A few words about the Stevens Battery

Outside of naval tech history books, one tends to encounter the Stevens Floating Battery (sometimes just "Stevens Battery") in Sears' Young Napoleon, at that point in 1867 where George B. McClellan is picking up a sales contract to peddle this weapons system in Europe.

Sears doesn't say much more about McClellan's involvement with the Stevenses, except that McClellan did not sell the system in the late 1860s. He could have written more. Some years ago, I found extensive correspondence between McClellan and and the Stevenses (or their representatives) among Governor McClellan's letters in Trenton, 1878-1879. They were still, at that late date, transacting "battery" business.

To my regret, I did not copy out the letters. The writing was cramped, the letters long and I barely had time to inventory McClellan's correspondence.

In the papers of Joseph Henry, there is a letter (document 119) dated to 1861 in which Henry apparently writes a report to McClellan about the Stevens Battery; that would establish an earlier McClellan/Stevens connection than Sears' 1867.

I never had a clear idea of the battery, however.

Sears did give a competent thumbnail description of the thing as it was, but despite his help I pictured it as maybe a score of cannon resting on a floating log raft with some iron protection around the guns. Really trademark-worthy stuff. Ridiculous me.

In my reading this week, I was surprised to see Brent Nosworthy, in his Bloody Crucible of Courage, classify the "Floating Battery" as a persistent and pernicious nomenclature error. Nosworthy says this was a very advanced ironclad design from the first (1840) for which the Navy had no terminology. The "floating battery" contract language stuck and it must have hurt: images of the Royal Navy towing rafts of cannon through Crimean waters, and all that.

Scroll down for a look at these drawings of the system as they appeared in the August 31, 1861 edition of Scientific American.

Nosworthy points out that this Scientific American article attributes the current (1861) Stevens technology to the first versions of the project twenty years previous.

By December, 1861, Harper's Weekly had its own Stevens battery article in print, building further on a "wonder weapon effect" that resulted in rumors and sightings. For instance, by May, The Richmond Dispatch had the Stevens Battery "one mile and a half below City Point, cautiously and slowly advancing" with the Monitor and Galena.

A year earlier, in April 1861, in the combat at Sumter, Harper's Weekly had reported that "the Stevens Battery was silenced, and the Floating Battery half shot away."

The problem with the system is that it was what software people call "vaporware." It had been started but not finished, which resulted in variant views of what the final product might look like.

This project went through starts and stoppings and redesigns; it outran its government cash and private investment; ultimately it fell into the hands of the State of New Jersey.

In the late 1960s, I moved next door to the Marie H. Katzenbach Scool for the Deaf. It's a major (pleasant) feature of what is called "West Trenton" and it had started out by taking over what had been a home for Civil War orphans.

The Katzenbach school was established in large part through a state grant of $58,793.58. That money came from the scrap sale of the unfinished Stevens Floating Battery.

I think McClellan was involved: if I had copied out those Stevens letters, I'd know for sure. I'd have a nice ending to wrap up this tale.

Don't be as lazy as this blogger.

And if you have some free moments, please write a book about this fascinating project.