One of the great things about history is that new, fascinating chapters—even on familiar topics—lie just beneath the surface. All that’s needed is a good historian to do some digging. For example, Robert Browning, former chief historian of the U.S. Coast Guard, mined Civil War reports and records to discover that a naval ordnance innovator—John Dahlgren—also was an amphibious warfare pioneer.
While assigned to the Washington Navy Yard beginning in 1844, Dahlgren designed a lock for firing guns, an improved primer, gun sights, and boat howitzers. But his greatest ordnance achievement was designing a family of smoothbore, muzzle-loading shell guns that would form the backbone of Union shipboard artillery. Dahlgren guns would pound the CSS Virginia to a draw, sink the Rebel cruiser Alabama, and, with only five shots, wreck the ironclad Atlanta’s casemate. (See “The Soda-Bottle-Shaped Shell Guns,” June 2013.)
At the beginning of the Civil War, Dahlgren was promoted to command of the navy yard, and in 1862, he was appointed the first chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance and promoted to captain. But with the sectional conflict in full swing, the inventor craved glory, which meant obtaining a combat command. After intense lobbying, he replaced popular Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont as commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and was promoted to rear admiral.
In his history of the squadron, Success Is All That Was Expected, Browning quotes Du Pont as writing, “His elevation shows two things clearly—that a naval officer who stays on shore is better off than if he went to sea, and that a man who invents a gun is better than the man who fights it.”
Dahlgren would prove to be an energetic commander. Browning’s article in this issue, “The Early Architect of Amphibious Doctrine,” explains how the admiral put his ingenuity to work in organizing a “Fleet Brigade” for action ashore that consisted of a battalion of seamen armed with Dahlgren-designed Navy rifles, a battalion of naval artillery equipped with his boat howitzers, and a battalion of Marines.
After intensive training, the brigade saw action in South Carolina’s littorals, where it served alongside Army units in an attempt to support Major General William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” While the Union efforts were not entirely successful, Dahlgren’s amphibious innovations later were reflected in U.S. Marine Corps doctrine.
Elsewhere this issue features a pair of award-winning essays. “British Sea Power Wins the First Global War,” by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman, USMCR (Ret.), earned third prize, professional category, in the 2018 CNO Naval History Essay Contest. In it, Hoffman examines British strategy and joint operations during the Seven Years’ War. Retired Navy Commander Mark Metcalf’s “Humiliation Is Prologue” won second prize in the 2018 Naval Institute Naval History Essay Contest. The essay explores how China has crafted its own version of the country’s history to justify its present-day maritime strategy.
Originally a submission in the CNO Naval History Essay Contest, “Naval Warfare and the Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” by Navy Commanders Kenneth and Adriana Klima, tells how an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age—Hedy Lamarr—and avant-guard composer George Antheil patented a revolutionary method of creating a jam-resistant radio signal during World War II. I first learned of this tale last year, when I saw the documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. The Klimas—the first husband-wife team to author a Naval History article—initially met when they were assigned to Destroyer Squadron 31. Years later, they reconnected, started dating, and married. As Kenneth told me, “It’s always interesting how the Navy brings people back into one’s life.”
Richard G. Latture