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Book Review, NRJ 67.4

February 12, 2023 10:44 AM | PAUL R MITCHELL (Administrator)

John Lenthall: The Life of a Naval Constructor

Stephen Chapin Kinnaman

There are innumerable books published on military subjects each year and only a small number of these relate to the navy. Studies of civilians who have had a role in naval matters is rarely the topic of any study. Stephen Kinnaman’s biography of John Lenthall is a long overdue examination of one of history’s most important naval constructors. This detailed and well-written biography places Lenthall in the context of his times and follows closely his life in incredible detail.

Lenthall, who was born in Washington, DC in 1807, decided as a teen that he wanted to build ships. He began an apprenticeship at age fifteen in the Washington Navy Yard and less than a year later moved to Philadelphia. Here he worked with Samuel Humphreys, then thought as the country’s premier naval constructor. Lenthall drew his first plans at age sixteen and when Humphreys became the Navy’s chief constructor Lenthall followed him back to the capital. Here he performed various jobs around the Washington Navy Yard, importantly making calculations for Humphreys’ drawings.

Lenthall, early in his life, exhibited ambition and a drive for knowledge that would serve him well and later make him unmatched in his profession. He traveled to Europe to study mathematics and engineering for several years. He toured dockyards to examine ships under construction and spent some fifteen months in France. The young man came back to the United States in 1834 and procured a job in the mould loft at Washington Navy Yard. In 1835, he received a promotion to master builder at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and then as naval constructor. During this time, as a supplementary source of income he also designed merchant ships, helping him to keep abreast of emerging technology.

In November 1849, the United States Navy appointed Lenthall its chief constructor and four years later he became the chief of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair. This brought new challenges because now he oversaw the administration of an entire naval bureau, giving him new opportunities on a scale he never imagined. One of the first challenges was the building of the Merrimack-class frigates.In his position, he was at the forward edge of making steam propulsion viable in naval vessels. Lenthall was in the right place at the right time and was one of the most important men that worked to see the navy evolve from sail to steam. Despite his need to oversee all the administrative work to run the bureau, he remained active influencing the design of American warships.

He importantly oversaw the construction of the many classes of warships built during the Civil War. The author discusses his relationship with John Ericsson, and how his strategic philosophy differed from that of Ericsson. Lenthall believed that the navy should have a seagoing fleet of warships and put it eloquently by writing “how much better it is to fight at the threshold rather than upon the hearthstone.” The author determined not to cover the Civil War ironclad building problems in detail because he deemed it sufficiently covered in other books, yet this was the most controversial of the department’s work and maybe he should have done more. The author importantly points out that during his tenure as the bureau chief, and despite the massive amounts of money spent on building warships during the Civil War, that there was no corruption in his administration. His office, however, did suffer one of the most embarrassing ship design calamities with the failed shallow draft monitors.

In 1871, due to his age, the government forced Lenthall to retire. He participated on naval boards afterwards and one of his final tasks was the investigation into the rebuilt double-turreted monitors. Lenthall kept professionally engaged even though his health was wanning, remaining active, providing advice and answering engineering questions, until he died in 1882.

The author, a historian and naval architect, uses a critical eye to examine, analyze and discuss Lenthall’s work and life. The author’s work is well-reasoned and researched and covers politics and technical issues skillfully and with a clear prose. He importantly used the many Lenthall collections available, some untapped by scholars. An additional bonus to this wonderful work is the color plates, plans, and the extremely beneficial appendices. This work should appeal to a wide audience—those interested in the Civil War, naval architecture and naval history. There was no biography of Lenthall for some one hundred and forty years after his death. This book is so important, and so well done, it is unlikely to be another one for this same length of time.

  • Wilmington, Delaware: Vernon Press, 2022
  • 6-1/4” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xxx + 555 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $119.00
  • ISBN: 9781648894183

Reviewed by: Robert M. Browning Jr.

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