boat to fire shells over the coastal village.  The weapon used was a 12-pdr heavy howitzer, mounted on the boat.  After thirty rounds, the village leaders asked for a truce. This operation validated the howitzer’s use to arm boats operating in shallow waters.

The second incident Dahlgren records occurred in April 1854.  In a joint U.S. and British operation against “Chinese Imperialists” in Shanghai, China, a detail from the USS Plymouth manned a 12-pdr boat howitzer.  In the action, the crew fired at close range, and reported using canister to clear the parapets of fortifications.  Dahlgren, of course, provided glowing reports from those involved in the operation, which highlighted the use of the field carriage and operations ashore.

Dahlgren’s vignettes continued with additional accounts of actions in Asian waters.  In 1855, a locally acquired boat armed with a 12-pdr howitzer, and several smaller guns, suppressed a group of pirates near Hong Kong.    However, in a role not anticipated by the weapon’s designer, some of his howitzers were used in a less combative manner in Japan.  Commodore Matthew Perry landed several boat howitzers when going ashore during the “opening of Japan” in 1853.  So impressed were the Japanese with the howitzers, they asked for three as gifts.  Although only one was given, according to one account the Japanese made several copies.   (And I would greatly enjoy seeing a photo of one such copy!)   The boat howitzer system, without firing a shot, served as an impressive “diplomatic” weapon!

These activities brought acceptance within the Navy’s ranks, and proofed the type prior to the Civil War.  From the very start of the war, both sides employed boat howitzers, particularly to arm light craft defending and patrolling coastal waterways.  Even before shots were fired, the Navy laid out plans to defend the Washington Navy Yard employing boat howitzers (Naval OR, Series I, Volume 4, p. 413).  On April 12, 1861 the USS Pawnee arrived off Charleston intending to relieve Fort Sumter.  Commander S.C. Rowan readied boats armed with howitzers, but did not act due to the heavy fire upon the fort (Naval OR, Series I, Volume 4, p. 253-4).   On April 23, the crew of the USS Powhatan landed boat howitzers on Santa Rosa island to ward off local forces aimed to outflank Fort Pickens at the entrance to Pensacola (Naval OR, Series I, Volume 4, p. 207).   To stem the flow of supplies south through the Chesapeake Bay and with threats to the troops then moving to Washington, D.C. the Navy armed several light craft with boat howitzers to patrol those waters in May 1861 (Naval OR, Series I, Volume 4, p. 397 and 443).   All roles for which the boat howitzers were designed.

Boat howitzers appear frequently in both the Naval and Army Official records, and were widely used throughout the war.  Practically every landing operation included such weapons in support, if not playing a prominent role.  When the Army-Navy team put troops ashore at Cape Hatteras, Port Royal, Tybee Island, Morris Island, and countless points along the coast, they were escorted with boat howitzer armed launches.  And often when those forces proceeded off the beach, the crews shifted the howitzers onto field carriages and continued the support.  Particularly in the waterways of the Carolinas, howitzer armed launches were used by patrols and raiding parties.  On many occasions the Navy lent boat howitzers to Army forces.  Such occurred in October 1862 for an Army expedition up the Coosawatchie River near Pocotaligo, South Carolina.  Troops from the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery manned three boat howitzers in that operation (Army OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, p. 150, and Naval OR, Series I, Volume 13, p. 402-3).

Among the dozens of actions and incidents involving the boat howitzer, one in particular stands out as it involves the weapon’s designer.  In late December 1863, Dahlgren, who had been promoted to Admiral and commanded the Southern Blockading Squadron at that time, ordered an expedition to Murrells Inlet (south of Myrtle Beach) in order to destroy a Confederate blockade runner in the process of fitting out.  Earlier in the month, a Federal landing party attempting to do the same was dispersed with many men captured.  So Dahlgren’s orders were laced with a vengeful tone.  Six ships, 100 Marines, and four boat howitzers were detailed to the task.  The force arrived at the inlet on January 1, 1864 and made a landing.   After working one of the boat howitzers within 300 yards of the Confederate schooner, the landing party opened fire.  After five shells, the ship’s cargo of turpentine caught fire and the ship burned (Naval OR, Series I, Volume 15, pp. 155-159).   I would think Admiral Dahlgren felt no small measure of pride considering HIS weapon system had once again performed to expectations.

Beyond Naval use, several Army units, on both Federal and Confederate formations, were armed partly or completely with Dahlgren boat howitzers.  The 71st New York brought two Dahlgrens to First Manassas, only to lose them in the retreat.  Company K, 9th New York used three 12-pdrs and two rifled boat howitzers at Antietam.  Grimes (Portsmouth, Va.) Battery also brought boat howitzers to Antietam, using them to great effect at the Piper Farm.  Reilly’s (Rowan, NC) Battery, issued the two boat howitzers captured from the 71st New York, also may have used the type at Antietam.

I shall, at a later point, review the use of boat howitzers in these four units in particular.  And I’ll also look at each variant of the boat howitzer family in detail.  But for now I’ll close this series of posts on John Dahlgren’s boat howitzers with a simple observation.

Heavy 12-pdr Boat Howitzer - Fairfax CH, Va.

Damn fine gun!


2 thoughts on “Dahlgren Boat Howitzers, Part 6

  1. Hi Craig, We just discovered your posts and have found them wonderfully helpful. At the National Civil War Naval Museum here in Columbus, GA, we’ve been hoping to land a boat howitzer for some time, and we finally landed one yesterday, a rifled howitzer, dated 1863. We also have just found a set of hardware to craft a deck slide, which we will get to right away. We do need information on the sights and firing lock system used on these guns. Can you supply any sources for details on these? Thanks, Bruce Smith, Executive Director

    • Bruce, You raise a couple of good topics. I’ll try to answer your questions briefly, but will likely cover the subjects in detail in later posts:

      Sights – I’ve seen two variations, and suspect there are more, among existing howitzers. The two examples at Fairfax CH offer side-by-side comparison. There was a centerline sight system as seen on the example above. And there is a “off center” sight system (and the “mate” to the howitzer above uses that). I don’t recall seeing a preserved, authenticated boat howitzer sight. Based on the fixtures, I suspect the howitzers used tangent sights.

      Firing Lock – Again, I’ve noted two variations, and again the pair at Fairfax offer a good side by side comparison. One have the lock mounted on the right of the breech. The other to the left. The lock piece, which is still attached to some survivors, conformed to Navy practice of the time – a Hidden’s patent lock attached directly to the lock bracket on the breech.

      Just curious, can you share the details of the boat howitzer now at the museum? Do you have any production details beyond the year? Perhaps manufacturer or registry number?


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