The Battle of Bull Run and the First Official Submariner
Since April is Submarine Month, I thought I would add to the history of our great institution.
Warning: This is a long article… I struggled to cut it down to size and even thought about doing a two part story. But the more I found out about the First Official Submariner, the more I realized how important his whole story was. Besides, some of us have a lot of time on our hands right now. Hopefully, you will be patient. Trust me, it’s an interesting story.
I have already shared several stories about Holland and the development of the first submarine purchased by the Navy. A name that continued to surface was Captain John Lowe. The more I have read about John, the more I have realized how significant he was in the birth of our submarine service. Captain John Lowe was the first official Navy Submarine Officer. I hope by the end of this story, you can see why I am so bold as to make this statement.
To be fair, I am fully aware of the entire history of every submersible that came before the Holland. I have a wall full of submarine books and I can share every story of every attempt prior to this time that shows many people were involved in operating sub surface vehicles.
But Captain John Lowe is distinguished as the First Official Submariner in American Naval History. This occasion was documented by a letter to the Secretary of the Navy on July 19, 1898.
So who was John Lowe?
“I desire to add my own opinion as to what the future policy of the Navy Department should be, after inaugurating a Submarine Service.” Captain John Lowe April 1, 1900
Two things about him that are very interesting. First, he was not born in America. Second, he started his military career as a member of the Army. John Lowe was born on 11 December 1838 in Liverpool, England. At some point, he moved to the United States and ended up in Ohio. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1860 just as the Civil War was breaking out. He joined the Army as a member of the 2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry in 1861 and traveled with them as they made their way to the first major battle of the Civil War – The Battle of Manassas otherwise known as the First Battle of Bull Run.
From the Official Ohio State records of the war:
The Battle of Bull Run I, also known as the Battle of Manassas I, was the first major land engagement of the American Civil War. Fought near the town of Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, the battle resulted in a decisive Confederate victory.
After the Union surrender of Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 13, 1861, which began the American Civil War, many Northerners were eager to reunite the nation. Believing that Federal forces could easily capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, President Lincoln and other Washington, DC politicians urged Brigadier General Irvin McDowell to launch an offensive and to bring the rebellion to a swift end. Unsure of the readiness of his troops, McDowell reluctantly relented to political pressure and marched a force of about 35,000 soldiers (commonly, but not officially, known as the Army of Northeastern Virginia) out of Washington, toward Virginia on July 16.
Upon learning of McDowell’s departure, Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard positioned his Confederate Army of the Potomac, consisting of approximately 22,000 troops, in a line along Bull Run, a stream near the town of Manassas Junction, Virginia. On July 21, McDowell initiated the battle by sending his troops across Bull Run at Shelby Ford, attacking the Confederate left flank. Unfortunately for the Union troops, McDowell’s plan was so well publicized that even civilians traveled to the site of the battle for Sunday entertainment. The Rebels used the same information to begin sending reinforcements to the Union point of attack. Things went well for the Federals initially, and they drove the Confederates back from their defensive position. As the day wore on, however, Rebel reinforcements from General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah arrived by rail and the Union advance stalled. Of particular note, Colonel Thomas J. Jackson’s brigade was impenetrable, earning him the nickname “Stonewall.”
By late afternoon, the Confederates mounted a counterattack, driving the Union soldiers from the battlefield. The ensuing Federal retreat disintegrated into a rout, sending McDowell’s troops and civilian’s alike scurrying back to Washington. After the battle, Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis engaged in a lengthy feud over who was responsible for the Confederate failure to pursue the retreating Yankees more aggressively, possibly capturing Washington, and bringing the Civil War quick conclusion.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Bull Run I included the1st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry and the 2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
About the Ohio Second Infantry
The 2nd Ohio Infantry was accepted in state service for three months at Columbus, Franklin County, Ohio, on 16 April, 1861, and was ordered to Washington, D. C., under the call for 75,000 volunteer militia to serve three months on 19 April, 1861, dated 15 April, 1861.
Department of Washington, 23 May-14 June, 1861
The 2nd Ohio Infantry was stationed at Camp McClellan, Suffolk Park, on Island Road, seven miles southwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, between 8 and 23 May, 1861.
The battle, although small in comparison with what was to come, proved sobering to both sides.
Combined casualties (killed and wounded) totaled over 5,000. Nearly 900 soldiers (460 Union plus 387 Confederate) perished on the battlefield that day. In the aftermath, McDowell became the first of several generals that Lincoln replaced during the course of the war, and both sides began making earnest preparations for what would prove to be a prolonged and bloody war.
Note: Brigadier General McDowell, United States Army, arrived at Germantown, Fairfax County, Virginia, at 1.30 PM on 17 July, 1861.
South of the Warrenton Turnpike, one & half miles west of Centreville, Fairfax County, Virginia, to three quarters of a mile east of the Stone Bridge, on the Bull Run River, 21 July, 1861: The 2nd Ohio Infantry was ordered to proceed by the Warrenton Turnpike to the Stone Bridge, on the Bull Run River, at 2.30 AM on 21 July, 1861, and arrived south of the Warrenton Turnpike, three quarters of a mile east of the Stone Bridge, on the Bull Run River, at 5 AM the same day.
Retreat to Washington, D. C., 21-22 July, 1861:
The 2nd Ohio Infantry was ordered to Centreville, Fairfax County, Virginia, at 4 PM on 21 July, 1861, and to Vienna, Fairfax County, Virginia, at 5 PM the same day. The regiment arrived at Vienna via Fairfax Courthouse, Fairfax County, Virginia, at 3.30 AM on 22 July, 1861, and was ordered to Falls Church at Peach Grove (Post Office), Fairfax County, Virginia, at 5.30 AM the same day. The 2nd Ohio Infantry arrived at the Long Bridge, Washington, D. C., via Camp Upton, on Riley’s Hill, one mile east of Taylor’s Tavern, on the Leesburg & Alexandria Turnpike, one mile southeast of Falls Church, Fairfax County, Virginia, on 22 July, 1861, and was ordered across the Potomac River to Washington, D. C., in the evening the same day.
John Lowe, the man who would someday become the First Official Submariner was one of the men from Ohio that was injured in the First Battle of Bull Run.
As a result of his injuries, he was no longer eligible for service with the Army. While recovering, he volunteered to transfer to the Navy with the rank of third assistant engineer. He was Twenty Two years of age at the time of his transfer.
John would stay with the Navy for the next forty years
The Navy was beginning a transformation that would take it from the days of sailing ships with steam engines as a secondary source of power to a modern force with new technology to match. His service over the next nearly four decades would be marked with not only innovation but with world travel and many adventures. He served as an engineering officer in the following ships and stations:
1861 to 1864 Duty on USS Huron, South Atlantic Blockading Squadron
USS Huron was a Unadilla-class gunboat built for the United States Navy during the American Civil War for blockage duty against the ports and rivers of the Confederate States of America.
Huron, a schooner-rigged screw steamer, was launched on 21 September 1861 by Paul Curtis, Boston, Massachusetts, under Navy contract; and commissioned on 8 January 1862 at Boston Navy Yard, Lieutenant John Downes in command.
Huron joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in February to take part in Union strangulation of Confederate commerce, and steamed off the coasts of Georgia and Florida. In addition to blockading duties, her men often took part in shore expeditions against the Confederates, as on 15 March 1862 on the Georgia coast.
Huron captures blockade runners Glide, Albert, and Cumbria
Huron chased a schooner ashore on 12 April and seven days later captured schooner Glide off Charleston, South Carolina with 100 bales of cotton and other cargo. She also captured schooner Albert on 1 May and British blockade runner Cumbria on 26 May.
Engaging the guns of Fort McAllister
As Union naval power increased the pressure on Charleston in coordination with the Union Army, Huron engaged batteries in the Stono River on 30 May and took part in an engagement with Fort McAllister on 29 July. Back on regular blockade duty, she captured schooner Aquilla on 4 August.
Huron continued her patrol and blockading duties off Charleston into 1863. During the ironclad attack on the forts in Charleston Harbor on 7 April 1863, the ship formed part of a reserve squadron outside the bar.
Destroying the blockade runner Stonewall Jackson
Five days later, while patrolling with Flag, she detected blockade runner Stonewall Jackson attempting to dash into Charleston. The two Union ships opened fire immediately, so damaging the blockade runner that she was forced to run aground and destroy her cargo, which included vitally needed Army artillery and shoes.
Participating in the seize of Fort Fisher
The veteran blockader made two more captures in December 1863-January 1864, and later in 1864 moved north to join the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, whose main attention was turned to Wilmington, North Carolina, and its powerful defender, Fort Fisher.
During the first attack on the fort on 24–25 December 1864, Huron took part in the bombardment which was to cover the storming by Union Army troops. This first assault aborted, but preparations were quickly made for a second joint operation in January 1865.
1864 to 1866 Duty on USS Shawmut, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron
Shawmut—a screw gunboat begun on 2 February 1863 by the Portsmouth Navy Yard (Kittery, Maine) — was launched on 17 April 1863; sponsored by Miss Lucy Hall; departed Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 20 October 1863; was towed to New York City where her engine and machinery were installed by the South Brooklyn Works; was delivered to the Union Navy on 16 October 1864; and commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 1 November 1864, Lt. Comdr. George U. Morris in command.
