The War Effort: Washington Navy Yard

Mr. Lincoln frequently visited the Navy Yard to take Potomac cruises, review troops and inspect new weapon enhancements with Captain John A. Dahlgren, commandant of the Navy Yard. Dahlgreen took over after the previous commandant defected to the Confederacy. All but two federal officers at the Yard defected to the Confederacy.

“Sometimes Lincoln drove down to watch a new invention being tested, but more often he came just for coffee, cigars, and a chat with his favorite naval officer,” wrote Dahlgren biographer Robert J. Schneller.1 On departing one day, Mr. Lincoln told Dalhgren: “Well, I will go home; I had no business here; but, as the lawyer said, I had none anywhere else.”2

President Lincoln first showed up here unannounced about a month after his inauguration. (President Lincoln took a personal interest in Dahlgren’s career and was responsible for his promotion to rear admiral in 1863 and his assignment to sea duty. Dahlgren was succeeded by his assistant, Henry Wise, who was less creative but more managerial.) He was present again on May 10, 1861 when a group of musicians from the 71st New York Regiment gave a concert “in one of the large store-rooms in the Navy Yard, which they occupy as barracks. They had an elegant audience of some two or three hundred invited guests, and made the enterprise a great success.” Afterwards, according to presidential aide John G. Nicolay, the presidential party was given a shipboard demonstration of naval artillery. (Dahlgren’s residence and office was “Building One,” which was restored in the 1990s to its 19th Century Appearance.)

In March 1861, British journalist William Howard Russell described the Navy Yard as “surrounded by high brick walls; in the gateway stood two sentries in dark blue tunics, yellow facings, with eagle buttons, brightly polished arms, and white Berlin gloves, very clean and creditable. Inside are some few trophies of guns taken from us at York Town, and from the Mexicans in the land of Cortez. Close to the river are the workshops: of course there is smoke and noise of steam and machinery. In a modest office, surrounded by books, papers, drawings, and models, as well as by shell and shot and racks of arms of different descriptions, we found Capt. Dahlgren, the acting superintendent of the yard, and the inventor of the famous gun which bears his name…”3

Secretary of War Gideon Welles was jealous of Mr. Lincoln’s frequent trips to the Navy Yard and consultations with Dahlgren – as this excerpt from his diary entry on the crisis created by the emergence of the Confederate ironclad the Merrimac in March 1862: “The President himself was so excited that he could not deliberate or be satisfied with the opinions of non-professional men, but ordered his carriage and drove to the navy yard to see and consult with Admiral Dahlgren and other naval officers, who might be there. Dahlgren, always attentive and much of a courtier, had, to a great extent, the President’s regard and confidence; but in this instance Dahlgren, who knew not of the preparation or what had been the purposes of the Department, could give the President no advice or opinion, but referred him to me.”4

Sometimes after a weapons test, Dahlgren took the President out on the Potomac River for a cruise on the Pensacola. At the end of one such trip, the President remarked: “Well, there has been a pleasant day. Such a relief from politicians.”5 On another cruise, after testing a machine gun which had a problem with escaping gas, the President announced in the hearing of at least one reporter: “Well, I believe this really does what it is represented to do. Now have any of you heard of any machine, or invention, for preventing the escape of ‘gas’ from newspaper establishments?”6

President Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln visited the Navy Yard on May 24, 1861 to view the body of Elmer Ellsworth, saying: “My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be made?” He later returned to the Navy Yard to arrange for Ellsworth’s body to be taken to the White House. On another occasion, the President and two Cabinet members — Seward and Chase — went to the Navy Yard in November 1862 to witness a rocket launch. The rocket exploded on launch, luckily sparing the nearby witnesses any serious harm. A witness recorded his observations: “One evening a party of six or eight, including Mr. Lincoln, came to the Navy Yard and proceeded to the bulkhead, where they had arranged to demonstrate the workings of certain signalling rockets, several of which were sent up with good results. When the last one was tried each one in the party watched it as it soared aloft, leaving its streams of fire trailing behind, but when half-way up it exploded prematurely and fell to the water a miserable failure. ‘Well,’ remarked Lincoln, ‘small potatoes and few in a hill.'”7

On April 26, 1862, the French frigate Gassendi visited Washington. President Lincoln went to the Navy Yard to board her – along with Captain Dahlgren and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Seward’s son Frederick recorded the concluding events of the cruise:

