Oyster Police howitzer goes from piracy to publicity campaign
Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources John Griffin recently announced the acquisition of an 1868 bronze cannon inscribed "Maryland State Oyster Police Force." This culminated a three-year effort by a number of people that was spearheaded by Maryland DNR Police Lt. Gregory Bartles. (I even wrote a letter or two.) He views the acquisition as "the Holy Grail for Department of Natural Resources history." This is the backstory for the gun, which is being trundled about Maryland for exhibit.
While references to the use of explosives appear about A.D. 950, the earliest written formula for gunpowder, an amalgam of saltpeter, sulfur and carbon (added as charcoal) dates from the "Wujing Zongyao" text in the year 1044. During the Song Dynasty, 950-1279, an early depiction of an artillery piece appears in a cave sculpture in Sichuan dated 1128. The earliest verified cast-iron cannon was called the fei yun pi-li pao or "flying cloud thunderclap eruptor." These weapons helped the Song to fend off three rival forces until their eventual defeat by the Mongols in the 13th century.
The technology spread slowly to Western Europe, providing medieval armies with vastly more efficient means to kill each other - and non-target civilian populations - in the name of whatever cause they espoused. This sophistication continues to the present.
Cannon, more correctly the "saker," a mobile naval or field piece of moderate size, came to Jamestown with Christopher Newport and Capt. John Smith. The pieces weighed thousands of pounds and fired a cast-iron ball of up to 18 pounds. These served to startle Native American adversaries, but were not ideal for the kind of irregular combat the English faced.
They were not ideal for the nature of combat then developing among European powers either, which increasingly relied upon massed formations of troops moving into and about in battle. It was found that a shorter, lighter and more maneuverable weapon that used less gunpowder served better. While it controlled the flight of the projectile for a shorter distance and was thus less accurate than a "long gun," or true cannon, it was very effective, especially with "grape" or scattering small shot against crowds of troops and massed cavalry.
These guns were called howitzers. Howitzers of all sizes were built, the largest being the "tsar Cannon" cast of bronze in Russia in 1586 for Tsar Feodor. It weighed about 86,460 pounds and was designed to fire 1,760 pounds of stone grape shot, as well as an immense spherical projectile 35 inches in diameter! The gun is on display in Moscow's Kremlin.
As wars swept Europe in the late 17th and early 19th centuries, the howitzer proved its efficiency at killing the enemy. Millions grieved; warlords rejoiced. Napoleon Bonaparte's military experts engineered a mobile howitzer that eventually came to informally bear his name. Artillery were able to move in the field with troop formations, advancing and retreating with greater facility.
The effective "Napoleon" crossed the Atlantic and was widely used in the Civil War. The barrel was 66 inches long, weighed more than 1,200 pounds and fired a 12-pound cannonball. The carriage upon which it was mounted weighed 1,100 pounds. Assembled and with a limber holding ammunition and powder, the rig required a couple of horses or a mule team to tow it around.
Changing conditions of combat required a still lighter and more mobile weapon. One was the field howitzer, also capable of firing a 12-pound projectile. It was built with a 53-inch barrel, weighed 788 pounds and had a carriage that weighed 900 pounds. Many battlefronts in the Civil War, though, took troops into rough, high terrain, like the mountain trails and passes of the West Virginia Appalachians. Normal artillery could not navigate there.
For this work, a portable "mountain howitzer" was put in service. It could be disassembled into four components and packed on mules for the narrowest of trails. The barrel of 33 inches weighed just 220 pounds, the carriage frame 157 pounds and each of the two wheels 65 pounds. In a pinch, a couple of soldiers could carry these individual weights for short distances. On level country roads the whole assembled rig, at 507 pounds, could be towed behind a single mule.
Mountain howitzers were used by Union troops during raids inland from the coast as well as in the mountains west of Chesapeake Bay by both Union troops and fast-moving Confederate raiders like John Hunt Morgan and John S. Mosby.
Hunter Davidson, born in the District of Columbia in 1827, was 3 years old, when Maryland - struggling with the incredibly greedy rape of its natural oyster bars - passed laws restricting harvest to residents only. Disregard of this law by residents of neighboring states and pirates from farther afield would play into young Davidson's life years later. At the age of 14, he received an appointment from Virginia to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and completed his training in 1847. By 1855, he had achieved the rank of lieutenant.
In that same year, the Tredagar Co. foundry in Richmond began manufacturing a 12-pounder Dahlgren cannon. This gun, developed by Adm. John A. Dahlgren, was one in a series of field pieces, including the light boat howitzer developed in 1848. This gun was unique in its intent to be used shipboard - and with an added wheeled carriage - for landing parties. With a barrel of 52 inches weighing 430 pounds (with boat carriage, 600), it fired the same 12-pound load as its larger counterparts. Cast in bronze, it was strong and easily kept corrosion-free around saltwater.
When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Davidson chose to resign his U.S. Navy commission to join the Southern effort. I've discovered no evidence of his political leanings in this conflict, but it becomes clear he was adventurous and likely chose to go with trusted and respected colleagues as well as the Southern cause. He served the rest of 1861 at the Norfolk Navy Yard near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and in the gunboat Patrick Henry.
Later, Davidson was an officer aboard the Confederate ironclad, Virginia, which had been built up from the captured Union vessel, Merrimack. He was aboard during her brief, deafening and inconclusive engagements with the Union ironclad, Monitor, which many view as the turning point in naval warfare history.
