Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Third Assistant Engineer William Francis Law, U. S. Navy

Posted in Genealogy by Andy Hall on February 2, 2013

Will Law SmallThe other day, when I was poking around the web for images to go with my post on the H. L. Hunley spar, I came across this image (right) of a U.S. Navy engineer officer. My immediate reaction was, that’s a kid dressed up in somebody’s uniform. But it’s not; the notation on the back of the CDV reads, “Uncle Will Law as a Naval Officer Civil War.” Uncle Will was Third Assistant Engineer William Francis Law, appointed in November 1861. Law died on September 24, 1863 of unstated causes.

I’ve been able to find very little about Law in readily-available sources. The second image in the auction lot is a photograph of U.S.S. New Ironsides, that served off Charleston; written on the back of that card, in the same hand, is the note “Uncle Will Law’s ship Civil War.” According to Porter’s Naval History of the Civil War, Law was serving aboard U.S.S. Pinola at the capture of New Orleans in April 1862, and was still part of her complement the following January 1, as part of Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron. It seems he turns up exactly once in the ORN, a one-sentence mention in a routine report from Commander James Alden to Farragut on September 14, 1862: “Mr. Law succeeded in repairing the Pinola by making a new stem to her Kingston valve.”

About Law’s civilian life, I’ve been able to find even less. He is almost certainly the William F. Law, age 17, who was the eldest child of Benedict and Anna C. Law of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, just west of Harrisburg, at the time of the 1860 U.S. Census. He graduated from the Carlisle Boy’s High School in 1858 and, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer of June 28, 1861,  graduated from the Polytechnic College of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, specializing in road building.  Polytechnic was one of only a handful of universities in the United States at that time that offered engineering degrees, and Law’s academic background may have set him a little apart from his fellow engineers. Seagoing engineers in that day, both in the Navy and in the merchant service, were more commonly men with practical experience on shore in machine shops, foundries or similar trades.

I haven’t been able to confirm Law’s service aboard U.S.S. New Ironsides, as indicated on the back of the auction house photo; his name does not appear on these lists of ship’s officers transcribed from the National Archives. If he did serve aboard that ship in the summer of 1863, he saw a tremendous amount of action off Charleston.

One final note — in his undated portrait, taken at the Bogardus studio on Broadway in New York, Third Assistant Law looks to be wearing a gold-braided hat borrowed from a much more senior engineering officer. Maybe the sword, too. Gotta look good for the folks back in Carlisle, I suppose.




6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Mac Whatley said, on February 2, 2013 at 7:23 am

    A Kingston Valve is a connection in the hull of a ship that, when opened, allows sea water to enter. It is named for John Kingston (d. 1847), an English engineer who invented it.

    In modern submarines, they are opened to flood the ballast tanks and dive. Modern ships also have them to use sea water to enter and clean out a fuel tank, when necessary. It’s not the same as a Sea Cock, opened to allow water into the bilges (meant also for cleaning but often used to scuttle a ship).

    In the 19th-century steam navy, Kingston valves were opened to pump sea water into a boiler. Since an operating boiler was under pressure, some kind of pump was required to inject the water into the boiler. Often this was a separate pump, but on some engines the Kingston valve stem was directly connected to the eccentric of the engine. See Emory Edwards, A Catechism of the Marine Steam Engine, for the use of engineers, firemen, and mechanics (1881), p 249. This would have made it a kind of slide valve feed water pump.

    Without a working Kingston Valve, Law’s boiler could have overheated and exploded. I’d say he must have made the repair while under fire, to have been mentioned even in a “routine report.”

  2. Mac Whatley said, on February 2, 2013 at 7:58 am

    Also, I’m thinking it’s remarkable that Law was mentioned in a report at all. Both Civil War navies treated engineers as second class citizens since they were not part of the “the line” of command. The officer hierarchy had almost entirely been raised in the sailing navy, and mistrusted steam gadgetry. Even though the Chief Engineer might be older and more senior than the Captain, engineers were derisively called “Engine Drivers” by Line officers, with the same condescending tone that Army officers would have referred to “Mule Drivers” or “Camel Jockeys.” Conversely, the “Engineer Corps” were the “Techies” of the day considered themselves smarter and more elite than the “Swabbies.”

    A curiously bipolar organization prevailed aboard wartime navy ships. There were separate chains of command- Line officers could issue orders about everything except the engineering spaces, which were completely autonomous. Orders to the engineering crew could only come down from the Chief Engineer, or else the engineers and fireman were not required to respond. The Engineer Corps and the Line of the Navy were not combined into a single chain of command until after 1900. There’s a great discussion of this, and its potentially negative consequences, in The Wreck of the Memphis (1966), by Captain Edward L. Beach (author of Run Silent, Run Deep).

    • Andy Hall said, on February 2, 2013 at 10:22 am

      Yes, Dennis Griffiths talks about this seagoing culture in his book, Steam at Sea. His focus is on British practice, both in the merchant service and in the RN, but it’s similar. It was worse in the navy, as traditional line (or deck) officers were considered gentlemen, while the engineers were deemed little more than dirty mechanics necessary to run the engines. It was only with great reluctance that engineers came to be part of the wardroom at all.

      The division between deck and engineers lasted a long time, and extended into the enlisted ranks. There’s a scene in the film version of The Cruel Sea, early on, where the tiny little corvette Compass Rose is just getting her complement aboard. A stoker tosses his sea bag down and a boatswain’s mate corrects him, “no, this is the seamens’ mess!” “No,” the stoker replies, “in this lot we’re all mixed up together.” It’s clear that neither is pleased at the prospect.

  3. Mac Whatley said, on February 2, 2013 at 8:54 am

    The Pinola was built in Baltimore and launched October 3, 1861. It was a 158-foot long Unadilla class or “90-Day” gunboat, so-called because the first four were completed by August, 1861. The 23 vessels in the class were built fast because they were standard two-masted schooners having high speed screw propulsion copied from Benjamin Isherwood’s pre-war engine design for two Russian gunboats built at the Novelty Iron Works in New York City. His promise to deliver these gunboats fast was one reason Gideon Welles promoted Isherwood to Chief Engineer of the Navy, to the dismay of many more senior engineers. Isherwood’s 200 horsepower steam engines had two 20-inch cylinders with an 18-inch stroke, and would have run on 30 lbs. or less of steam pressure. His designs were called “horizontal back-acting engines” because horizontally-placed double piston rods directly connected the crosshead and the crankshaft.

    The only surviving example of a back-acting engine (albeit with compound, not single, cylinders) is from the USS Ranger, a very similar gunboat built in 1873 ( It is preserved on the campus of the American Merchant Marine Museum in Kings Point, New York and is listed as an ASME landmark ( The detailed description of the engine there confirms that the pumps were directly connected to the lower of the two piston rods.

    Isherwood fought in public all during the war with the engineers who questioned his judgment on questions of steam mechanics. His particular enemy was Edward N. Dickerson, a New York patent lawyer and amateur designer of competing engines. Their competition finally led to the race between Dickerson’s Algonquin and Isherwood’s Winooski in 1865, which you referred to here

  4. theravenspoke said, on February 2, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    There’s a rectangular object underneath his uniform – a bible perhaps?
    Wonder if it has any significance, i.e., bible close to his heart.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 2, 2013 at 1:20 pm

      Good question, dunno the answer. I did not find an obit for him, or anything else that would suggest any particular religious affiliation. His remains were, apparently, returned to Carlisle and buried there, as he’s listed on Find-a-Grave.

Leave a Reply to theravenspoke Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: