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A Glimpse Back: The Navy Yard, Washington DC

Making Landing Guns

01/07/21 12:56 PM

By Destiny Sibert
Commander, Navy Installations Command Public Affairs

The Washington Navy Yard, perched along the banks of Anacostia River in Washington DC, is part of Naval Support Activity Washington and serves as the headquarters for Naval District Washington, housing numerous support activities for the fleet, including Commander, Navy Installations Command Headquarters (CNIC HQ).

Often called the “Quarterdeck of the Navy,” it has long served as the ceremonial gateway to the nation’s capital. It welcomed the first Japanese diplomatic mission with an impressive pageant in 1860, received the body of WWI’s Unknown Soldier and welcomed Charles A. Lindbergh after his famous transatlantic flight in 1927, to name a few. However, the Navy Yard’s origins are scrappy and its history is brimming with grit, gun powder and gunboats.

The Navy’s Largest Shipyard

The country’s oldest Navy installation, the Navy Yard was authorized in 1799 by the United States’ first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, on land set aside by George Washington for use by the Federal Government. Its impressive guardhouse, the formidable Latrobe Gate, secured the Navy’s largest shipbuilding and shipfitting yard. Twenty-two vessels were constructed there during the 19th Century, ranging from 70-foot gunboats to the 246-foot steam frigate USS Minnesota. The USS Constitution, then only 15 years old, visited the Yard in 1812 to refit in preparation for combat in The War of 1812.

An early leader in technology, the Navy Yard boasted one of the earliest steam engines in the United States, a high-tech marvel of the capital city. The steam engine ran the saw mill and was used to manufacture anchors, chain and steam engines for vessels of war. Its first operator, Samuel Batley Ellis, earned a high wage of $2.00 per day in 1810.

The War of 1812 and Burning of Washington

By 1812, the Navy Yard was not only an important support facility, but was also a vital strategic link in the defense of the capital during the war - making it an attractive target to invading British forces. On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, a British force led by Major General Robert Ross marched into Washington and set fire to multiple government and military buildings, including the White House (then called the Presidential Mansion), the Capitol building and other U.S. government facilities. It became clear the Washington Navy Yard could not be defended and Captain Thomas Tingey, the Yard's Commandant, with the concurrence of President James Madison and Secretary of the Navy William Jones, ordered the Yard be burned to prevent it from falling into the enemy’s hands.

Many stores of supplies and most of the Yard's facilities were consumed in the flames. The Latrobe Gate, Captain Tingey's quarters (now known as Quarters A), the home of the second in command, adjoining offices and the barracks were spared. Of the three ships abandoned to burn at the dock, only the small schooner Lynx was recovered. The 74-gun frigate Columbia, weeks from completion, and gunboat Argus, in its final stages, were both reduced to smoldering embers.

Mary Stockton Hunter, an eyewitness to the vast conflagration, wrote her sister on August 30, 1814 sharing, "No pen can describe the appalling sound that our ears heard and the sight our eyes saw. We could see everything from the upper part of our house as plainly as if we had been in the Yard. All the vessels of war on fire-the immense quantity of dry timber, together with the houses and stores in flames produced an almost meridian brightness. You never saw a drawing room so brilliantly lighted as the whole city was that night."

Gunpowder & Lead

The Washington Navy Yard never regained its prominence as a shipbuilding facility after the war. The Anacostia River was too shallow to accommodate the larger vessels the Navy required and the Yard was deemed too inaccessible to open sea. After the steam frigate Minnesota was completed in May 1857, the Yard only launched one more significant ship, the gunboat Nipsic in 1879.

As its role changed, the Yard shifted its focus to ordnance and technology and grew its infrastructure to support manufacturing. New construction included a sophisticated foundry, a large brick quadrangle still standing today and a long structure that housed an experimental gun battery. From it, guns were fired down the Anacostia River, where points of impact could be precisely observed, allowing scientific ballistics testing.

The Navy Yard’s pursuit of technology made it the site of many scientific developments. Robert Fulton conducted research and testing on his clockwork torpedo during the War of 1812. Commodore John Rodgers built the country's first marine railway for overhauling large vessels in 1822. Commander John A. Dahlgren developed his distinctive bottle-shaped cannon that became the mainstay of naval ordnance before the Civil War. Dahlgren also launched the Ordnance Establishment in the early 1850s, which was the first sustained weapons research and development program in American naval history.

The Navy Yard grew and by 1819, it was the largest employer in Washington with approximately 345 workers. Lamentably, as was common in the region during this era, enslaved African Americans made up a significant portion of the Navy Yard’s workforce. Slaves accounted for approximately one third of labor by 1808 with those numbers gradually declining after 1830. However, free and enslaved African Americans remained a vital presence. There is documentation of slaves, euphemistically called "servants," still working in the blacksmith shop as late as August 1861. One former slave and later freeman, Michael Shiner (1805-1880), diaried his experiences over 50 years working at the Navy Yard and those writings now reside in the Library of Congress.

The Civil War

When the issues of slavery and states’ rights boiled to a head leading to the Civil War in 1861, the Yard once again became an integral part of the defense of the capitol. Commandant Franklin Buchanan resigned his commission to join the Confederacy, leaving the Yard to Commander John A. Dahlgren, who assumed command on April 22, 1861. Holding Commander Dahlgren in the highest esteem, President Abraham Lincoln became a frequent visitor.

The Yard’s Ordnance Department supplied the Union with naval shells and gunpowder. During the war, the Navy hired about two dozen women as seamstresses to sew canvas bags for transporting ordnance and flags for naval vessels. Also notably, the famous ironclad USS Monitor was repaired at the Yard after the historic battle with CSS Virginia, the ship formerly known as USS Merrimack before Confederates commandeered her.

Dahlgren's long attachment to the Yard and his incredible contributions to ballistic research & development were recognized in 1863 with a new foundry named for the “Father of American Naval Ordnance”. Morbidly, the leg his son, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, lost following the Battle of Gettysburg was entombed in the foundry’s walls during construction. Dahlgren went on to take command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron at the rank of Rear Admiral and helped General William Tecumseh Sherman secure Savannah, Georgia.

The Yard played a small but significant role in the events following the assassination of President Lincoln on April 15, 1865. Eight captured conspirators were held aboard Navy Yard vessels anchored on the Anacostia River prior to their trails. The body of John Wilkes Booth was examined and identified on the monitor Saugus, moored at the Yard.

Following the Civil War, the Navy Yard continued to spur technological advances and was designated the manufacturing center for all Navy ordnance in 1886. In 1898, David W. Taylor developed a ship model-testing basin, used by the Navy and private shipbuilders to test the effect of water on new hull designs. The first shipboard aircraft catapult was tested in the Anacostia River in 1912; a wind tunnel was completed in 1916; the gears for the Panama Canal locks were cast there; and Navy Yard technicians contributed to designing prosthetic hands and molds for artificial eyes and teeth.

The 20th Century

Ordnance production continued as the Yard manufactured armament for the Great White Fleet, which circumvented the globe to enforce treaties and protect overseas holdings from 1907-1909. During World War I, the Yard armed naval vessels and manufactured the 14-inch naval railway guns used in France.

By World War II, the Washington Navy Yard was the largest naval ordnance plant in the world. At its peak during the war, it employed over 20,000 civilians including 1,400 female ordnance workers. In December 1945, the Yard was renamed the U.S. Naval Gun Factory, which designed and produced weapons used in the Korean War and up until the 1960s.

On July 1, 1964, the installation was re-designated the Washington Navy Yard and disused factories were converted to office buildings. The Washington Navy Yard was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and designated a National Historic Landmark on May 11, 1976.

Today

Today, the Washington Navy Yard houses numerous commands that provide vital support for the fleet and falls under the Naval Support Activity Washington region. Quarters A, commonly known as the Tingey House after surviving the 1814 burning of the Washington, has served as home for the Chief of Naval Operations since 1978. 

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