April 8, 2021

The Herreshoff Brothers and their Torpedo Boats, Part II: Civil War & its Aftermath

A series of papers on bringing innovation to the "New Navy"

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by John Palmieri


Our story begins with the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 and ends in 1868-70 with John Brown Herreshoff’s delivery of his first steam-powered vessels. We follow the careers of “The Players” introduced in Part 1, trace the development of steam engineering bureaucracy and technology within the Union Navy, the initiation of torpedo warfare, and witness the cessation of all naval development at war’s end. These are important historical markers for setting the stage for the introduction of Herreshoff innovation into a U.S. Navy at the depth of its “Doldrums.”

It Begins: A Frantic Few Months

Lincoln was elected President on November 6, 1860. South Carolina promptly seceded from the Union on December 20th, followed by more states in January. US naval officers from the South began to resign (eventually one-third of the officer corps resigned or were removed) and the Navy began to lose southern facilities. Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. He selected Gideon Welles (1802-1878) as Secretary of the Navy, a position Welles held until 1869. A strong administrator, Connecticut Republican and newspaper editor, Welles had served briefly as the Chief of the Navy Bureau of Provisions and Clothing during the Mexican War. There were only three steamers in the home squadron available for immediate action against the South; additional ships located in Southern ports were at risk. There was little chance of reinforcing Southern bases, recovering ships or closing Southern ports along a coastline stretching 3549 miles with 189 openings, 144 of which were open to vessels drawing at least six feet.[1]

On March 22nd Lincoln asked Welles for the “best man for the service” to fill the vacant position of Engineer-in-Chief of steam engineering. Welles had the option of recommending a civilian or a navy engineer. Without hesitation, on the next day, he recommended 38-year-old Benjamin Isherwood. Welles had the strong support of John Lenthall (1807-1882), the well-respected Chief Constructor of the Navy since 1849 and civilian head of the BuCE&R since 1853. Lenthall became Isherwood’s superior and one of his very few friends as they served together during the war.[2]

[1] Charles B. Boynton, D.D., Chaplain of the US House of Representatives & Assistant Professor US Naval Academy, The History of the Navy During the Rebellion Vol. 1 & 2 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1867). Vol. 1 Pgs. 22-24. Admiral David D. Porter. The Naval History of the Civil War. (New York & San Francisco: The Sherman Publishing Co. & J. Dewing & Co., 1886). Pg. 18.

[2] Boynton. The History of the Navy During the Rebellion Vol.1. Pgs. 4, 21

[1] Charles B. Boynton, D.D., Chaplain of the US House of Representatives & Assistant Professor US Naval Academy, The History of the Navy During the Rebellion Vol. 1 & 2 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1867). Vol. 1 Pgs. 22-24. Admiral David D. Porter. The Naval History of the Civil War. (New York & San Francisco: The Sherman Publishing Co. & J. Dewing & Co., 1886). Pg. 18.

Porter and Isherwood were both involved in attempts to rescue Union assets. Porter, working with the Army - and without the knowledge of the Secretary of the Navy - successfully reinforced Fort Pickens in Pensacola, and it remained in Union hands throughout the war. This was the first of his actions that ignored the Secretary of the Navy; there would be more. On April 12th, the day Fort Sumter was fired upon, Isherwood set off for Norfolk Navy Shipyard to recover the large steam sloop MERRIMACK. In spite of his best efforts, the attempt failed when Southern sympathizers blocked the channel. (The MERRIMACK was converted later by the South to an ironclad.)[3]

On April 19 Lincoln ordered a blockade of Southern ports. In May, US Army General-in-Chief Winfield Scott proposed the Anaconda Plan to strangle the Confederacy by blockading its ports and gaining control of the Mississippi River. It was a strategy, but with no detail plans or resources for implementation. It was the latter half of 1863 before it became a reality with an adequately trained blockade force of steam-powered warships.[4] Before it was over, the Civil War evolved into the first modern war at sea where the screw propellers (rather than paddlewheels), revolving turrets, mines, torpedoes and torpedo boats, ironclads and submarines were developed and employed.[5]