Champagne and a brief conversation in the captain’s cabin came next; then a walk up and down her decks to look at her armament and equipment. Though the surroundings were all new to Mr. Lincoln, he bore himself with his usual quiet, homely, unpretentious dignity on such occasions, and chatted affably with some of the officers who spoke English. The visit over, we were escorted to the side ladder, and re-embarked in our barge.
As Mr. Lincoln took his seat in the stern he said: ‘Suppose we row around her bows. I should like to look at her build and rig from that direction.’ Captain Dahlgren of course shifted his helm accordingly. The French officers doubtless had not heard or understood the President’s remark, and supposed were pulling off astern in the ordinary way.
We had hardly reached her bow, when, on looking up, I saw the officer of the deck pacing the bridge, watch in hand and counting off the seconds, ‘Un, deux, trois,’ and then immediately followed the flash and deafening roar of a cannon, apparently just over our heads. Another followed, then another and another in rapid succession. We were enveloped in smoke and literally “under fire” from the frigate’s broadside. Captain Dalhgren sprang to his feet, his face aflame with indignation, as he shouted: ‘Pull like the devil, boys! Pull like hell!”
They obeyed with a will, and a few sturdy strokes took us out of danger. After he had resumed his seat and calmed down, I said in a low voice: “Of course those guns were not shotted, and we were below their range?”
He answered, gritting his teeth, “Yes, but to think of exposing the President to the danger of having his head taken off by a wad!”
I did not know, until he explained, that the wadding blown to pieces by the explosion sometimes commences dropping fragments soon after leaving the gun. Whether Mr. Lincoln realized the danger or not, I never knew. He sat impassively through it, and made no reference to it afterwards.8

A few weeks after his Second Inauguration, President Lincoln arranged to be transported to Grant’s headquarters by a gunboat, the Bat, commanded by John Barnes. The boat was re-outfitted at the Navy Yard. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “The next morning, Lincoln summoned Barnes back to the White House, Embarrassed at the thought that workers had stayed up all night to make alterations that might now required additional work, Lincoln explained apologetically that ‘Mrs. Lincoln had decided that she would accompany him to City Point, and could the bat accommodate her and her maid servant.’ Barnes was, ‘in sailor’s phrase, taken ‘all aback,’ knowing that the austere gunboat ‘was in no respect adapted to the private life of womankind, nor could she be made so.”9

It was here where the Lincolns came in a carriage ride late on the day he was assassinated. According to one soldier, Thomas Hopkins: “I will never forget the last time I saw this greatest of men. I was on Friday evening of April 14, 1865. That evening, just before sunset, a companion and I were walking near the Navy Yard entrance, when Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln passed in the White House carriage, evidently intending to drive through the Navy Yard grounds. The usual mounted body-guard was not in attendance. It was because of the absence of any guard, perhaps, that my companion and I stopped and watched them pass. The lines in the President’s face had deepened and lengthened. Otherwise it was little changed. It had not hardened. Rather it had softened and mellowed as does the face of one who has come through great tribulation with faith undimmed. I turned to my companion and said: ‘There is no other country in the civilized world where one may see the ruler of a great people riding on the streets with no guard or escort.”10

Dr. George H Todd, surgeon aboard the Montauk, which was docked at the Navy Yard, wrote the day Mr. Lincoln died: “Yesterday about 3 P.M. the President wife drove down to the Navy Yard and paid our ship a visit, going all over her, accompanied by us all. Both seemed very happy, and so expressed themselves, glad that this war was over, or near its end, and then drove back to the White House.”11

It was also here that the body of John Wilkes Booth, Mr. Lincoln’s assassin, was brought by Union troops after he was killed in a shoot-out.

According to The Stranger’s Guide-book to Washington City, “The Navy Yard is over a mile east of the Capitol, on the Eastern branch of the Potomac River. It covers an area of about 20 acres, and is enclosed on the land side by a massive brick wall. The entrance is at the foot of Eighth street east, and is through a handsome arched gateway, the design of the architect Latrobe. This yard is one of the most extensive in the Union, and keeps in constant employ an immense number of workmen, who are continually engaged in the manufacture of anchors, chain cables, steam engines, boilers, sails, and every description of article necessary to the building, repair, or fitting out of vessels of war. The yard is always in a neat and cleanly condition, and the arrangements of the workshops are perfect in all details. Near the entrance (inside) are buildings for the residence of the Commandant of the yard, and for other officers on duty there. Near the gate are large cannon, captured by Com. Decatur at Tripoli ; and other trophies of victory may be seen at different points in the yard.

“War vessels of the largest draught, and smaller vessels, are always lying off the yard for repair ; while new vessels are oftentimes being constructed. War vessels of foreign friendly nations also frequently come up and anchor off the yard.
All the departments of the yard, including the ship houses, iron and brass founderies, ordnance department, machine shops, pyrotechnical laboratory, rolling mill, &c., should be visited. There are two immense hammers here, one of which weighs 3,600 lbs., and the other 2,240 Ibs., both of which always prove attractive to visitors.
On Eighth street east, and a short distance north of the Navy Yard, are the Barracks for the United States Marines, which are enclosed by a heavy brick wall.12


  1. Robert J. Schneller, A Quest for Glory, p. 186.
  2. Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 129.
  3. Fletcher Pratt, editor, William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, pp. 31-32.
  4. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, pp. 61-62.
  5. Robert V. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, p. 21.
  6. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, p. 210.
  7. Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, p. 266.
  8. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p.708.
  9. Frederick W. Seward, Reminiscences of a War-Time Diplomat, pp. 174-175.
  10. Thomas Hopkins in Rufus Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 397.
  11. Timothy Sean Good, We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts, p.71
  12. T. Loftin Snell, The Stranger’s Guide-book to Washington City, pp. 32-33.


John Dahlgren
Gideon Welles
Elmer Ellsworth
Gustavus V. Fox
Mary Todd Lincoln