Category Archives: Naval

“The light-infantry drill will be best adapted to this service”: Dahlgren’s instructions for landing parties

Earlier this week, I mentioned the work of Navy landing parties in raids along the Georgia coast 150 years ago.  In the same time line, 150 years ago, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren saw the need to formalize the equipment, organization, and drill of the sailors involved with these landing parties.  On August 8, 1864 he sent around orders addressing the subject:

Boat artillery and infantry, South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

It has frequently happened that the peculiar nature of the duties in this command has required the service of bodies of men to be landed from vessels to act for a short time as infantry, assisted by light fieldpieces.

In order to meet similar exigencies commanders of vessels will take pains to select from their crews such men as may seem to have a turn for this kind of duty and have them drilled with small arms until they have attained the necessary proficiency.

In so doing it is to be borne in mind that the drill and maneuverings are to be few and exceedingly simple.

The men should be thoroughly skilled in the loading and firing of their weapon, and the firing at a mark is to be encouraged.

The light-infantry drill will be best adapted to this service, and to the habits of seamen.

The preferable arm, when it can be had, will be the new navy rifled musket, known as the Plymouth musket, because the first of this kind were made for the U.S. ship Plymouth when under my command, the pattern of which was got up by myself as most suitable for sea service.

It is a short musket, about 34 inches in the barrel, bore 0.69 inch., and rifled.

Its special bayonet is a short, broad, and stout knife, of the well-known Bowie pattern, the principle use of which I designed to be in the hand in close conflict, such as boarding.  In campaigning it would also serve many wants; but it may be fixed and used as a bayonet.

There is also a sword bayonet similar to that of the French, making the total length of the weapon, from butt to point, about equal to that of the army musket with ordinary bayonet.

The musket Dahlgren describes was also known as the Whitney Model 1861, seen here with the sword bayonet:

Click the image above to see a detailed examination of the weapon on the Civil War Relicman’s site. More views may be seen on the National Firearms Museum website.  Notice that Dahlgren preferred this weapon over the Spencer repeater, despite the later’s performance in earlier engagements… and even though Dahlgren had approved of the weapon in tests at the Navy Yard.

Dahlgren went on to praise this weapon as “perfectly balanced” when the bayonet is not fixed.  He then touched upon the ammunition used, suggesting buckshot for use at short range (not buck-and-ball, mind you).  “As a general rule we have too much neglected the use of this formidable ammunition for small arms.”  Lastly on the subject of small arms, he added, “the men should be landed occasionally for practice, especially as skirmishers.”  Again, the intent to match the Army’s light infantry drill where possible.

On the subject of artillery, Dahlgren wrote:

The artillery is to consist of the boat howitzer, light and heavy 12-pounder, rifled and smooth.

These are to be organized in sections of two, with three sections to a battery, consisting of four smooth and two rifled 12-pounders.

This, however, is designed rather as a matter of administrative organization to regulate the proportions of rifled guns and for supplies of ammunition, spare parts, etc.

I desire particularly to disabuse the naval mind of the idea which prevails as to the proper use of boat light artillery.

In designing these pieces, I never intended that they should be assembled in masses, just the contrary, as every effort has been made to simplify the peice itself so that but little practice is required to understand its manual and to use it, so it was intended to avoid the complication of them produced by combination in masses, as practice in the land service.

The boat howitzer and its field carriage is so light that it can be drawn by its crew when no other artillery can be taken, over broken ground, among woods, up steep ascents, seeking cover where a tree or a bush, ditch, or dwelling offers it.  The ammunition is carried in pouches, so that no obstacle exists on this account.

And thus, from unexpected positions, difficult of access and scattered in many directions, the navy howitzers, while dispersed, and therefore less exposed to the enemy’s guns, may concentrate or divide their own fire as may be best.

In other words, the piece is designed to bear the relation to other artillery as the light infantry does to infantry of the line.

Great analogy directly from the man who designed the weapon.

Dahlgren went on to point out the artillery crews would not carry any small arms, but only have Bowie knives for their close defense…

… and when unable to retain possession of the piece, disable it by carrying away the fighting bolt, without which the gun cannot be fired, and which is so nice of adjustment that it can only be supplied from the machine shop, and there is no substitute for it.

There was a higher purpose for Dahlgren’s orders, and he did not shy away from its mention:

The published Instructions for the Naval Academy, and the habit, so far as it has come under my observation, have been to organize and maneuver in masses, as customary in the land service with light and heavy artillery.

I have never had the means before this to give this branch of the service its proper form.  Now I am enabled to make the effort by the receipt of a number of howitzers and Plymouth muskets, with Bowie knives, etc.

But the personnel is wanted, as a preparatory step I desire that commanders will select their men and drill them to their muskets, and to the howitzer if they have them.

Dahlgren was stepping back into his familiar role of weapons development.  In this case, refining the tactics used in the employment of the weapons.  He was indeed trying to prove his assertions about tactics correct.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 622-4.)