On Sunday April 21 the Navy was authorized to immediately purchase as many steamships as possible. Welles summoned the seven Navy Bureau Chiefs from church and gave them their orders.[6] Through an agent the Navy quickly purchased 89 vessels for blockade service. An Executive Order of May 3, 1861 authorized the Navy to recruit 18,000 men. Within the next two months the Navy, drawing mostly from the merchant marine, reached 13,000 men and 2000 officers.[7] (Figure 1)

[3] Edward William Sloan, III. Benjamin Franklin Isherwood Naval Engineer: The Years as Engineer in Chief 1861- 1869. (Annapolis MD: USNI, 1965). Pgs. 22-24.

[4] James M. McPherson. War on the Waters, The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861- 1865. (Chapel Hill: Univ. North Carolina Press, 2012) Pgs. 17-18, 26.

[5] Charles B. Boynton, The History of the Navy During the Rebellion. Vol. 1, Pgs. 2, 10-15.

[7] McPherson, War on the Waters. Pgs. 35-41.

Figure 1- Navy Recruiting Poster highlighting prize awards from the sale of captured or destroyed blockade runners & Confederate naval vessels as an attractive alternative to the military draft. Naval Records Collection U.S. National Archives; Catalog 45-X-9.

Figure 1- Navy Recruiting Poster highlighting prize awards from the sale of captured or destroyed blockade runners & Confederate naval vessels as an attractive alternative to the military draft. Naval Records Collection U.S. National Archives; Catalog 45-X-9.

Building the Union Navy

The Navy had three tasks:[8]

[8] Secretary of the Navy Annual Report, Dec. 2, 1861. Quoted in Boynton, The History of the Navy During the Rebellion Vol. 1. Pg. 24.

1.    Close all Southern ports with an internationally recognized blockade.

2.    Organize combined naval and army expeditions against points of the Southern coast and the Mississippi and its tributaries.

3.    Pursue Confederate commerce raiders that successfully put to sea.

The most difficult challenge was the blockade. Building the ships with new steam machinery, manning them with trained crews, maintaining them continuously on station, and resupplying from distant bases on a round-the-clock basis were all firsts in naval history.[9]

A steam shipbuilding program initiated in 1861-2 built ships in order of priority (1-4), followed later with the super cruisers (5).[10]

[9] Boynton, The History of the Navy During the Rebellion Vol 2. Pg. 77

[10] Sloan. Benjamin Franklin Isherwood. Pgs. 32-5

1.    Small wooden “90-day gunboats” quickly built, for close in-shore work and amphibious landings; 23 of about 690 tons, 9½ knots were built in the first year; supplemented later with small screw sloops of 12½ knots.

2.    Shallow draft, 1100-ton side-wheel double-enders for river operations. Capable of 11 knots with forced draft mechanical blowers (a new feature). Followed by larger vessels with iron hulls attaining 15 knots.

3.    Fast screw sloops to intercept blockade-runners; these were 1560-2200 tons, capable of 12-13 knots in the open sea (not just harbor trials).

4.    Large swift cruisers (4000 tons, 13 knots; 3000 tons, 15 knots) to man an outer line 100 miles off the coast to cut-off blockade-runners and challenge commerce destroyers.

5.    Super cruisers, whose threat as commerce raiders were meant to deter French or British intervention. Wooden hulled, unarmored and capable of attaining high speeds under steam with the ability to cruise for long periods under sail. The lead ship (not delivered until 1868) WAMPANOAG, 355 ft., 4215 tons, and equipped with superheat boilers, achieved 16.6 knots on trials.

