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13 November: An Admiral and a General and a Civil War

On this day in 1809 and 1814, important leaders in the American Civil War were born in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.  One would be known more for the artillery he made possible, the other for more ignominious things.

On 13 November 1809, John A. Dahlgren was born in Philadelphia to a Swedish merchant and diplomat.  From a very early age he dreamed of a life at sea, and when his father died in 1824 he was free to pursue his goal of joining the US Navy.  In 1826, at age 17 he joined as a midshipman.  At the time this was not unusual, as youngsters had been going to sea at much earlier ages since time immemorial.  He must have shown some knack for mathematics for he was assigned to the coast survey department in 1834.

For centuries ordnance design and its ancillary equipment had been a matter of experimentation, disaster and repeat.  In 1844, an explosion on USS Princeton of the new 12-inch bore banded wrought iron gun dubbed “Peacemaker” said to have been the largest naval gun in the world at the time, only proved that axiom.  The explosion killed six people, including the Secretaries of the Navy and of State.  Congress was aghast, and demanded new quality controls and inspection protocols.  By 1847, Dahlgren was in the Washington Navy Yard organizing the Navy’s first Ordnance Department.  It was there that Dahlgren found his niche, designing a boat howitzer, a percussion lock, and finally the process that manufactured the highly successful smooth bore naval gun that bore his name.  The method of water-cooling the mold while the metal was cast was highly controversial at the time, but it produced weapons of prodigious power: power enough for the Royal Navy to question whether or not they could defeat warships armed with them.  During the Civil War the Dahlgren was the standard broadside gun in the US Navy.  In 1862 he was promoted to rear admiral and sent to command a blockading squadron.  He continued his service in the Navy until his death in 1870.

On 14 November 1814, Joseph Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts to an entirely English-ancestry family.  He graduated from West Point in 1837, branched to the artillery.  He fought Seminoles in Florida, was in staff jobs in Mexico (where he nonetheless won three brevets), but left the Army in 1853 and settled in California.  After the war broke out he finally wrangled a commission a brigadier general of volunteers after the first Bull Run battle, commanding a brigade then a division while training troops around Washington, DC at the Army of the Potomac was building.

In 1862 Hooker was promoted to major general and the command of a corps, then a “grand division” after Antietam, where he was wounded.  After McClellan was sacked and Ambrose Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac, Hooker’s troops bore the brunt of the bloodletting at Fredricksburg and Hooker was vocal about the tragic and pointless sacrifices made there.  When Burnside told President Lincoln that he wanted to fire several of his generals, including Hooker, Lincoln fired Burnside instead and appointed Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac.  While he was an able administrator who restored the confidence of the troops he lost his nerve at Chancellorsville and nearly had his army destroyed.  Lincoln, desperate to find a general who could fight, fired Hooker three days before the army met Robert E Lee at Gettysburg.

But the Union was still short of reliable generals so Hooker was sent with two corps to meet Grant at Chattanooga, where he performed admirably until a personal dispute got him sent out of the theater after the fall of Atlanta.  Rumors of his wild living, heavy drinking and lax discipline leading to the proliferation of the ladies of negotiable virtue that came to be called “hookers” because of him are unfounded: he was not known to drink heavily, and the term “hooker” was common during the Revolution.  He left the Army in 1868 and died in 1879.

Two Civil War notables sharing a birthday.  Not unusual, but worth noting.

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USS Montezuma

Never heard of USS Montezuma?  You and nearly everyone else.  But a painting by an unknown artist triggered a search.

An acquaintance of mine is an art salvager, discovering treasures in the oddest of places and putting them in the hands of dealers and collectors who might appreciate them.  A 30 x 35 inch oil painting, dirty with age, came into his hands entitled “USS Montezuma,” and he asked me for help identifying it.  The American flagged vessel shown is two-masted and clipper-rigged in some sea fight somewhere, at some time, but these sorts of representations are almost always some flight of the artist’s fancy.

What is mysterious is that no commissioned sailing vessel of that name was ever on US Navy roles.  There is little mention of her in standard references, and only on a handful of Web sites. Apparently she was a Chesapeake-built merchantman purchased into US naval service in 1798 exclusively for the Quasi-war with France (1898-1900) and sold out of service before the conflict was over.  She was probably never enrolled in the Navy ship list because she may never have been serviced by the Navy (entered into a shipyard with a contract to overhaul or repair), so nothing was spent on her other than the original price. She just may not have lasted in service long enough to get into the record.

USS Montezuma was called an 18-gun sloop or a 20-gun brig, and is said to have been  armed with 12 pounder guns.  Given the nature of small warships, she may have been both sloop and brig at different times,  She may not have been a very good warship and given her short service life this seems probable.  “Long nines” (12-pounders) would have been a too heavy for a two-masted vessel.  These weighed more than 6,000 pounds each and required a crew of 12.  This over-arming was typical of American ships of the time, and may have adversely affected her handling and effectiveness.  Clipper rigs were said to be bad station-keepers, straining to run with the wind all the time.  Two-masted clippers were somewhat rare, the traditional “clipper ships” having three or more masts and being built from the 1820s to the end of the 19th century.

Since she was not rated a “ship” (three masts or more) at the time, and the Navy did not contract to build her (as they had the other non-ships in the books), and she was probably never repaired under contract, she was only remembered by a handful of people who served in her.  She may have been “present” when other ships in her squadron took prizes, but that only means she was in sight, within ten miles or so, which was all that was needed at the time to collect on prizes.  The painting itself may have been commissioned or made by an owner or crew member who thought more of her service than the US Navy apparently did.  A yard tender/light tug built in the 1930s was dubbed Montezuma; her fate is unknown.

Of all the different kinds of research done on topics like this, the unexpected is often the most entertaining.