US Navy Sailors Operating Ashore as Artillerymen: Four Vignettes
Patrick H. Roth, Captain, US Navy (Retired)
Related Resource: Sailors as Infantry in the US Navy
The use of sailors as infantrymen ashore was common during the nineteenth century and the first four decades of the twentieth century. The Navy also provided artillery to support land operations. This paper illustrates the use of Navy artillery ashore. Vignettes discussed are: artillery support for the defense of Washington and Baltimore during the War of 1812; siege artillery support of General Winfield Scott’s Army besieging Veracruz during the War with Mexico; mid-nineteenth century development of the 12-pound Dahlgren boat howitzer; and, design, production, deployment, and employment of 14-inch railroad guns in France during World War One.
Defenders of Washington and Baltimore, 1814 - The War of 1812
During the late summer of 1814, a British force under overall command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane threatened the nation’s capital. Cochrane was under orders to use both his naval force and embarked army troops under command of Major General Robert Ross to “conduct such operations as may be found best calculated for the advantage of His Majestys Service, and the annoyance of the Enemy.”1 After vacillating over potential targets, Cochrane landed General Ross’s division, supported by Royal Marines and British sailors, at Benedict, Maryland, on the Patuxent River.
Commodore Barney’s artillery at Bladensburg
The British landing sealed the fate of Commodore Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Flotilla of gunboats which were trapped upriver from Benedict at Nottingham/Pigs Point. By prearranged direction of Navy Secretary William Jones, Barney destroyed his flotilla, and with his 400-450 flotillamen joined Brigadier General William H. Widner’s force defending Washington. Jones also attached approximately 100 marines to Barney’s force and provided the flotillamen with five pieces of artillerythree 12-pound and two light 18-pound long guns.2
Barney’s artillery (one 12-pounder) covered the withdraw of US forces from a position at “Long Old Fields,” eight miles east of Washington, where Widner’s forces encamped the night of 22 August. Barney’s flotillamen then pulled back into the city to the vicinity of the Washington Navy Yard and Marine Barracks at Eighth and I streets. At Widner’s direction, Barney placed his guns to cover the lower bridge across the Anacostia River. For a period, this was considered the most likely avenue of British approach.
Fresh information indicated a British approach via Bladensburg, and Widner’s regulars and militia set up defenses there the morning of 24 August. Barney and his Navy/Marine force arrived at Bladensburg somewhat later.3 By the time Barney’s men arrived “in a trot”, Widner’s initial front was collapsing. On arrival, the Commodore deployed his men and artillery in the center of a second line established by late arriving troops. He deployed his long 18-pounders in the center of the road to Washington and the 12-pounders to their right. The 18-pounders quickly engaged the advancing British, driving them clear of the road during three separate attacks.4 General Ross’ assaulting troops then shifted their focus to the right flank of the American line. At this point Barney’s flotillamen and marines, supported by the 12-pounders, attacked, pushing back the assaulting 85th Regiment of Foot. This temporary setback persuaded Ross to commit his Second Brigade to the flank assault. This fresh assault, coming at the same time as orders by General Widner to retreat, resulted in the collapse of the American second line of defense. Barney’s flotillamen found themselves flanked on both sides. Having resisted as long as possible, the flotilla spiked its guns and retreated.5
Commodore Porter’s Gun Battery at White House, Virginia
Navy Secretary Jones ordered all available navy personnel to assist in the defense of Washington. Among these were men from the frigates USS Guerriere (Commodore John Rogers) and USS Essex (Commodore David Porter). Guerriere was blockaded at Philadelphia and the Essex men were in Philadelphia for the courts-martial of Commodore Porter.6 They received orders to proceed to Washington on 19 August. Arriving too late to participate in the battle at Bladensburg, they were in time to meet a different threat.
Admiral Cochrane had ordered a separate British force under Captain James A. Gordon, Royal Navy to ascend the Potomac River as a feint. Gordon captured Fort Washington on the Maryland shore guarding Washington from the south and then occupied Alexandria, Virginia, on 29 August. By the time the Navy forces from Philadelphia arrived, Secretary Jones determined to destroy Gordon’s squadron when it returned down the river. He ordered Porter and his men to the White House on the Virginia side of the river and upon arriving there to construct a battery utilizing pre-positioned artillery supplied by the War Department.7
Porter, augmented by some volunteer Virginia militia and displaced Fort Washington garrison personnel, established a 13-gun battery (an eclectic collection of long three 18s, two 12-pounders, six 6-pounders, and two 4-pounders) on the river bluff.8 The battery engaged ships of Gordon’s British squadron from its establishment on 1 September through the 4th. As the British withdrew down the Potomac on 5 September, Porter’s battery engaged Gordon’s entire flotilla.9 Despite an energetic American effort, little damage was done to the British.
