Dahlgrens in the Rain

This morning, a steady drizzle fell, and it brought down many of the remaining leaves with it. It remained warm, to a welcome if unseasonable degree, and on our way from one place to another we found ourselves in the Norman Rockwell village of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire.

Like most small towns that existed in 1865, it has a Civil War memorial that has accreted memorials for various other conflicts in the following ages. It was constructed like many other memorials, with an obelisk aspiring to the clouds, and a display of forever-silenced cannon and cannonballs. Unlike many, if not most, such memorials, the cannon and pyramids of shot survived the scrap drives of WWI and WWII. The memorial is located in a small park which is home to various festivals and events during the warmer months, but adjacent to the busy north-south (appropriately enough!) Lafayette Road, named for the French volunteer’s use of the road in the 1820s to visit old friends from the Revolution. Lafayette Road is also US Highway 1, which runs in an unending ribbon of strip malls, motels and neon signs from Maine to Key West. Lafayette Road is on the left in this picture; the yellow building is on the other side of it.

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Thousands of people drive by this square every day and never give it a moment of thought.

Of greatest interest to you, dear reader, may be the Dahlgrens themselves. There are four of them, and four pyramids of projectiles, evenly arrayed around the memorial, in the shadow of the flagpole (were there any sun to cast a shadow today!)

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The guns appear to be in nearly new condition, although they’re filled with something — probably cement. It’s possible that they were cast at a foundry nearby, and then never delivered to the Navy due to the end of the war. It’s also possible that the Portsmouth Navy Yard had them in storage for fitting out ships. The Navy Yard is a short distance away by road or rail.

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The smoothbore Dahlgren guns have a distinctive, coke-bottle shape. They are beautiful machines, and were used in shore defense installations and on seagoing vessels alike. They often had a wooden carriage that resembled the cannon carriage of the Napoleonic wars.

These iron carriages are strictly for display.

Cannon balls may have been obsolete by 1865, but they sure did stack up nice. This pyramid has layers of 25, 16, 9, 4 and 1 ball = 55 cannonballs total.

hampton_falls13Each Dahlgren Gun is engraved with its maker, its serial number, and its weight, at least to the nearest 5 lb. This one was 4500 lbs. The others were all within 10 pounds plus or minus of this one.

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Why bother recording the weight? One possibility we can think of is for trim and balance calculations aboard ship. Three guns were cast by “C.A. & Cº,” and on one the maker name was not visible, but might well have been the same.

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Civil War Artillery.com has a useful page about cannon manufacturers, which breaks out this abbreviation as follows:

Cyrus Alger & Co.:  Cyrus Alger, who during the War of 1812 furnished the government with shot and shell, in 1817 started South Boston Iron company which at an early date was known locally as Alger’s Foundry and later became Cyrus Alger & Co.  The Massachusetts firm was a leading cannon manufacturer and when Cyrus died in 1856, leadership was assumed by his son, Francis, who piloted the company until his death in 1864.  During the war, both Army and Navy were supplied with large numbers of weapons.  The initials “S.B.F.” (South Boston Foundry) occasionally may be found on cannon, but the signature is traditionally “C.A. & Co., Boston, Mass.” or, rarely, “C. Alger & Co., Boston, Mass.”

The Serial Numbers of the gun whose maker was invisible (perhaps underneath, or marked on the muzzle) was Nº 105. The others were Nº 155, Nº 156, and Nº 157. (Without measuring them, these appear to be 32-pounder guns, of which 383 total were made by Alger and several other founders).

This gives some support to the idea that the guns came direct from production or storage, uninstalled and unfired, to the memorial. Since Alger had been casting cannon for almost 50 years at the close of the Civil War, these numbers must be unique to Dahlgren gun production at the Alger firm’s South Boston, Mass. facility.

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Today, it is a place where you can see four Dahlgren guns at once.

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And numerous plaques honor the town’s many veterans, of the nation’s many wars.