Searching for CSS Tallahassee
Two days later, Shawmut got underway to search for Confederate Navy commerce raider, CSS Tallahassee (renamed Olustee), which had recently preyed upon Northern shipping off the Delaware capes. After cruising in Nova Scotian waters without seeing or hearing of her quarry, Shawmut returned to the Portsmouth Navy Yard on the 20th.
On 9 January 1865, the gunboat was ordered to proceed to Wilmington, North Carolina, to join the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. She participated in the attack on and capture of Fort Anderson, North Carolina, from 18 to 20 February. On the latter day, a boat from Shawmut was destroyed by a torpedo (the Civil War term for a mine) as it swept waters in the area.
Supporting Grant on the York River
In March, as General Ulysses S. Grant’s operations around Richmond, Virginia, approached their climax, Shawmut was called back to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and stationed in the York River “to keep open free navigation between White House and the mouth of the York River.” With the fall of Richmond and General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Shawmut was ordered north and decommissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 17 April 1865.
1867 to 1868 Duty at U.S. Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
1870 to 1873 Duty on USS Palos, Asiatic Squadron
Palos was built by James Tetlow, Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1865 and was put into service as yard tug at the Boston Navy Yard the following year. Placed in ordinary in 1869, the tug was converted to a gunboat and commissioned 11 June 1870, Lieutenant C. H. Rockwell in command.
Departing Boston 20 June for the Asiatic Station, Palos steamed across the Atlantic Ocean and through the Mediterranean Sea, becoming the first American warship to transit the Suez Canal 11–13 August, and arrived at Singapore, via Aden and Ceylon, 25 September. Following a brief stay at that port, the gunboat put out for Hong Kong and for the next 22 years operated on the China and Japan coasts and inland waters.
In May 1871, the warship sailed from Shanghai for Nagasaki, Japan, and thence Korea as part of the Asiatic Squadron under Rear Admiral John Rodgers carrying U.S. Minister to China Frederick Low on a diplomatic mission to the “Hermit Kingdom.” While engaged in surveying the Salee River 1 June, she was fired upon by a Korean fort, two men from the squadron being wounded before return fire stopped the attack. Admiral Rodgers waited ten days for an official apology and then ordered Palos, gunboat Monocacy, and a 650 man landing party into action, the two warships supporting an assault and capture of the main Korean fort 10 June and the taking of four others the next day. The squadron departed the Korean coast 3 July without renewing negotiations.
1874 to 1876 Duty on USS Intrepid
The second USS Intrepid, was a steam-powered torpedo ram commissioned and built in 1874 that had the distinction of being the world’s first U.S. Navy ship armed with self-propelled torpedoes. In concept and design she was roughly comparable to the Royal Navy’s HMS Polyphemus, although Intrepid was completed more than half a decade earlier. The ship itself was not very effective because of its odd design. But the work it did on self-propelled torpedoes was groundbreaking.
1876 Duty on USS Despatch
From 1874-1877, Despatch carried out special duty assignments from her base at Washington, D.C., and at various times operated with the North Atlantic Squadron along the United States East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. She was kept ready for use as a dispatch and relief vessel, and on several occasions transported the United States Secretary of the Navy and United States Senate committees. She also towed monitors from one point to another and experimented with spar torpedoes at Newport, Rhode Island.
Despatch departed on 20 April 1877 for the eastern Mediterranean and a special assignment with the United States Embassy at Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire. Arriving there on 14 June, Despatch carried dispatches and transported the American minister to the Ottoman Empire, which was in turmoil because of war with the Russian Empire and internal political unrest. Despatch was detached early in 1879, and returned to Washington, D.C., where she was decommissioned on 9 July 1879.
After extensive repairs, Despatch was recommissioned on 8 June 1880 for use as a training ship and cruised along the U.S. East Coast with cadet engineers from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, on board.
Despatch was again out of commission at Washington, D.C., from 23 September to 19 October 1880, then operated principally in the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay and along the U.S. East Coast from Norfolk, Virginia, to Maine until 1891, carrying out special assignments
1882 Duty at U.S. Capital
1883 Promoted to Chief Engineer
1884 Duty on USS Bear, Greely Relief Expedition
Built in Scotland in 1874 as a steamer for sealing, she was owned and operated out of Newfoundland for ten years. In the mid-1880s, she took part in the search for the Greely Expedition. That story is interesting enough on its own and will be the subject of a future article.
