July 5, 1864: The “very remarkable” practice of Dahlgren’s 50-pdr rifle

July 5, 1864 brought the fourth straight day that Federals and Confederates sparred on the west end of James Island.  Though not a full scale engagement by Civil War standards, the firing at times involved some of the heaviest weapons of the war.

Anchoring the right of the Confederate lines was Battery Pringle with one 10-inch columbiad, one 8-inch columbiad, two rifled 42-pdrs, two rifled 32-pdrs and two 8-inch shell guns. On the Federal side, the largest guns were afloat.  The monitor USS Lehigh carried a XV-inch smoothbore and an 8-inch Parrott rifle.  Her sister, the USS Montauk, had a XV-inch and am XI-inch guns.   The mortar schooners USS Racer and USS Para brought 13-inch seacoast mortars to the fight.  The USS Commodore McDonough carried less weight, with only a IX-inch gun and several field-piece caliber weapons.  And the gunboat USS Pawnee carried eight IX-inch Dahlgren guns, a 6.4-inch Parrott, and a 50-pdr Dahlgren rifle.

It was this latter weapon which Rear Admiral John Dahlgren would boast of loudest in a report, written a couple weeks later, to his old command, the Bureau of Ordnance, in Washington:

I enclose a report from Captain Balch, commanding the USS Pawnee, of the firing made by the Dahlgren 50-pounder in that vessel.

The distances are correctly known by the chart of the Coast Survey.

The object was the rebel Battery Pringle, on the east side of the Stono, a very formidable work.

I consider the result as very remarkable, that is, striking 298 times out of 347 shots, at a distance of 3,200 or 4,400 yards.

The whole firing, however, was excellent with the various pieces – Parrott 8-inch rifle, Dahglren XI-inch, and 50-pounder, XIII-inch mortars, etc. – in each instance the cloud of earth thrown from the work exhibiting the great accuracy.

The XI-inch was fired with 20-pounds of powder.

The vessels engaged were the Pawnee, Lehigh, Montauk, McDonough, Racer, and Para, commanded by Captains Balch, Semmes, Johnson, Phythian, Phinney, and Furber.

The accuracy of the rebel fire was also considerable.  I have seen three successive shots only miss the turret. In one instance a man lost a leg and another badly wounded; both in the Montauk.

Not often in modern warfare that a weapon’s designer is allowed to wield it in combat.

At the time of the engagement, Dahlgren perhaps had thoughts of the previous summer in mind. He suggested to Major-General John Foster that a battery placed on John’s Island, and covered by the monitors, could work to reduce Battery Pringle.  The army officers soon dismissed that option, noting how extensive the Confederate works were already.  By the time a proper siege were laid, the Confederates could prepare additional defenses in depth.  James Island was not Morris Island, after all.

But to the Confederates James Island was a sensitive point.  It was the route taken by the British in 1780 to capture Charleston.  So the line to the left of Battery Pringle was vital to holding the cradle of secession.  Toward that end, Brigadier-General William Taliaferro requested heavier ordnance to combat the ironclads in the Stono. Specifically, he asked for a Brooke Rifle placed in Battery Pringle so as to cover the Stono River.   To provide such, Major-General Samuel Jones had to shift one of his precious heavy rifles from a position defending the harbor entrance.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 15, pages 557-8.)

One thought on “July 5, 1864: The “very remarkable” practice of Dahlgren’s 50-pdr rifle

  1. Here’s a pic of Dahlgren leaning on that very 50-Pdr on the Pawnee. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/16/DahlgrenPawnee.jpg
    I’d be interested in seeing a picture showing the sights on that gun. Looks like a sight socket on the left breech, so I’m guessing there’s a front sight on the left trunnion or capsquare(?) There’s another pic of D. D. Porter leaning on one with the rear sight visible, on a pintle carriage (looks reminiscent of the boat carriage design for the Dahlgren boat howitzer(??) but would HAVE to be heavier built(!!) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/DavidDPorterUSSMalvern.jpg but cant see the front sight on that one either.

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