Commodore Perry’s Battery at Indian Head, Maryland
Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of Lake Erie and prospective commanding officer of USS Java, which was fitting out at Baltimore, was assigned to the Courts-martial board for Commodore Porter. When the board was suspended he came south with Rogers and Porter. He was ordered to establish a battery on the Maryland side of the Potomac. With sailors from USS Guerierre and USS Java, augmented by Major Peter’s Georgetown militia battery, he attempted to establish a battery on the Maryland shore of the Potomac opposite Porter’s battery at the White House. The location proved impractical and he moved his men to the cliffs at Indian Head, Maryland where he established a battery.
With a single exception, Perry’s guns (6-pounders) were of too small a caliber to “make much impression on the enemy.” The exception was a long 18-pounder that arrived “only 30 minutes before the firing began.” The 18-pounder quickly ran out of ammunition, as did several of the sixes. Perry’s battery hardly slowed the British down.10
Following British withdraw from Washington; they faced a decision as to their next move. Admiral Cochrane favored leaving the Chesapeake in order to engage in military operations in Rhode Island. His Army subordinate, General Ross, and his second in command Rear Admiral George Cockburn persuaded him to attack Baltimore instead. They landed 12 miles east of the city at North Point on 12 September. Maryland Militia Major General Samuel Smith had organized a defense. Part of this defense was a naval force “of about 1,000 Seamen and Marines…formed into a Brigade consisting of Two Regiments” under Commodore John Rogers.11
“Rodgers Redoubt”: defending the direct approach to Baltimore
Rogers’ sailors and marines from Philadelphia arrived in Baltimore on 25 August where they were informed of the American defeat at Bladensburg and British occupation of Washington. He immediately began to organize naval forces for the defense of the city.12 Subsequently, he and USS Guerriere and Essex crewmen were ordered to Washington to deal with Captain Gordon’s squadron returning on 8 September. When they arrived, Rogers deployed the bulk of his sailors and marines along Hamstead Hill, the highest promontory just east of the City. From this position, they covered both the Philadelphia and Sparrows Point Road. Artillery bastions manned by sailors stretched from the Philadelphia road to the Northwest Branch.
First Lieutenant Thomas Gamble of USS Guerriere commanded the northernmost Navy battery of seven guns commanding both roads with 100 men. Sailing Master F. De La Roche of USS Erie and Midshipman Robert Field from Guerriere, with twenty men and two guns, manned the next battery. Sailing Master James Ramage with 80 men from Guerriere commanded the next battery adjacent to the Sparrows Point Road. Midshipman William Salter with 12 seamen manned a one-gun battery to the right of the Ramage Battery. None of these batteries engaged the British, who behaved cautiously after an engagement with militia at North Point during which General Ross was killed, and did not assault the eastern landward approach to the city.13
The Flotillamen at Baltimore: Fort McHenry’s Defenses
Barney’s flotillamen came north to defend Baltimore along with the regular Army and militia. They were assigned duties manning artillery defense protecting the city from the South. Eighty flotilla sailors and one officer manned a battery of three long 18-pounders at the Lazaretto, a point of land across from Fort McHenry at the entrance to the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River.14 An additional 50 flotilla seamen manned Fort McHenry’s water battery.
West of Fort McHenry, flotilla seamen manned two batteries that protected the south side of Baltimore. Sailing Master John Webster and fifty seamen manned Fort Babcock, a six-gun battery on the Patapsco Ferry Branch at Rigley’s Cove. Lieutenant H.L. Newcome of USS Guerriere commanded 80 seamen manning guns at Fort Covington, also on the Ferry Branch. Forts Babcock and Covington were active participants in the repulse of a British effort to flank Fort McHenry during the bombardment on the night 13/14 September. An assault force embarked in boats under command of Captain Charles Napier, Royal Navy, slipped by Fort McHenry unnoticed, but were sighted by flotilla men manning Forts Babcock and Covington. These forts immediately engaged the assault force and drove it off before troops could be landed. Meanwhile the Navy manned guns of the fort at the Lazaretto, and the water batteries actively engaged the bomb ships bombarding Fort McHenry.15
Siege Artillery for the Army, 1847 - The War with Mexico
During the late summer of 1846, President Polk and his advisors began to contemplate seizure of the Gulf coast port of Veracruz and possible advance to Mexico City should offers of a negotiated peace with Mexico be rejected. The Navy supported this proposal and in October, General Winfield Scott drew up an initial planning paper.16 A month later Polk selected Scott to command the expedition. A flurry of activity ensured, and early in March 1847 Scott’s US Army transport ships joined Commodore David Conner’s Home Squadron at the Antón Lizardo roadstead near Veracruz.