1885 to 1886 Duty on USS Dolphin, South Atlantic Station
USS Dolphin (PG-24) was a gunboat/dispatch vessel; the fourth ship of the United States Navy to be named for the dolphin. Dolphin’s keel was laid down by John Roach & Sons of Chester, Pennsylvania. She was launched on 12 April 1884, with Captain George Dewey in command, and commissioned on 8 December 1885 with Captain R. W. Meade in command. Dolphin was the first Navy ship to fly the Flag of the President of the United States during President Chester A. Arthur’s administration, and the second Navy ship to serve as a presidential yacht
The first of the vessels of the “New Navy” to be completed, Dolphin was assigned to the North Atlantic Station, cruising along the eastern seaboard until February 1886.
1887 to 1889 Duty on USS Thetis
After more than two years of inactivity, Thetis was recommissioned at New York on 15 January 1887, Lt. William H. Emory, Jr., in command. Between mid-January and mid-March, the ship was fitted out as a gunboat and prepared for a cruise around Cape Horn to the west coast. She departed New York on 24 March and began an eight-month voyage during which she stopped at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Montevideo, Uruguay; Valparaíso, Chile; and Callao, Peru.
On 13 October, Thetis sailed into San Francisco for voyage repairs prior to a brief cruise to Alaskan waters. She departed the Mare Island Navy Yard on 16 November and arrived at Sitka, Alaska, on 4 December. She returned to Mare Island on 9 January 1888 and remained there until 8 April when she embarked upon an extended cruise in Alaskan waters. She returned to Sitka on 18 May and, for the next five months, conducted survey work as far north as Point Barrow, visiting Unalaska, St. Michael, East Cape, and Cape Sabine. On 1 November, she headed south from Sitka and entered San Francisco Bay on the 25th. She spent the following five months at the Mare Island Navy Yard, undergoing repairs and preparing for another Alaska survey assignment. Thetis steamed out from the Golden Gate on 20 April and shaped a course north to Sitka, where she arrived on 2 June. Another five months of survey work along the Alaskan coast followed, punctuated again with visits to Unalaska and Point Barrow. She returned to San Francisco on 7 December.
1892 to 1895 Duty on USS New York
USS New York (ACR-2/CA-2) was the second United States Navy armored cruiser so designated; the first was the ill-fated Maine, which was soon redesignated a second-class battleship. Due to the unusually protracted construction of Maine, New York was actually the first armored cruiser to enter U.S. Navy service. The fourth Navy ship to be named in honor of the state of New York, she was later renamed Saratoga and then Rochester. With six 8-inch guns, she was the most heavily armed cruiser in the US Navy when commissioned
In July 1893 New York performed sea trials using the Five Fathom Bank light station and the North East End light station as markers, achieving 21.0 knots (38.9 km/h; 24.2 mph) with 17,401 ihp (12,976 kW) at a displacement of 8,480 tons; at the time she was said to be the fastest armored vessel in the world
Assigned to the South Atlantic Squadron, New York departed New York Harbor on 27 December 1893 for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Arriving at Taipu Beach in January 1894, she remained there until heading home on 23 March, via Nicaragua and the West Indies. Transferred to the North Atlantic Squadron in August, the cruiser returned to West Indian waters for winter exercises and was commended for her aid during a fire that threatened to destroy Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Returning to New York, New York joined the European Squadron in 1895, and steamed to Kiel, where she represented the United States at the opening of the Kiel Canal.
1896 Duty as fleet engineer, Pacific Station
By early 1896, the US Navy was beginning to see the first benefits of the decisions of the 1880’s to modernize the fleet. Ships such as TEXAS and MAINE were joining the so-called ABCD ships, cruisers ATLANTA, BOSTON, and CHICAGO as well as dispatch vessel DOLPHIN, which were the first ships of the “Steel Navy.” However, the extensive time needed for construction still meant that many US ships were obsolescent, if not obsolete, when commissioned. Still, the first true battleships in US Navy history were also entering the fleet at around this time, setting the stage for the Navy’s triumph just over two years later in the Spanish American War.
The fleet still included some Civil War-era ships to go along with its mostly untested newer vessels, though the fleet’s major stations experienced a major turnover of vessels since 1892. Ashore, the Navy lacked Pacific bases and its existing east coast bases remained a source of political patronage for members of Congress rather than true support elements for the fleet.
1898 First Naval Officer to Have Duty in Submarine Service
1899 Promoted to Captain
1900 Retired from the Navy
1911 Promoted to Rear Admiral, retroactive to 1900
On 25 June 1898, the secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, granted permission for Chief Engineer John Lowe to be “present at, and witness the trial of the Submarine Torpedo Boat HOLLAND” and instructed him to “submit to the Department a report of [his] observations, together with notes on such matters of professional interest as may come under [his] notice.”
