Union Civil War Admiral’s advice to his daughter: “Nothing so much lowers a woman in the estimation of men as the slightest approach to indelicacy”

Signed by John Adolph Dahlgren

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DAHLGREN, JOHN ADOLPHUS. (1809-1870). Union Civil War admiral and inventor; founder of the U.S. Navy’s Ordnance Department. ALS. (“Most affectionately, Your father”). 4pp. 8vo. Panama, on board the Powhatan, May 6, 1867. To his daughter Eva Dahlgren (1848?-1870).

Your note of 17th came to me last evening when I arrived here – from which I judge that you have been enjoying yourself vastly. I forgot to note your telling me that in N. York you declined to see the ‘Black Crook’ having heard me speak illy of it – You did right – your mother was the last woman in the world that would tolerate such an insult to her sex – a true woman she was and never needed any guide but her own sense of what was right – but with the keenest sense of propriety and the utmost firmness – was mingled the kindliest feelings that ever warmed a heart. Nothing so much lowers a woman in the estimation of men as the slightest approach to indelicacy. Well as you saw my letter you should have folded the paper after reading it and mailed it to Panama – several letters were written and I do not know which is attended to – here it cannot be got – As a general rule you can always mail any paper or magazine that has been read and no longer wanted. Miss Gussie must be a very nice young lady, by your accounts – so you may present me to her with best regards. While I am writing a lively little squirrel is rambling about and takes the [sic] to nibble at my pen handle. So Paully will not see you until those studies are over – All right – no one knows better what he wants – I too am interested in that high number – What would I not give to be ‘there to see’ – The sun here is awful – one of my Captains died a few days since – not a week’s illness – Do not let your Aunt Patty forget the Memoir or Stagg’s picture – I suppose the checks arrived safely – Put yours to a good use. My fit out was heavy and put me back considerably…”

Dahlgren standing next to a 50-pounder Dahlgren rifle in 1865


The son of a Swedish consul, Dahlgren was born in Philadelphia and joined the United States Navy at around age 17. Over the course of his career he became an expert in ordnance, authored The System of Boat Armaments in the United States Navy, Shells and Shell Guns and Naval Percussion Locks and Primers, oversaw the establishment of an in-house foundry, developed several types of weapons for use on small boats including the boat howitzer, and, most notably, a cast-iron muzzle loading cannon called the Dahlgren gun, an improved version of French Admiral Henri-Joseph Paixhans’ shell gun. Dahlgren’s gun was designed to be safer and to operate as well as more powerful than previous naval artillery. At the outset of the Civil War, and at Abraham Lincoln’s request, Dahlgren took command of the Washington Navy Yard. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1863 and aided William Tecumseh Sherman in his capture of Savannah. Our letter was written while Dahlgren commanded the South Pacific Squadron, an uneventful posting that he held from 1866-1869.

In 1839, Dahlgren married Mary Bunker who died in 1855 and whom he devotedly remembers to his daughter in our missive. Together, in addition to Eva, Mary bore him three sons, one of whom was killed during an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Jefferson Davis in 1864, known as the Dahlgren Affair. After Mary’s death, Dahlgren married Sarah Madeleine Vinton, a prominent writer, translator, anti-suffragist, devout Catholic, and widow of the first assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. In a letter by Elizabeth Blair Lee (the sister of Lincoln’s postmaster general) to her husband, Rear Admiral Samuel Philips Lee, from March 4, 1864, she observes: “The Admiral [Dahlgren] is unfortunate in his children…the second daughter [Eva] is as ugly as mud & stupid,” (Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee, University of Illinois Press, 1999).

The Black Crook, known for its scantily clad dancers

Interestingly, our letter critiques The Black Crook, considered the first modern musical, which made its Broadway premiere on September 12, 1866 at Niblo’s Garden. Although the plot was derivative and the music forgettable, “there were dazzling special effects, including a ‘transformation scene’ that mechanically converted a rocky grotto into a fairyland throne room in full view of the audience. But the show’s key draw was its underdressed female dancing chorus, choreographed in semi-classical style… righteous attacks from pulpits and newspaper editorial columns made The Black Crook the hottest ticket on Broadway,” (“The Black Crook,” Kenrick, musicals101.com). The Black Crook ran for a record-breaking 474 performances and enjoyed three subsequent revivals during the 1870s.

Our letter was written aboard the USS Powhatan, a sidewheel steam frigate launched in 1850 and named for the Native American chief. After seeing action during the Civil War, the Powhatan was the flagship of the South Pacific Squadron from 1866-1868. Normal letter folds and in excellent condition.

Union Civil War Admiral’s advice to his daughter: “Nothing so much lowers a woman in the estimation of men as the slightest approach to indelicacy”

Signed by John Adolph Dahlgren

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