The US Naval Battery during the bombardment of Vera Cruz on 24 and 25 March 1847. The Battery was composed of heavy guns from the US Squadron under Commodore Matthew C. Perry, and commanded by the officers opposite their guns.
The Army’s three-division force landed 9 March in good order, but it was short of transportation and ordnance.17 Although Scott was short of siege artilleryhe had only one fifth of what he believed necessaryhe put off an immediate assault electing to besiege the city using artillery.18 Siege lines and artillery redoubts were ready by March 22.
The Home Squadron changed commanders on 21 March when Commodore Matthew Perry relieved Commodore David Conner. Following change of command, both men called on Scott who by then was ashore. During this meeting, the use of naval guns came up. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison suggests that Perry convinced Scott to accept a previously rejected offer by Conner to land heavy naval guns for use as siege artillery.19 Historian K. Jack Bauer suggests that they jointly discussed the earlier proposal “because it was clear the guns available to the Army were not heavy enough to batter down the Veracruz walls as rapidly as Scott desired.”20 This latter scenario suggests Scott now reconsidered the earlier offer of heavy naval artillery. Under either scenario, the guns were needed and they were accepted.
Perry personally visited each ship of the Squadron to announce that guns would be landed. An eyewitness, junior officer John H. Upshur, recalled “cheer after cheer was sent up in evidence of the enthusiasm the promise of a release from a life of inaction… In a moment everything was stir and bustle, and in an incredibly short piece of time, each vessel had landed her big gun, with double crew of officers and men.”21
Perry directed the Squadron to land three 32-pounders and three eight-inch shell guns together with crews. Two of the 32-pounders came from USS Potomac and the other from USS Raritan. USS Mississippi, USS Albany, and USS St. Mary’s provided a single shell gun each. Crews rotated daily. The guns were transferred ashore by boat on the 22nd, being moved on land by two wheeled trucks provided by the Army. Upwards of 200 soldiers and sailors pulled each truck from the landing spot to the site of the naval battery. Army Engineer Captain Robert E. Lee selected and supervised construction of the naval battery redoubt. The last gun was emplaced during the night of 23-24 March and at 10 a.m. on the morning of the 24th Captain Lee turned the site over to its first Navy commander, Captain John Aulick, commanding officer of USS Potomac.
The six heavy guns of the Navy Battery quickly engaged Mexican forts.22 Four sailors were killed and six wounded during the day by return fire. At 2:30 in the afternoon the battery ceased firing when it ran out of ammunition, having expended 50 rounds per gun. During the night of 24-25 March, Army engineers repaired the battery defenses damaged during the previous day and the Home Squadron landed additional ammunition. The engagement continued during the 25th at a furious pace.23 The battery received increasingly accurate counter battery fire. Two naval personnel were killed and three wounded. At mid-afternoon, the Mexican batteries ceased firing and the Navy Battery followed suit. When firing resumed later in the day, the battery again ran out of ammunition.
This would be the last action by the Battery. At 8.00 a.m. on the 26th, Mexican commander Brigadier General José Juan Landero offered to negotiate surrender. General Scott immediately ordered all firing to cease. The Battery expended about 1,000 shells and 800 round shot during the two day engagement. This accounted for about 45 percent of the total number, and one third of the weight, of shot and shell expended by American forces. The Navy heavy guns were particularly effective in reducing the coral composition walls of the Mexican fortifications.24
“The Best Boat Gun in the World” - The 12-pound Dahlgren Boat Howitzer
(Second half of the nineteenth century)
Although the Navy conducted an active blockade, naval operations during the War with Mexico were largely conducted either ashorewith sailors serving as infantry or involved the use of ship’s boats on rivers and elsewhere near the seacoast. The Navy had no satisfactory gun for these operations. The experience highlighted the need for a light boat howitzer. Lieutenant John A. Dahlgren, then assigned at the Washington Navy Yard, recognized the problem, and proposed, and then developed such a gun. Officially adopted in 1850, the Navy manufactured Dahlgren’s boat howitzer in three sizes: a 12-pounder light howitzer, a 12-pounder medium howitzer, and a 24-pounder. All guns were adapted for use with either a boat or a field carriage.25
The medium 12-pound boat howitzer, mounted on a field carriage, became the standard US Navy infantry field piece. It remained the standard US Navy infantry and boat gun until late in the nineteenth century. Naval personnel did not favor the light 12-pounder. The larger 24-pounder, while a boat gun, in practice was generally retained aboard ship and was not used ashore.26
Twelve-pounder Dahlgren boat howitzer, Fairfax Court House, Virginia.