During the next two years, Davidson commanded Teaser, a Confederate gunboat deployed on the James River. This vessel was armed with a bow chaser, which fired in the direction that the boat was steered. Teaser was subsequently captured by the Union, and though damaged, a stereo pair photograph was taken of her bow with the Dahlgren in place. Davidson might later have used this sliding recoil type of mount on another vessel in his command.
He was also in charge of the James River's Submarine Battery Service, which had nothing to do with submarines in our sense of the word, but everything to do with torpedoes of the day and with mines designed to sink enemy ships.
On April 9, 1864, near the war's end, he took another vessel, Squib, on a daring mission. She had a spar torpedo protruding from her bow that would explode when rammed into an enemy vessel. These small torpedo boats, called "Davids" after the Biblical Goliath tale, were considered by the Union to be "unChristianlike" warfare.
He drove his vessel through the Union fleet at Newport News and attacked the USS Minnesota, managing to escape back up the James afterward. He was promoted to commander in recognition of this, and his last command in the Civil War was aboard the blockade runner City of Richmond. Davidson's partial Department of the Navy biography indicates that "after the war, Davidson moved to Paraguay." But that is not wholly correct.
In 1865, the year the Civil War ended, Maryland required licenses for oystering, but amidst a "gold rush" mentality, as it's described by writer Robert Kyle, the new rules were widely ignored and violence frequently erupted among competitors, sometimes ending with murder. This disorder persisted widely into the mid-1880s and remnants of it erupted between Virginia and Maryland interests into the 1950s.
Cmdr. Davidson had actually returned to the North, or at least to South-sympathizing Maryland, in the latter part of the 1860s. His gallant service reputation preceded him, and he was offered a commission in the Maryland Oyster Police Force, or "Oyster Navy," that had been formed to control still rampant illegal oyster harvests in the Mid and Upper Chesapeake. He took command of the Leila, an iron hull, side-wheel steamer built in Baltimore for the Oyster Police Force and named after Davidson's daughter. This boat was one of several vessels on this force. It needed a gun to enforce its role with greater effectiveness than the rifles and pistols with which oyster policemen had been trading shots with angry and recalcitrant Virginia and other watermen. Com. David-son would brook no nonsense from oyster pirates.
Perhaps he still had contacts in the Tredegar Co. foundry, and their sales book shows that in 1868, they cast just one bronze cannon, a howitzer, which bears their name on the muzzle and "Maryland State Oyster Police Force" inscribed on the breech along with the Maryland Seal. Incidentally, Tredegar, as a company, survived into the 1950s.
Davidson may have used a sliding recoil mount on Leila that was similar to the one aboard Teaser, as an engraving of her in action suggests. There is one depiction of a battle between Leila and renegade oystermen from a contemporary illustrated newspaper, in which two steamers are shown, one presumably Leila, attacking violators.
Davidson continued to serve in the Maryland Oyster Police until at least 1872, when, because he believed Maryland was too lenient with the oyster violators, he resigned and moved to Argentina. There, in 1874, he designed a 620-ton steamer, Fulminante for the Ministry of War, and is credited with founding Argentina's torpedo and mine operations. Fulminante's magazine exploded in 1877, but that was someone else's problem.
Davidson was still the adventurer and participated in expeditions as a hydrographic engineer to map the Iguaz'u and Paran'a rivers, and the Bahia Blanca. He retired from the Argentine Navy, was named an honorary member of the Argentine Centro Naval, and died at 86 on Feb. 16, 1913.
His Dahlgren/Tredegar howitzer, stayed with Leila until its retirement in 1884. Maryland replaced the old boat with the modern Governor McLane and the light boat howitzer seems to have been installed on her bow until at least 1891. In that year, Congress passed legislation enabling state naval militias. Instrumental in this legislation was Isaac Emerson, who'd made his fortune creating the anti-indigestion product "Bromo-Selzer" in 1888. (A tower built in 1911 advertising this remedy still stands, with its clock, in downtown Baltimore.)
Under the new law, the Governor McLane received one of the many Hotchkiss 1-pounders that were distributed, a decidedly more modern, accurate and quickly loaded weapon. This remained mounted in her bows until decommissioning.
With the Hotchkiss installed, the howitzer was apparently presented to Emerson to thank him for his efforts. He installed it at his northern Maryland estate, Brooklynwood, until the 1930s. In the winter of 1938, state roads snowplower Clifford Sullivan noticed the barrel contrasted in the snow, and asked Emerson's widow, Anne Preston McCormick Emerson, if he might have it. Uncertain what to do with his find, he stored it at a relative's Esso Station for the next 15 years, then donated it to American Legion Post 116, where members had a gun carriage built for it.
The light boat howitzer was regularly fired by re-enactors of the 2nd Maryland Light Infantry in North-South skirmishes.
When the American Legion discovered that the Oyster Police gun had been mounted aboard Leila, it asked the Department of Natural Resources for a picture of it. None existed, and that's how Lt. Greg Bartles entered the story amid three years of negotiations. Maryland paid the Legion $40,000 to repatriate this piece of the department's long history.
The gun is on exhibit along Delmarva's Pocomoke River and will visit various Maryland museum sites, until Bartles finds a good home, and final quiet repose for the gun.
End of story? A few weeks ago Lt. Bartles got a phone call. The voice on the other said: "Hello, I'm Hunter Davidson". He thought it was a crank until he was informed that his caller was the commander's great-great grandson!
- Category: Heritage + History
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