Also, in July 1861 Welles was authorized to build ironclad ships under the direction of an Ironclad Board. This led to Ericsson’s MONITOR and the US ironclads that were superior to any in the world.[11]

Secretary Welles in his Annual Report of 1865 summarized the Navy’s shipbuilding objectives in the face of practical limitations as follows: All vessels constructed during the war had “only moderate steam power but nearly full sailing qualities.” If the Navy had attempted to produce vessels with machinery capable of 15 knots, as urged by some, it would not have been possible to produce a fleet in a timely manner. Instead, “the department directed its energies to accomplish what was practicable.”[12]

By early 1865 the Union Navy reached its peak strength of 51,500 men with an additional 16,880 mechanics and laborers in the naval shipyards. Then the world’s largest fleet, it consisted of 671 ships, 549 of them steam including 71 ironclads. During the war years 418 ships were purchased and 208 constructed. The naval buildup and operations were costly - $671 million spent over the four years – but this was just 8.5% of the Union’s total military expenditures.[13]

[11] Boynton, The History of the Navy During the Rebellion Vol 2. Pgs. 157-60. Quotes Welles letter to Congress.

[12] “Report of Secretary of the Navy Welles, Dec. 4, 1865” Pg. XVIII. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy (Wash DC, GPO 1865)

[13] McPherson. War on the Waters. Pgs. 41, 208, 290

Organizing the Union Navy for War

Secretary Welles needed help in coordinating the five bureaus and leading a naval force at war. Lincoln appointed Gustavus V. Fox, a former naval officer, as advisor to Welles and in July 1861, Congress created the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy to which Fox was appointed. He took charge of all professional and operational naval matters and a Chief Clerk handled the civil matters of the Department. [14]

Lenthall was badly overstretched as head of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repairs. Recognizing this, Congress in July 1862 divided his responsibilities among three new bureaus (total now eight bureaus). As Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BuC&R) Lenthall remained responsible for conversion of purchased ships and the design and construction of the new ships; a number of which he personally designed. Isherwood retained his title of Engineer-in-Chief and was appointed the Chief of the new Bureau of Steam Engineering (BuSteam) in recognition of the importance of steam for success and the rapidly growing budgets for steam machinery.[15]

The 1862 Act also changed the term of office for the Bureau Chiefs. Where they had previously served at the pleasure of the President, they now were appointed for a four-year term. This increased stability within each Bureau, but allowed the Chiefs to be more independent of the direction and policies of the Secretary, and made them more beholden to the Senate for confirmation. The impact is evident from reading the Secretary of the Navy Annual Reports to Congress, where an independent report from each Bureau was appended to the Secretary’s Report. Often policies and objectives advocated by the Secretary were disputed or ridiculed by the Bureau Chiefs.

Both Lenthall and Isherwood faced withering criticism. They served for some time without Senate confirmation because of opposition from dissatisfied contractors, administration opponents, and influential line officers critical of Bureau designs and frustrated with the Bureaus inability to meet their demands for more new ships staffed with competent engineers. To illustrate the point, the following letters to the Navy secretariat:

[14] Porter. The Naval History of the Civil War. Pgs. 354-5, 362

[15] Act of Congress July 5, 1862 12 Stat. 510 (http://legislink.org/us/stat-12-510)

  • · Commander David Dixon Porter to Assistant Secretary Fox in 1861, serving with the Atlantic Blockading Squadron - “That man Lenthall has been an incubus upon the Navy for the last ten years.” In the same letter, “and then to we are hampered with that little fellow Isherwood who will take all the signs in Algebra to prove how many ten penny nails it will take to shingle a bird’s nest, who will bring out more equations to prove that a pound of water can be so expanding that'll make a ship go 25 miles an hour, and yet can't make an engine- He was Engineer with me nine months. I took him out of the engine room for incapacity, he may have improved since- pity that a country like ours with so much talent in it, can't produce better results in the Navy.”[16]
  • · Rear Admiral David Farragut to Welles in July 1863 about the quality of the engineers on new vessels sent to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron- “The majority of them know very little of their duties” and “their engines are cut up and ruined by neglect and want of proper care.”[17]

[16] “Letter David Dixon Porter to Gustavus Fox July 5, 1861.” Confidential Correspondence of Gustavus Vasa Fox; Assistant Secretary of the Navy 1861-1865. Naval History Society (New York; De Vinne Press) 1919. (https://civilwarnavy.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Gustavus-V.-Fox_Volume-II.pdf) Porter’s comments about Isherwood as his engineer go back to their service together in USS SPITFIRE during the Mexican War at which time Porter gave Isherwood good grades for his service. See “Paper 1- The Players- 1860”

[17] Farragut to Welles, July 30, 1863. Quoted in Sloan. Benjamin Franklin Isherwood. Pg. 34

Additional criticisms of poor quality came direct from the fleet as demonstrated by the following excerpts from reports submitted by LCDR Edward Tattnall Nichols, commanding the new “90-day gunboat” WINONA, as she transited from New York to join Farragut’s Western Division Gulf Squadron.[18]

[18] Rear Admiral Edward Tattnall Nichols, USN: Papers of. Unpublished private family collection organized by Sandy Lee. Pgs. 45-67.

  • · January 1, 1862 voyage report to Secretary Welles: one of the propeller shaft journals has “given much trouble”, vessel “steams easily and economically, but I am unable at this time to particularize, owing to unavoidable delays, more or less due to the working of new engines” and expects better “when everything gets worn smooth.”
  • · April 4, 1862 report to Farragut: must keep a “constant stream of water on stern bearing of shaft”, a thrust bearing overheats when under heavy loads, and the water streams have damaged stored munitions.
  • · April 16, 1862 report to Farragut: steaming on one boiler because two tubes failed in port boiler. Inspection found tubes obstructed with “iron bar ¾ inch diameter and eighteen inches long, a cold chisel, pair of blacksmiths tongs, and a large screw bolt and nut.”

Steam Engineering in the Union Navy (Figure 2)

Isherwood was responsible for the expansion of the naval engineer corps, and the design, construction (in navy yards and contracted to private builders), operation and repair of the Navy’s steam plants. He worked long hours overseeing a small staff where a young engineer observed Isherwood “instilled a wholesome dread of any careless error.” He personally designed the machinery for 46 paddlewheel and 75 screw propelled steamers. The Steam Engineering budget grew from $5.8 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1864 (8.5% of Navy total) to $39.4 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1865 - 28% of the Navy request, and the largest by far of any bureau or department.[19]

The large increase in the steam fleet expanded beyond the pool of capable operators; in 1861 the merchant marine had been drained of trained steam engineers. There was no naval engineering school until 1864 when a Naval Academy course for cadet engineers was authorized. Therefore, the engineer force that reached almost 2,000 had to learn by experience.

[19] Sloan. Benjamin Franklin Isherwood. Pgs. 33-5, 133.

Figure 2- B. F. Isherwood, Chief Bureau of Steam Engineering and Staff. Circa 1862-65. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.


For the blockade to be successful steam engines had to run without breakdown for days on end. Isherwood’s solution was “to design and build his engines to be so simple and reliable that any novice could operate them without causing an immediate engine breakdown.” Durability, reliability and arrangement for easy access and constant observation were his guiding principles. The engines were heavy and the steam pressures low. Surfaces in moving contact were designed oversized to reduce strain and abrasion. High safety factors were applied to prevent failure from hidden casting and forging flaws. Fuel efficiency and economy took a back seat, making Isherwood and his designs easy targets for criticism.[20]

Most government designed engines had to be contracted with private engine builders who were unprepared for the quantities required. Isherwood did not competitively advertise the contracts, fearing he could not trust delivery to the lowest bidder. Because the government made progress payments it was nigh impossible to recover funds already paid if a contractor failed to deliver or meet specifications. His process was to announce a requirement for engines to be built to a specification, inviting builders to respond with an estimate. He then followed with a circular letter to engine builders he had “prequalified” through prior visits, to contract for a set quantity of the engine at a price based on the lowest estimate he had received. Based upon the responses, he negotiated with one or more companies a final contract price and delivery. The specifications and drawings were as specific as he could make them. As he testified before Congress, “there (was) not a bolt, nut, or screw left out.”[21]