“Letter from the Secretary of the Navy to John Lowe dated 25 June 1898”
You have permission to be present at, and witness the trial of the Sub-Marine Torpedo Boat HOLLAND, to take place in the near future, and you will please submit to the Department a report of your observations, together with notes on such matters of professional interest as may come under your notice.
John D Long, Secretary
This permission presented June 28th 1898
Holland Torpedo Boat Co.
- B. Frost; Secretary
Chief Engineer, John Lowe U.S.N.
Continental Iron Works, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Commandant, N.Y).
On 19 July 1898, Chief Engineer Lowe reported:
“I went down in the Holland and remained in her, during the entire trip of more than one hour; at least half of which was under water. At this time I have only two facts to report, viz:
(a) That she made several dives to a depth of (12) feet, and that she did so at the will of the operator.
(b) That at the surface, under a very low impellent pressure, without making smoke or noise, or otherwise making known her presence: she fired a dummy dynamite shell, to a distance (me judice) of about 400 yards.
I argue from this, that she can do this in Havana Harbor; that is so, she might under god, save much human Life in the reduction of that place, and that therefore, she ought to go in readiness for that event as early as possible.”
Submarine Torpedo Boat Holland
Atlantic Basin, Brooklyn, N. Y.
July 19th, 1898.
Sir: This day in pursuance of my duty, I made a Sub-aques trip in this vessel. I am thus the first naval Officer of any nationality to perform such service;
therefore, if it please the Department, I would like to have that fact added to my Official Record.
Chief Engineer, U. S.N.
The Honorable Secretary of the Navy.
A letter from his daughter about the event:
On this day my Father made no mention of his intention of going down with the Holland. He left as normal clad in a white linen bicycle suit and rode as was his daily custom from Hempstead Long Island to the Iron Works, 22 miles. I remember when he returned he dismounted in front of my mother, saying with shining eyes, “I’ve been down in the Holland Submarine.” “Oh, John!!!” Later at another trial father insisted the boat was of no ea…… …….. it could stay down. So the Sound in front of the Manhassett House was outside G…ti rose minted. I am told the guests stood watching while Mother watched the little boat, holding precious lives, sink gradually below the surface. What she thought she never said. What she did was to search the beach for specimens which she fit into a smelly pail she found on the beach which a gentleman in expensive summer toggery carried to his room for her for microscopic study.
A storm came up that night but the Sub did not know it. Fifteen hours later the little boat rose triumphantly to be greeted by headlines in the papers. “Down went McGinty”
Edith Blinston Lowe
Captain Lowe was an active and willing participant in the trials of the USS Holland. In November 1899, John Lowe and Arthur MacArthur (second commanding officer of the USS Holland) spent 15 hours on the bottom of Little Peconic Bay with Frank Cable and crew while a severe storm passed over them without their knowledge.
Following the official trials of 12 November 1898, John Lowe reported:
“Furthermore (in my judgment), development [of the submarine torpedo boat] has already proceeded far enough to warrant the conclusions following:
(a) Whatever a common above water torpedo vessel is, a submarine torpedo vessel is that, and much more.
(b) Not forgetting the underwater shot received by the Kearsarge; nevertheless, it is safe to say that a submarine vessel is safe from above water artillery.
(c) A submarine vessel can at any time, day or night, deliver a perfectly concealed attack at a respectable speed.
(d) She can mine or countermine, without let or hindrance from anyone.
(e) She can at any time, enter any harbor upon reconnaissance.
(f) The mere fact of her existence and presence would make her adversaries very nervous men.
(g) Until a party can be discovered, submarine warfare will become exceedingly formidable and likely to create as great revolution in naval methods as that wrought by the Monitor.
It is not to be asserted that the “Holland” is a perfect vessel of her kind, but neither has any vessel yet built approached anywhere near perfection, but the “Holland” is so good a vessel as to deserve consideration from the Navy Department, and to my mind the policy which drove the Hotchkiss gun, with other inventions, from native to foreign shores for development should not in the “Holland” be repeated.”
In every article I uncovered about the Holland’s early trials and the submarine force, Lowe’s name and statements were prominent. His vision for a submarine force of the future laid the groundwork for what we have since gained as a nation.
His life as a sailor and his role in the emerging Navy truly set him apart as a man of distinction.
John Lowe retired from the Navy in 1900 and died 28 August 1930. The submarine force that he envisioned continues to be marked by the innovations and improvements that he had a significant role in launching.
You can read more about his contributions here: