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Now You Know, October 2023

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

So, Who Was John Dahlgren Anyway?

By Dr. Rob Gates

When I give a museum tour, I always start at the photograph of Admiral John A. Dahlgren. It’s not unusual to get questions like “Was he born around here?” or “When was he stationed here?” The answers to those questions are, respectively, “No” and “Never.” So, who was John Dahlgren, and why is this place named after him?

John Adolphus Bernard Dahlgren was born in Philadelphia in 1809. His parents, Bernhard and Martha Dahlgren, were well educated and on the edge – geographically and financially – of Philadelphia society, and John knew the children of the top families. His parents insisted that he be given a proper education, and he received top grades in mathematics, science, and Latin at a Quaker school.

Dahlgren’s world changed when his father died in 1824 and left the family in dire financial straits. He applied for an appointment as a midshipman in the Navy but was turned down. He worked for a time as a church secretary and decided to reapply. This time, however, he did something different and, following a pattern that he used throughout his life and career, used outside influence; in this case, that of prominent citizens of Philadelphia and family friends. Dahlgren was appointed as a midshipman in February 1826 and in April was ordered to serve on the Macedonian on a cruise to South America. That was followed by a cruise to the Mediterranean on the Ontario. So far, his career was much like that of any midshipman, but things were to take a turn. Dahlgren’s cruise was cut short by illness, and he was sent home on the Constellation. He used his three month’s leave to go to the Norfolk Navy School to study for his promotion examination. He passed and was assigned to a receiving ship in Philadelphia as a Passed Midshipman.

In June 1833, Dahlgren got sick again and took an unplanned year’s leave to recover his health. When he returned to active duty in 1834, he was assigned to the United States Geodetic Survey as an assistant to Superintendent Ferdinand Hassler. This took advantage of his skills in mathematics and science and was a turning point in his career. Hassler believed in continuing the education of his assistants, and Dahlgren received the equivalent of a graduate education in mathematics from him. He excelled in his assignments and, as his responsibilities grew, he took on additional duties as a leader of a survey team. He quickly found that his pay was half that of the civilian members of his team and campaigned for a promotion or pay increase. Both were turned down and, as before, he used influence outside of the Department of the Navy and wrote a letter to his senator, who pressured the Secretary of the Navy. He received promotion to lieutenant.

Unfortunately, the close work Dahlgren was doing damaged his eyes, and in 1837 he was sent to the naval hospital in Philadelphia for treatment. When his eyes did not improve, he requested leave to go to Paris – on full pay – for treatment. He spent six months there but, again, there was little improvement. He was offered a choice – go to sea and possibly lose his sight or on furlough at half pay. He objected to half pay on the basis that he had a service-related injury. After his proposal was rejected, he appealed to his congressman, who had the decision reversed. He was on leave until 1842.

While his eyesight did not improve in Paris, it was another turning point in his career. Dahlgren became acquainted with the work that Henri Joseph Paixhans was doing with the French navy on a type of cannon that could fire an explosive shell. Dahlgren studied Paixhans’s work and wrote and self-published a translation of that work after he returned home. He distributed it to navy officers, which established his reputation as an ordnance expert. When he returned to active duty and was assigned to the Cumberland, Dahlgren was a division officer and responsible for the Cumberland’s four shell guns. While on the Cumberland, he invented a simpler breech lock for the guns and an improved method for sighting guns, which added to his reputation as an ordnance expert. The cruise was cut short by anticipation of war with Mexico, and he returned to Philadelphia in late 1846 and awaited orders. They came in January 1847, when he was sent to the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography at the Washington Navy Yard.

For the next five years, Dahlgren applied the mathematics and science that he learned from Hassler to the development of ordnance. During

that time, he established the Experimental Test Battery at the Navy Yard and used the data that he gathered through testing in a scientific approach to designing naval guns. The result was the famous Dahlgren gun. He also assigned navy officers to the foundries where the guns were made and applied his knowledge to develop a more rigorous approach to the acceptance of the guns by the Navy.

In 1862, Commandant of the Navy Yard Captain Franklin Buchanan, a Maryland native, resigned his commission on the belief that Maryland would secede. When that didn’t happen, he offered to withdraw his resignation. His offer was turned down, and he “went south” and joined the Confederate Navy.

Buchanan’s logical successor was Commander Dahlgren, but commandant was a captain billet, and his promotion was not likely. Promotion to captain usually followed a command tour at sea, and Dahlgren hadn’t been to sea in several years and had never had a command tour. His friend President Abraham Lincoln intervened and convinced Congress to pass a Special Act to promote him over the Navy’s objections.

A similar thing happened seven months later. Dahlgren wanted command at sea, and Lincoln used his influence to have Dahlgren promoted to rear admiral and assigned to command the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Charleston, South Carolina. He took command of the South Pacific Squadron in 1867. He returned to the Washington Navy Yard in 1869 and served there until his death in 1870.

That’s all very interesting, you say, but what does it have to do with the Navy base in Dahlgren?

It all goes back to the Experimental Test Battery. When its location at the Washington Navy Yard became a problem, the Naval Proving Ground was established in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1872 and then moved to Indian Head, Maryland, in 1890. Once again technology overtook the capabilities of the range, and in 1918 an auxiliary test range was created at Dido, Virginia, and named the Lower Station of Indian Head. The Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, suggested to Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy, that the new post office there be called Dahlgren, in honor of the “Father of American Naval Ordnance.” In 1932 most of the testing had moved to Dahlgren, and the Lower Station officially became the Naval Proving Ground. The capabilities and scope of work grew over the next sixty years and, in 1992, the name was changed again to the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division.

So, John Dahlgren wasn’t born here and never served here, but the Division is his legacy.

About the Author

Dr. Robert V. Gates is vice president of the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation. He had a long and varied career at NSWC Dahlgren Division and retired after serving as the technical director of the Indian Head Division, NSWC. His various degrees attest to his commitment to lifelong learning, and he supports his community through offices and membership on various boards.

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