Standard marine engineering practice in the early 1860s utilized 20-30 psi saturated steam produced by locomotive type horizontal fire tube boilers with little or no insulation. Hot combustion gases from the fire box would pass through horizontally arranged tubes to heat water in a large drum by conduction, and this in turn drove simple (single stage) engines.[22] (W. J. Macquorn Rankine had published his landmark account of steam engine theory in 1858, but to Isherwood the theoretical assumptions were impractical to achieve in practice.) Among the experiments Isherwood conducted and published in his 1858-9 two volume Engineering Precedents for Steam Machinery were tests of coal consumption demonstrating that a vertical water tube boiler designed by U.S. Navy Chief Engineer Daniel Martin used less coal than the horizontal fire tube boiler. The benefits - which included greater endurance at sea or reduced coal bunker space - more than compensated for the added cost, weight, and size of the boiler. Since builders were paid a fixed sum to produce a specified horsepower or speed, they would have opted for the horizontal fire tube boilers had Isherwood not specified the Martin boiler for all navy ships. Efficiency of operation was not high on a contractor’s priority list because it was not a characteristic for which he was compensated.[23] [24] (Figure 3)

[20] Ibid. Pgs. 33-5, 47.

[21]Ibid. Pgs. 36-7. (Isherwood testimony of April 18, 1872.)

[22] Compound engines had been developed in 1854, but because of early unreliability and high maintenance cost did not enter service with the Royal Navy & the U.S. Navy until the 1870s. Edgar C. Smith, Eng. Capt. O.BE, R.N. A Short History of Naval and Marine Engineering. (Cambridge, UK; University Press, 1938). Pgs. 174-81.

[23] Sloan. Benjamin Franklin Isherwood. Pgs. 80-3.

[24] See D. B. Martin Steam Boiler Water Tube Patent 11,997 Nov. 28, 1854.

Figure 3- D. B. Martin US Patent 11997 Improvement in Steam Boiler.

Click Here to view larger.

With a growing steam powered fleet, Isherwood - assisted by the National Academy of Sciences and the Franklin Institute - initiated a large number of full-scale tests of boilers and engines. These included tests of steam pressures up to 60 psi, simple and compound engines, saturated vs. superheated steam, types of coal, petroleum vs. coal, differing operating parameters, engine valve cutoffs, and heat loss from boilers and engines including condensation in engine cylinders with and without steam jackets. All for the purpose (as he wrote Welles), “To treat the subject in an exhaustive manner, resolving in a purely practical way all the questions connected” with steam engineering.[25]

From the tests Isherwood derived rules and formulas with practical application to new designs. The reports of his tests and the voluminous data on engine operations that he required ships in the fleet to submit were published in Experimental Researches in Steam Engineering; Vol. 1 & 2, 1863-65 by the Franklin Institute. In 1911 he sent a copy of this report to Nat Herreshoff with his regards.

Attacks on his machinery designs by detractors, including private builders who did not fare well under his tight control of specifications and contracting methods, came to a head in January 1864 with House of Representatives approval of a full investigation of his engines. The implication was failure in his duties, irresponsible innovation, and fraud. The near yearlong investigation led by the Chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs exonerated him of corruption and found that his machinery had demonstrated improvements in speed and power, that his engines were necessarily heavy for durability, and concluded that his engines were as good as current English and French machinery. Subsequent U.S. Navy gunboat tests in 1866 even demonstrated superiority of Isherwood’s machinery over that of English design and manufacture in terms of speed derived per pound of coal burned per hour.[26] [27]

[25] Sloan. Benjamin Franklin Isherwood. Pg. 91. (Isherwood’s Report of Oct. 12, 1865 contained in Report of the Secretary of the Navy Dec. 1865.)