The Dalghren boat howitzer is elegant in design. The gun is of cast bronze incorporating housing for a Dahlgren designed percussion-lock. In the manner of earlier carronades, a loop underneath, rather than trunnions, secured the gun to its carriage. For boat operation, a boat carriage enabled the gun to be sited in the bow of a ship’s boat. For operation ashore, a field gun carriage was used. A simple screw elevator adjusted elevation. The boat carriage was adjusred in train by tackle and the gun carriage by use of a handspike. The field carriage was constructed of wrought iron, with all iron or iron rimmed wood wheels. It was designed to be pulled by men rather than horses. For this purpose, a wheel at the tail along with drag and guide ropes were standard. All carriage parts were simple in construction and easily bolted together. The trail wheel lifted for firing by simple removal of a pin. A socket on the tail accommodated the handspike used to adjust the train. Ammunition was of a fixed type and carried individually by the crew and in two portable ammunition boxes that the carriage was designed to transport.
The boat howitzer and its carriages were a complete gun system. For operation, when the ship’s boat was hoisted out, the gun was installed on its boat carriage at the bow. The field carriage was stowed at the stern of the boat. (The howitzer was generally never handled separately from one of its carriages.) For operations ashore, the field carriage was run forward and the gun transferred between carriages using a spar. The gun and field carriage then landed across the bow using skids.27
The 12-pound boat howitzer was very effective and was “considered to be the best boat gun of its day in the world.”28 An early indication of its effectiveness occurred during the assault on the Pearl River Barrier Forts near Canton (Guangzhou) China in 1856. Dahlgren howitzers played a large role in support of the naval infantry assault and capture of the forts. During the Civil War, 1,087 twelve-pounders were cast. Demand was so large that the Washington Navy Yard could not keep up with production and had to let contracts to civilian foundries.29 The gun was a mainstay of US Navy operations until the very end of the nineteenth century.
The Biggest Guns on the Western Front, 1918 - (World War I)
Long range German artillery was quite effective during World War I, especially in Belgium where it put allied port operations at risk. The so-called Leugenboom guns bombarded allied channel ports from a range of 24 miles during the period from April 1915 until the Germans withdrew in 1918. Allied counter fires were insufficient in range to counter this threat. After considering this problem, the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, recommended to the Chief of Naval Operations mounting naval 14-inch guns along the coast in a letter dated 12 November 1917.30 Two weeks later the Navy Department approved construction of five batteries and as well as a command train.
Railroad Battery in the Washington Navy Yard.
The Naval Gun Factory (now the Washington Navy Yard in south east Washington, DC) was directed to develop the gun. The naval railway batteries had to be self-sufficient. This meant design not only of a gun mounting but also mobile headquarters cars, machine shops, ammunition carriers, cranes, barracks cars, etc. Standard drawings were ready by January 1918 and sent to bid. Baldwin Locomotive Works received the award for the gun mount cars. The remainder of the battery cars was awarded to Standard Steel Car Company, which furnished locomotives, ammunition, headquarters, kitchen, fuel, workshop, staff, radio, construction, office, and workshop cars. Baldwin completed the first railway gun mount 72 days after the contract was awarded. Design to delivery took only four months, a remarkable achievement! Captain, later Rear Admiral, C.P. Plunkett was assigned as the commanding officer of the United States railroad batteries. Word about the project leaked out and over 20,000 Navy officers and men volunteered for the 334 billets involved.
14-inch naval railway gun firing at Thierville, France, 1918.
The original plans envisioned shipping the guns on British ships to the English Channel ports where they would support the British Army. When the Germans threatened the British ports, the plans were changed. The Navy consulted US Army commander, General Pershing, and he requested immediate delivery of the gun trains. Drafts of Navy personnel began sailing on 26 May. The Navy cargo ship USS Newport News picked up the first delivery of rolling stock and other material on 20 June. By 20 August, the first two railway gun trains completed assembly and left St Nazaire, France, following personal inspection by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.