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Unfortunately, our shot of the Vietnam War honor roll was not successful, nor the one we took of the Civil War honor roll. It was a very different America in 1865 — the names were all English or Northwestern European, and many families sent five to eight men with the same surname to the war.

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The town and the veterans’ groups cooperate to tend this little memorial well.

While the Dahlgren Gun served the Union well, and Rear Admiral Dahlgren did, also, he paid a considerable price by giving his design to the nation free of charge. The USA then not only produced some 4,700 Dahlgren guns and howitzers for American used, it furnished the design gratis to various foreign nations. Alger did pay Dahlgren a royalty of 1¢ per pound of guns cast in South Boston for foreign customers, but his widow wound up in straitened circumstances and petitioned the Congress for relief.

17 thoughts on “Dahlgrens in the Rain

  1. loren

    I suppose they can’t use a brass money to hold the balls as they’d freeze off in the NH winter?
    “Unlike many, if not most, such memorials, the cannon and pyramids of shot survived the scrap drives of WWI and WWII.”
    Whilst touring HMS Victory in Portsmouth, I tapped on one of the “cannons”. Plastic by God. Seems even the most famous ship in England didn’t escape the scrap collectors.

    1. Bonifacio Echeverria

      When I was there they made no mistery of it. The RN girl giving the tour said that it was not all that wise to keep forcing over the venerable timbers the whole weight of ordenance they were designed to support when they were younger, so they made a lot of plastic replicas and placed them instead. Something to do with the hull being off the water for a long time too and brittle dry wood, IIRC…

      Two or three of the real ones were still displayed in the lower deck, 32 pdrs -again, IIRC- as a kind of grand finale for the tour, near the exit.

      BTW, I liked far much better the tour of HMS Warrior. The guy giving it was an old chap that had served in destroyers in the Mediterranean and had a lot of good stories about cats, destroyers, naval dessign and naval history overall, many of them first hand. Wonder if he’s still in the business, it was certainly the best part of my trip to England.

  2. Keith

    The guns on both HMS Victory and Warrior in Portsmouth are fakes as well. That was a very good piece and very moving even if was originally set up to remember the War of Northern Aggression.

  3. SPEMack

    The square in my small Georgia home towns honors the County’s fallen and has a War between the States vintage cannon ball and a WWII 37mm towed anti tank gun. I walk the square occassionally and talk to one of my Joe’s.

    More poignantly, on the town out skirts in the Baptist cemetery, he lays in eternal glory adjacent to his Great Great Grandpa and his comrades who died trying to stop the Yankees. You can’t help but sing Dixie as you walk out.

  4. John M.

    I can’t describe the nostalgia that photos of a New England town common give me, especially ones taken in late fall, when the glory of the changing leaves starts to slip over to the dismal grays–gray sky and gray trees–of winter.

    -John M.

  5. John M.

    “Each Dahlgren Gun is engraved with its maker, its serial number, and it’s weight…”

    Typo alert: the trailing “it’s” should be an “its.”

    -John M. doing my best to cover for Scott

  6. LFMayor

    There are two 4.2 inch parrot rifles( 30lb ) at our local memorial. Muzzle info is on that v-mail photo
    A nearby town has what I think is an 8 inch dahlgren. I’ve only been able to gawk while rolling by, but she is one big girl. Maybe after deer season I’ll take a drive on purpose.

  7. Light Dragoon

    The little town in California where my Grandmother grew up has a big Dahlgren gun in the city park. When she was a little girl, one of her uncles lived with them, and he was a Civil War vet, and a former Confederate Artilleryman (he Mom’s family was originally from Missouri). He taught her how to load and fire a muzzle-loading artillery piece, using this gun for the demonstration. When I was visiting for the summer (at age 5) she taught me how to do the same thing. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that I was only one step away in the process from learning it from an actual Civil War vet. Needless to say, I made sure that my nephew at least got the same lesson when we were in the neighborhood. Sadly I didn’t have the chance with my daughters, but at least I passed it on to another generation.