[26] Ibid., pgs. 138-40.

[27] Frank M. Bennett, Passed Assistant Engineer, USN. The Steam Navy of the United States. A History of the Growth of the Steam Vessel of War in the U.S. Navy, and the Naval Engineer Corps. (Pittsburgh; Warren & Co.) 1896. Pgs. 477, 515.

Lessons Learned

The takeaway for the two major technical Bureaus, C&R and Steam, from the Civil War was that things worked much better when the Bureau controlled the details of design and construction was conducted under strict Navy inspection.

For Isherwood it was not that simple - it was a matter of “truth”: what you saw and experienced with your own eyes after careful thought and experimentation. For Isherwood the “truth” of the Civil War experience was that the Bureau had to contract to build its own designs because by close personal observation and comparisons he had determined the contractors did not have the knowledge, capabilities nor experience to produce the necessary machinery on their own.

It was an extension of the most detailed expression of his engineering philosophy as written in Experimental Researches; all real knowledge comes from observation and comparison; man’s only teacher is comparison based on accurate observations. The inductive method stands alone to achieve scientific truth. The deductive method is “sophistical nonsenses of amateurs” … “Whatever your investigations leave nothing omitted or imperfectly done.”[28]

An engineering philosophy very close to that practiced by Nat Herreshoff throughout his career.

[28] Sloan. Benjamin Franklin Isherwood. Pgs. 96-8.

David Dixon Porter, Union Navy Operations and Torpedo Warfare (Figure 4)

In the war the word that best defines Porter is perseverance. This was a characteristic he exhibited in command of the mortar fleet at New Orleans in 1861, in support of Grant’s 1863 victory at Vicksburg, and in the 1864 capture of the port of Wilmington as Commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Porter was appointed Commander of the Western Flotilla (later renamed the Mississippi Squadron) prior to the battle for Vicksburg by lobbying directly to President Lincoln.[29] Upon approving Porter’s assignment Secretary Welles wrote in his diary:[30]

[29] Tamara Moser Melia “David Dixon Porter: Fighting Sailor” from James C. Bradford, Editor, Captains of the Old Steam Navy: Makers of the American Naval Tradition 1840-1880. (Annapolis, MD; Naval Institute Press 1986). Pgs. 231-36.

[30] Gideon Welles, Diary, Vol. 1-3. (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1911). Vol. 1 Pg. 157.

“Relieved Davis and appointed D. D. Porter to the Western Flotilla, which is hereafter to be recognized as a squadron. Porter is but a Commander. He has, however, stirring and positive qualities, is fertile in resources, has great energy, excessive and sometimes not over-scrupulous ambition, is impressed with and boastful of his own powers, given to exaggeration in relation to himself, —a Porter infirmity, —is not generous to older and superior living officers, whom he is too ready to traduce, but is kind and patronizing to favorites who are juniors, and generally to official inferiors. Is given to 'cliquism' but is brave and daring like all his family... It is a question, with his mixture of good and bad traits, how he will succeed.”

“Patronizing to favorites who are juniors” and "cliquism" are references to a widely held opinion within the Union Navy that there were two kinds of officers: “Porter’s boys” and everyone else.

Figure 4- Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, USN, Commander, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. On the main deck of his flagship, USS MALVERN, circa late 1864. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph NH 91416

In December 1862 during preparations for the attack on Vicksburg the ironclad USS CAIRO was sunk by two torpedoes (floating mines).[31] This was the first Union loss to the weapon. It was a product of the Confederate torpedo corps (Confederate Naval Submarine Battery Service) established to counter the Union blockade. That same year a Confederate Army engineer invented the spar torpedo: a lightweight copper barrel containing 60 pounds of gun powder on the end of a long wooden spar to be deployed from the bow of a “high speed,” low silhouette steam launch. The idea was to attack at night, ramming the torpedo into the enemy hull below the waterline. It was expected the force of the explosion to the side of the target ship’s hull would leave the attack boat unharmed.[32]

Both the Union and Confederate navies attempted spar torpedo attacks from a variety of makeshift small boats including rowing cutters and steam launches. In October 1864, in an attack authorized by Porter, U.S. Navy LT. William B Cushing used a 30-foot steam picket boat powered by a locomotive type boiler and single cylinder engine (probably capable of less than 5 knots); fitted with a spar torpedo invented by Engineers William W. Wood and John L. Lay to sink the Confederate Ironclad ALBERMARLE. (Figure 4) It was the first successful torpedo attack in U.S. Navy history. Cushing and one boat crewman survived; the others were killed by the blast or were captured.[33]

The most advanced spar torpedo boat built during the war was the Confederate’s wooden cylindrical hulled 50- foot steamer DAVID. A number of this type were built primarily for the defense of Charleston. Powered by a firetube locomotive style boiler that drove a single cylinder engine, the DAVIDs were capable of making 5 knots. (Figure 5 & Figure 6) [34] [35]

[31] Richard S. West Jr, The Second Admiral: A Life of David Dixon Porter 1813-1891. (New York, Coward McCann, 1937) Pg. 182

[32] Thomas Wildenberg & Norman Polmar, Ship Killers: A History of the American Torpedo. (Annapolis MD, Naval Institute Press, 2010) Pgs. 5-7.

[33] Ship Killers, pgs. 12-13.

[35] Rear Admiral J. A. Dahlgren Commander South Atlantic Blockading Squadron Report of June 1, 1865 “The Obstructions and Defenses of Charleston Harbor” pp 253- 262. Contained in Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy December 1865. (Wash DC GPO 1865).

Click Images to view larger:

Figure 5- Union Navy 30-foot Screw Picket Boat, similar to Picket Boat No. 1 used by LT Cushing to sink the Confederate ironclad ALBERMARLE, with a drawing of the spar torpedo carried by this boat. From general arrangement plan published in Submarine Warfare, Offensive and Defensive, by LCDR J.S. Barnes, USN, 1869. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph NH 72999

Figure 6- Sketch of Confederate spar torpedo boat DAVID constructed at Charleston, SC showing locomotive type horizontal fire tube boiler with single cylinder engine driving a single propeller through an eccentric wheel. Source RAdm J. A. Dahlgren Commander South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Report of June 1, 1865. “The Obstructions and Defenses of Charleston Harbor” Contained in Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy December 1865. (Wash DC GPO 1865). Page 272.

David Dixon Porter summed up the Civil War torpedo warfare experience as follows:[36]

[36] Porter. The Naval History of the Civil War. Pg. 666.

“the energy of the Confederates in regard to their intentions in the torpedo line was most remarkable, and in quite strong contrast to that of the other side. During the whole war the Federals never invented anything except a torpedo in a steam launch, called the Wood – Lay torpedo which was nearly as dangerous to the crew as the enemy.”

Porter planned to do something to fix that deficiency. In the summer 1865, he lobbied for and was appointed Superintendent of the US Naval Academy, now returned to Annapolis and close to Washington D.C., the seat of power that he sought. U.S. Grant was a frequent visitor.[37]

[37] West, The Second Admiral. Pgs. 304-7, 315.

Figure 7- Wooden hull Confederate DAVID-type torpedo boat abandoned at Charleston, SC after the city's capture by Union forces, 1865. Photograph 165-C-751 Collections of the U.S. National Archives.

The Navy After Appomattox- The Doldrums

When Lee surrendered in April 1865 the U.S. Navy was the largest and among the most technologically advanced in the world. Its ironclads were a marvel. Assistant Secretary Fox, visiting England in June 1866 aboard the 15-inch gunned, double-turreted ironclad MIANTONOMOH, confident in her defensive and offensive capability, offered a friendly experiment. He would allow “the whole ironclad fleet of England to open fire on (his ship), and continue for two days, provided that (his ship) might afterwards be allowed to have ten hours’ firing at the (British) in return.”[38]

[38] Howard B. Walker; “From Hampton Road to Spithead” Naval History USNI Vol. 29. No. 3 June 2015. Pg. 15.