" It was apparent from the beginning that the...naval guns were wanted all along the front.”31 Batteries 3, 4, and 5 generally operated in support of the US Army while Batteries 1 and 2 supported the French. They were in combat operations from 6 September when Battery 2, located in the Compiègne Forest, commenced firing against targets at the German held railroad center at Terginer until the end of the war. Batteries 4 and 5, firing at German targets in Longuyon from positions near Thierville, conducted the last Navy railway battery combat operation. Battery 4 fired the last railroad battery round of the war at 10:57:20 a.m. 11 November 1918. It was timed to land just before the armistice commenced. In all, 872 14-inch shells were expended.
The Navy guns were the largest active on the allied front and were able to target airfields, rail yards, troop centers, and other installations that allied artillery heretofore had been unable to reach.32 The method of employment generally was to engage troop and rail centers in conjunction with army assaults. Navy fires began several hours after the allied assault in order to catch enemy reinforcements and ammunition being moved up in support of the defenses. In conducting these deliberate fires, the batteries received counter-battery fire. Three engineers attached to Battery 1 were killed at Sissons. Five non-detachment personnel attached to Battery 4 were killed by return fire at Charney. At Verdun, Batteries 3, 4, and 5 were subject to furious counter fire, with German shells landing within 30 feet of the batteries and the guns' armor being hit by shell fragments. Three Battery 4 Navy personnel, one of whom subsequently died, were seriously wounded. The headquarters and a berthing car were derailed.33
1. Letter from First Secretary of the Admiralty John Croker to Cochrane, 19 May 1814, in Crawford, Michael J., Christine Hughes, Charles Brodine, Jr., and Carolyn M. Stallings, eds. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, Volume III, 1814-1815. (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2002): 71-72 (hereafter cited as Naval War of 1812).
3. Barney had been ordered to hold his force near the Anacostia Bridge and to destroy it if the British appeared. It took a personal appeal by Barney to President Madison and the Cabinet to get permission to move the bulk of the flotillamen to Bladensburg.
12. Already at Baltimore were elements of Barney’s Chesapeake Flotilla who were not with Barney at Bladensburg, men attached to the Baltimore station which included USS Erie, Ontario, and Java. Roger’s overall command eventually included these plus his Philadelphia men from USS Guerriere and Essex and Barney’s Flotillamen who had survived Bladensburg.
16 “Vera Cruz and Its Castle.” The plans were revised three times. The second and third plan included additional consideration of the expedition to Mexico City. Force composition changed throughout the planning process. The final plan included 1,200 sailors and marine infantry.
17. By the 13th, it had encircled the walled city defended by three strong forts and another nine redoubts. The major fort - San Juan de Ulúa, situated about 1,000 yards offshore - possessed 135 guns.
18. Scott, Memoirs, p. 423-24. Quoted in K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War 1846-1848. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974): 246-47. Scott believed he could invest the city but not San Juan de Ulúa with his artillery resources.
22. One of the forts engaged was Mexican Navy garrisoned Fort Santa Barbara under of command of Mexican Marine Lieutenant Sebastian Holzinger. When a 32 pound shot from the Potomac’s gun cut the forts’ flag staff, Holzinger and one of his men leaped on the wall and nailed it back to its flagstaff and was nearly killed during the process. Holzinger’s gallantry so impressed Captain Aulick that he recounted the incident in his after action report. The Mexican Navy’s Holzinger class patrol ships are named for the gallant Lieutenant.
24. The following secondary sources were consulted for this section: K. Jack Bauer, Surfboats and Horse Marines U.S. Naval Operations in the Mexican War, 1846-48. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute Press, 1969; K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War 1846-1848. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1974; Samuel Eliot Morison, “Old Bruin” Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry 1794-1858. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1967.
29. Ibid. A twelve and a 24-pound Dahlgren Boat howitzer can be seen at the Marr Monument in front of the Fairfax County Court House, Fairfax, Virginia. Both are on field carriages. A twelve, 20, and 24-pound boat howitzer are on display at the US Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard, DC. Two 24-pound howitzers on ship gun mounts are on display at the flagpole at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
30. Letter from the Chief of Bureau of Ordnance to Chief of Naval Operations, 12 Nov. 1917. Quoted in: Navy Department, Office of Records and Library. The United States Naval Railway Batteries in France. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922): 2-3. He recommended 14-inch 50 caliber guns because of their availability. The then-new 16-inch gun was in short supply.
Acknowledgement: The Navy Department Library gratefully acknowledges the permission of Patrick H. Roth to post this paper on the Naval Historical Center website. All rights reserved by the author. Unlimited distribution is authorized as long as the author and the Naval Historical Center website are acknowledged.
[The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval History & Heritage Command]