    (BTW, I’ve shot a lot of muzzle-loading artillery since then. I guess I “got the bug” pretty early in life!)

  8. raven

    There is a nice pair of big bronze cannon outside the Jefferson Memorial field in Port Townsend WA.
    Muzzleloading, from memory perhaps a 5- 6″ bore, maybe 8-9′ long, about 20″ + dia at the touch hole. A pair, numbered and named “Le Miserable” or something along that line. IIRC the dates were around 1804 . Never asked to find out where they came from.
    Streetview them here-
    299 Madison St
    Port Townsend, Washington

    1. Light Dragoon

      IIRC the bronze guns in Port Townsend, like dozens of others scattered across the West, were nabbed from Manila when we took it in 1898 and sent home for war memorials. As I recall, they were cast in Lima, Peru (as were most of the cannon used in Spain’s Pacific Empire). I’ll check it out next time I’m over there.

  9. Hartley

    We sailed down the Potomac past Dahlgren, VA a month or so ago, and had to amend our course because the Navy was shooting cannons from their facility at Dahlgren. Very loud, though we never saw the shot fall (clearly not shooting HE :) ).
    Thanks for informing us where the name came from!

    1. Steve M.

      Hartley,

      It is quite likely you heard the testing of the Navy’s rail gun. I am not sure if the program is still going there, but a few years ago it was the source of all the loud noises there. I had family living near one of the gates to Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren.

  10. looserounds.com

    One of my oldest and dearest friends is a WVSP trooper and is one of the few EOD guys they have over there. He is called out all over the place for various threats. Often some farmer will over turn a canon ball with his plow after spring thaw, or one will show up after a creek cuts out a new bank. Solid shot balls of course. But the farmers and people are scared of them, ( only prudent of them ).
    I have several solid cannon ball and canister shot balls from the War Of Northern Aggression thanks to him and his 0 interest in the war. Typical of his type from Western Occupied Virginia…
    Obviously as readers of this E-zine know, many scrapes occurred in WV ( then VA before later in the war splitting off )

    Maybe I need to get them out and get some pictures of them for LR.com one of these days.

    1. Al T.

      When I was stationed in Atlanta, word among the Civil War artifact hunters was that if you found a possible live projectile, call the Navy EOD guys. The Army EOD guys would just blow the projo up, where the Navy guys might render it safe. No clue as to the validity of that story.

      I do think it’s very, very cool to have some of the old weapons of war on display. I visited one of the lessor Bergs (Castle) in Germany and vastly enjoyed looking at the “real” old swords.

  11. Mike_C

    Not to be that guy (at least not today), but all the talk of plastic guns [insert Glock joke here] got me suspicious about the cannonball pyramid.
    >they sure did stack up nice. This pyramid has layers of 25, 16, 9, 4 and 1 ball = 55 cannonballs total.
    Actually one doesn’t know that there are truly 55 balls. What with that tar (or whatever) holding the pyramid together, one can only verify the surface cannonballs, at N=41 — the presumptive “inner pyramid” with a 3×3 base (giving 3^2+2^2+1=14) is a matter of faith.
    …okay, my data have downloaded, back to work

  12. Steve M.

    Another interesting read! I have been reading quite a bit on this site over the last year or so. It has become a daily routine to check both that which Mr. Hognose has posted and the interesting comments written in response.
    I have always found it rather amusing how many people refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. Here in New England, it is very much history, but to the southern portions of our great nation, it lives on.
    So if the Civil War is the War of Northern Aggression, then might not the time period of our War for Independence be referred to as the “time of delayed Southern participation”?
    As the War on Terror drags on, many small towns in my area have slowly begun to expand their war memorials. New flat faced granite stones with brass plaques seem to be the trend. Too subdued considering the monumental sacrifice of so many….

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