With hostilities ended there was no need for a large navy. Money was needed for westward expansion and reconstruction. The blockade fleet was auctioned off and operating expenses were severely reduced. Development of new vessels, machinery and ordnance stopped. Return to sail was the order of the day. General Order June 8, 1869: “Hereafter all vessels of the navy will be fitted each with full sail power. The exception to this will be tugs and dispatch vessels not fitted with sails.”[39] Senator James W. Grimes (Iowa) Chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs reported to the Senate, “Our vessels are instructed to sail all the time except during a storm or going in or out of port.” Captains were threatened to have their pay reduced for unnecessary use of coal. Every steam vessel submitted a monthly steaming report of hours under steam, coal used and the reasons for use of the engines.[40] When Farragut made a triumphal tour of Europe in 1867-68, he sailed not in the best of US Civil War steam construction, but the 1854 built USS FRANKLIN. European naval officers were amazed that the “navy which had pioneered so many new developments [developments that they were now aggressively pursuing] would permit its senior admiral to go abroad in such an antiquated ship.”[41] As late as 1879 Edward Tattnall Nichols, then Commander of the South Atlantic Squadron, arrived in Rio de Janeiro aboard his flagship, the wood-hulled 1858 steam screw sloop HARTFORD (Farragut’s flagship at the Battle of Mobile Bay) to be hosted aboard the modern 1877 British armored cruiser SHANNON.[42]

With the largest budget, the Bureau of Steam Engineering (BuSteam) was the hardest hit by the reductions. For the three fiscal years 1866, ’67 and ’68 it survived on surplus funds from previous years. In a smaller Navy the seagoing line officers suffered the greatest reductions and rebelled against the power of the Washington based Bureaus and the staff corps they represented. Seeing little future in a “return to sail Navy,” 31% of the Engineer Corps - including the most experienced - resigned in the first year following war’s end. Isherwood fought back peppering Welles with proposals for an exclusively steam Navy committed to continuing experimentation and development, with an Engineer Corps of rank (including promotion to Rear Admiral for himself as Chief of BuSteam) and pay permanently equivalent to the line officers, and to be the recruited from professionally trained engineers of the finest scientific schools. His efforts only garnered more opposition from the Navy line and lead to his downfall.[43] [44]

Porter used the Naval Academy as a base from which to lobby Congress for legislation to establish a Board of Survey composed of senior line officers to oversee the operations and administration of the Navy, assert his views in the influential Army and Navy Journal, and wait for the opportunity to "run his own show.” He made Isherwood his primary target, charging malfeasance and demanding Isherwood be removed, or failing that, the Bureau of Steam Engineering abolished. He wrote to a former shipmate in Dec. 1867, “We intend not only to strip him (Isherwood) and the engineers of all honors, but to make them the most inferior corps in the Navy.” [45]

[39] Bennett, Steam Navy of the United States. Pgs. 614-5.

[40] Sloan. Benjamin Franklin Isherwood. Pg. 161.

[41] McPherson. War on the Waters. Pgs. 189-90.

[42] Edward Tattnall Nichols letters to daughter Helen B. Nichols Aug. 3, 1879 & Sept. 3, 1879. Edward Tattnall Nichols Papers. Courtesy Sandy Lee.

[43] Sloan. Benjamin Franklin Isherwood. Pgs. 165-7, 189-92.

[44] “Bureau of Steam Engineering Annual Report”, Commodore B. F. Isherwood Oct 25, 1867 Pages 178-181.  Contained in Annual Report Secretary of the Navy (Wash DC, GPO 1867).

[45] Porter to Pinckney letter of Dec. 9, 1867. Apparently in response to Isherwood’s 1867 Annual Report cited in endnote 44. Sl