John Lenthall: The Life of a Naval Constructor

by Stephen Chapin Kinnaman

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This work fills a major gap in the story of the US Navy in the mid-19th century, and thus will be of enormous interest to both scholars and aficionados of the Civil War, naval and maritime history writ large, and naval technology in particular. Most books about this period are of the officers-and-tactics theme, or they focus solely on individual ships like the ironclads “Monitor” and “Virginia”. When other ships are mentioned, they typically appear suddenly, unheralded. There is rarely an origin story of how these ships came to be, and even more rarely any discussion of the naval constructors who brought them from concept into wood, iron and steam. John Lenthall was certainly the most important of these constructors, having overseen the development of the entire Union Navy, which proved key to blockading the South and preventing Britain and France from entering the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. Like any good “hero’s journey”, Kinnaman's biography is the story of a quest for knowledge, an adventure, a transformation, various defeats and victories, and finally, a reckoning that changes his country forever. Stephen’s prose is precise and engaging without ever being tedious, and he covers both high political strategies and arcane technical points with equal facility.
I am deeply impressed by the quality, carefulness and thoroughness of Stephen’s scholarship. He has plumbed the archives and libraries of both the United States and France (the French use the term dépouiller which literally means “to strip”), highlighting important contextual narratives as well as uncovering minor personal details which bring the subject to life. For example, he emphasizes the fact that Lenthall’s strategic arguments for a blue-water navy (“how much better it is to fight at the threshold than upon the hearthstone”), which was picked up by the British press, predated by a generation the similar, highly influential ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan. By the same token, his discussion of the Lenthall family’s relationship with Benjamin Latrobe (pp. 30ff) sheds new light on the early architectural development of Washington DC.

Prof. Dr. Larrie D. Ferreiro
George Mason University

Many stirring words have been written about the heroic deeds of the officers and men of the U.S. Navy before, during and after the Civil War. But very little has been published about the naval constructors who built the warships that made their exploits possible. Of all of the Navy’s constructors from this era, none had more impact than John Lenthall (1807-1882).

A native of Washington D.C. and the son of ambitious English parents, young Lenthall’s stellar rise through the ranks of naval constructors soon led to his appointment as the chief of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repairs. Now the U.S. government’s highest-ranking naval architect, John Lenthall was in charge of designing and constructing the nation’s warships. The magnificent Merrimack class steam frigates were one of his first achievements. His stance early in the Civil War on ironclads and coolness toward John Ericsson have been consistently misunderstood—Lenthall accepted the Navy’s need for armored warships but objected to a fleet of only brown water-capable monitors. When he retired in 1871, he had been bureau chief for over seventeen years and responsible for the building of nearly all the Navy’s ships during an era of unprecedented technological evolution.

'John Lenthall: The Life of a Naval Constructor' is thoroughly documented with previously untapped primary archival source material from Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum and the Franklin Institute, and the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. 'John Lenthall' is written by a historian and naval architect who can clearly explain the nuances of ship design. The author’s treatment of Lenthall and the legacy of his fellow constructors brings to life a previously untold chronicle of American ingenuity and achievement.






BOOK ONE: Apprentice

CHAPTER 1 Washington City
CHAPTER 2 Father and Son
CHAPTER 3 The War of 1812
CHAPTER 4 Apprentice Ship Carpenter
CHAPTER 5 The Philadelphia Navy Yard
CHAPTER 6 The Science of Naval Architecture
CHAPTER 7 European Dockyard Tour

BOOK TWO: Constructor

CHAPTER 8 Board of Navy Commissioners
CHAPTER 9 Master Builder
CHAPTER 10 Life in Philadelphia
CHAPTER 11 Launch of Pennsylvania
CHAPTER 12 Naval Constructor
CHAPTER 13 The Sea Steamers
CHAPTER 14 Family and Marriage
CHAPTER 15 Sloop of War Germantown
CHAPTER 16 Chief Constructor



BOOK THREE: Bureau Chief

CHAPTER 17 Promotion to Bureau Chief
CHAPTER 18 The Steam Frigates
CHAPTER 19 The Steam Sloops
CHAPTER 20 Gloire and Warrior
CHAPTER 21 War of the Rebellion
CHAPTER 22 The Ninety-Day Gunboats
CHAPTER 23 The Ironclad Board
CHAPTER 24 Monitor Fever
CHAPTER 25 Naval Expansion
CHAPTER 26 The Light-Draft Monitors
CHAPTER 27 A Time for Economy
CHAPTER 28 Postwar Years
CHAPTER 29 Moved Aside

BOOK FOUR: Inspector

CHAPTER 30 Cape May
CHAPTER 31 Monitor Rebuilds
CHAPTER 32 Twilight

APPENDIX 1 Directions for Building a Store Ship
APPENDIX 2 Relief Calculations, Summary and Metacenter
APPENDIX 3 Orders for the Launch of the U.S. Ship Pennsylvania
APPENDIX 4 Suitability of Mail Steamers as Ships of War
APPENDIX 5 Young, Smart, Spirit of the Age Fellows
APPENDIX 6 Better to Fight at the Threshold than Upon the Hearthstone
APPENDIX 7 Evolution of the Double Turreted Ironclad
APPENDIX 8 Ironclad Steamers for Harbor and Coast Defense
APPENDIX 9 The Light-Draught Monitors
APPENDIX 10 Lenthall’s Book and Pamphlet Collection
APPENDIX 11 Ships Constructed, Designed and Specified by John Lenthall
APPENDIX 12 Naval Constructors Active During Lenthall’s Career





Stephen Chapin Kinnaman grew up in upstate New York and northern New Jersey. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.Sc. in naval architecture and marine engineering and pursued post-graduate research at Cambridge University’s Department of Engineering. He is a professional naval architect and has used his understanding of complex technical issues to write the first biography of Constructor John Lenthall. He is the author of another Vernon Press work of American history, 'Merrimack, The Biography of a Steam Frigate'. Stephen Chapin Kinnaman has to his credit numerous public speaking engagements at historical societies, Civil War round tables and the prestigious McMullen Naval History Symposia held at the U.S. Naval Academy. The author and his wife currently reside in Chappell Hill, Texas.

John Lenthall (naval constructor). John Lenthall family. Naval Architects—United States—Biography. United States Navy—naval construction. United States Navy—history. United States—warships. Navy-yards and naval stations—United States—history. Civil War—naval history. Naval architecture—history. Marine technology—history. American maritime history—19th century

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Bibliographic Information

Book Title

John Lenthall: The Life of a Naval Constructor





Number of pages


Physical size

236mm x 160mm


36 B&W

Publication date

June 2022