150 years ago today… one lucky misfire! CSS Alabama vs. USS Kearsarge

And it is still there:

WNY 10 Apr 10 414

Had that shell, fired from a Blakely rifle on the CSS Alabama, exploded in the USS Kearsarge‘s sternpost, the outcome of the action would have been different.   The gun that fired it….

…was recovered from the wreck in the 1990s.

The US Navy History and Heritage Command has a resource page with more information on the Battle of Cherbourg.

“They believe in their torpedoes”: The Confederate naval threat along the James

An under-appreciated aspect of the 1864 Overland Campaign is the support given by the US Navy.  Rear-Admiral Samuel P. Lee’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in effect secured the water-facing flanks of the army and facilitated rapid movement of men and supplies throughout the campaign.  With secure passage through the Chesapeake Bay and various riverways, General U.S. Grant could shift his base of supply and move troops to keep the pressure on.

On occasion, such as in the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf in late May, the squadron was involved with the action on land.  But for the most part, Lee focused on threats in the water.  And a varied set those were.  On May 6, 1864, the fleet lost the USS Commodore Jones to a Confederate torpedo.

And the following day, while operating in the James River on torpedo-clearing operations, the USS Shawsheen was captured and burned by Confederates.  And aside from the torpedoes and shore batteries, Lee had to consider Confederate ironclads, torpedo boats, and other “novel” threats on the James River.

On this day (June 1) in 1864, Lee too time to detail these threats in a message to the Navy Department.  Attached, Lee offer statements from refugees and deserters.  The first of which was from John Loomis, a “white deserter from the CSS Hampton.”  Loomis related particulars of the ironclads CSS Virginia (the second, and not the more famous ironclad from 1862), CSS Richmond, and CSS Fredericksburg.  Loomis also mentioned several old schooners prepared for use as fire rafts.  He warned, “They intend attacking the Federal fleet as soon as practicable, in the night; first sending down the fire ships, and following with the rebel craft when we are disconcerted by the fire rafts.”

Another report, from a colored refugee from Richmond named Archy Jenkins, offered more details (and not only those concerning the Navy):

I am a free man, stevedore.  I was employed on the Bonita. I left Richmond Monday.  I gave a colored man $10 to show me the batteries, past the pickets. I crawled through the bushes and came down to Hill Carter’s place.

The firing was about 7 miles from Richmond, out toward Boar Swamp; the firing was rapid and heavy. The mate of the Bonita said Lee was 5 miles from Richmond and Grant about 7 miles. Opinion is divided as to Grant’s getting to Richmond. They are putting two barges and a sloop lashed together, filled with shavings and pitch with torpedoes, which they intend to set on fire, and when it reaches the fleet it will blow up and destroy the fleet. There is a vast quantity of powder on int. There are six others, small steamers…. All are fitted with torpedoes on long poles.

Jenkins noted the Confederate ironclads all drew about 14 feet of water.

They were lightened over Warwick Bar. You can carry with good tide 2 feet. You can carry about 15 feet good tide over Trent’s Reach.

There is a freshet now, a little; there is about 6 or 7 inches more than usual high water.

I don’t think they will have any trouble in bringing their ironclads over Trent’s Reach; there is plenty of water close over the left bank. They must come at high water. I am no man for steering a boat, but I know where the bars and deep water [are]. I have been running on the river five or six years, off and on. They all say they know “they can whip you all; they are certain of it.”  They believe in their torpedoes in preference to everything. They all say you haven’t sense to make a good torpedo; they reckon on them more than all else besides. They say that all they are afraid of, that you have a string of torpedoes all across at Cox’s and Trent’s reaches, and that the river is otherwise obstructed…. They say that is all they care about.

Jenkins continued on to conclude with an interesting assessment of the situation in Richmond:

They are very hard up for provisions at Richmond. If you took Petersburg “they could not fight another week.  They must give right up.”

Later that day, Lee sent a telegram to Washington, to arrive in advance of his written report:

The concurrent testimony, which seems reliable, of deserters from the rebel Army and Navy, and contrabands from Richmond, is that enemy meditate an immediate attack upon this fleet with fire rafts, torpedo vessels, gunboats, and ironclads, all of which carry torpedoes, and that they are confident of being able to destroy the vessels here, principally by their torpedoes.

Lee continued on to request Washington forward torpedoes for him to use, both in the channel and on the ironclads.  He further requested the USS Tecumseh, which at the time was ordered to proceed on to support operations in the Gulf of Mexico, be retained until the crisis passed.

These Confederate threats on the James were considerations which weighed upon decisions made by both army and navy leaders through the spring campaign.  If Grant opted to move south of the James, Lee would have to provide a shield against that threat.  And south of the James, just as Jenkins related, lay the opportunity to cut off Richmond from supplies.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 10, pages 111-3.)