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William Thomas Sampson

driving force behind major improvements to the technology used by the Navy, and to its training practices

Rear Admiral William Thomas Sampson

William Thomas Sampson was born in Palmyra, New York, on February 9, 1840, the first of seven children. As a boy he was a dedicated student who spent his spare time helping his father with various local projects -- road-building, bricklaying, etc. -- and on the family farm. He was unable to afford college, but a local man of wealth arranged for a Congressman to have him appointed to one of the military service academies. He entered the U.S. Naval Academy on September 24, 1857, and quickly became interested in ordnance technology, physics, and engineering. Ranked first in his class all three of his final years, he was commanding officer of the cadet batallion during his last year (1860-1861).

Civil War

In the spring of 1861, as Federal troops appeared off the coast of Maryland, pro-secessionist Annapolis residents surrounded the Naval Academy and threatened the Northern students within. As commanding officer of cadets, Sampson, along with the New York Seventh Regiment and the Massachusetts Eighth Regiment, held back and eventually dispersed the mob.

Sampson graduated with the rank of Midshipman and reported to the Washington Navy Yard on April 29, 1861. Serving under Commander John Dahlgren, inventor of a smooth-bore 11-inch cannon for use in shore batteries and founder of the Ordnance Department at the Navy Yard, Sampson helped arm a small fleet of river steamers destined to patrol the Potomac River. In May he spent three weeks aboard the Pocahontas, which was charged with escorting Union troop and ammunition transports along the Potomac and in lower Chesapeake Bay. On June 1, 1861, he was promoted to Master and transferred to the Potomac, then undergoing repairs in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He joined the Potomac as a junior officer when it sailed on August 20, 1861, and spent the next nine months on patrol in the Gulf of Mexico.

Promoted to Lieutenant on July 16, 1862, Sampson spent the next two years as an instructor at the Naval Academy, which had been temporarily relocated to Newport, Rhode Island. In the spring and summer of 1863 he served as part of a trans-Atlantic practice cruise aboard the frigate Macedonian. One of the ship's stops was the British Navy Yard at Spithead, where Sampson was impressed by the modern equipment and quality of ships being built.

In August of 1864, Sampson joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, commanded by John Dahlgren, as Executive Officer of the ironclad monitor-class Patapsco. While aboard he found many ways the design of the ship could be improved. On January 15, 1865, the Patapsco struck a submerged mine while off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina; the ship sank in fifteen seconds, taking 62 crewmen with her. Despite being entangled in ropes as the ship sank, Sampson was able to free himself and escape relatively unharmed. The incident earned him a reputation for calmness under fire.

Post-Civil War

Promoted to Lieutenant Commander in July of 1866, Sampson next served aboard the steam frigate Colorado, then the flagship of the European Squadron. He joined the faculty of the Naval Academy's Department of Natural Philosophy in 1867, and became head of that department when it was renamed the Department of Physics and Chemistry; he served in that capacity until 1871. From 1871 to 1874, he served in the European Squadron aboard two lower-class ships -- the screw sloop Congress and the gunboat Alert.

Promoted to Commander on August 9, 1874, Sampson resumed his chairmanship of the Naval Academy's Department of Physics and Chemistry. In this capacity he championed scientific education for students, and personally conducted many scientific experiments. In the summer of 1878 he was part of a special scientific expedition to Wyoming charged with observing a solar eclipse. Research conducted during the eclipse was used by scientists to revise tables in the Nautical Almanac.

From 1879 to 1881, Sampson commanded the screw gunboat Swatara, of the Asiatic Squadron.

In 1881, Sampson and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he served as Assistant Superintendent of the United States Naval Observatory until 1884. During his tenure he made improvements to the Observatory's physical plant and surroundings, including equipping of the telescope dome with a steam engine to rotate it and arrangements to have electric lights installed at the Observatory (which was not done until after he left). He also oversaw further development of a new astronomical table to predict the future positions of celestial bodies in order to improve navigators' abilities to determine longitudes. In 1883, Western Union installed a private telegraph wire to the Observatory so it could transmit its time signals to the rest of the country. On November 18, 1883, every single railroad in the country reset its clocks according to the Observatory's "standard time," adjusting local times in accordance with newly established time zones. In October of 1884, Sampson represented the United States at the International Conference of the Prime Meridian, in Washington, D.C. That conference set the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, England.

From 1884 to 1886, Sampson served as Inspector of Ordnance and Head of the Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island. In these capacities he sat on a board charged with overseeing the design and construction of America's first four steel ships. He also experimented with spar torpedoes and tested submarine mines and cubical torpedoes. As he had done at the Naval Observatory, he did what he could to upgrade the Torpedo Station, including having electric lighting installed in every building and introduced the study of electricity into the institution's laboratories. In 1884 he served on a board that recommended establishment of federally-funded post-graduate institution where officers would "bring to the investigation of the various problems of modern naval warfare the scientific methods adopted in other professions;" the Naval War College opened in Newport in September of 1885. Beginning in May of 1885 he was on a board charged with making recommendations for coastal defenses. That board proposed that modern fortifications be built at crucial ports on both coasts and along the shores of the Great Lakes, the arming of those forts with heavy artillery made in America, and the stationing of torpedo-boats, rams, gunboats, and heavily-armed "first-class" vessels at those ports. Although a few existing forts were modernized and a few more built, most of the board's recommendations went unheeded by the federal government.

From 1886 to 1890, Sampson served as Superintendent of the Naval Academy, one of the youngest officers ever to hold that position. As he had done at his previous postings, he made major improvements to the academy's infrastructure, including having electric lighting installed throughout the campus. Other physical improvements instituted by him included enlargement of the library, renovation of dormitories, and acquisition of adjoining land for use as drill and athletic fields. To upgrade sea training for Academy students, he replaced the aging sail-powered Constitution with a modern steam-powered cruiser. He also created a Department of Discipline and a Department of Physiology and Hygiene to "raise the military tone of the Academy," and encouraged scientists and other thinkers to visit and lecture at the Academy.

Sampson was promoted to Captain in March of 1890, and, that spring, moved his family to California to oversee the final stages of construction of the cruiser San Francisco. He took command of the ship in March of 1891 and joined the South Pacific Squadron off the coast of Chile, then embroiled in a civil war, to protect American interests. In March of 1892 he sailed to the Hawaiian Islands, which the United States hoped to use as a coaling station.

Returning to America, Sampson became temporary Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance at the Washington Navy Yard, in June 1892; he subsequently became permanent Chief of the Bureau. During his tenure (which lasted until June of 1897), Sampson supervised the manufacture of gun mounts for capital ships, approved shell casings manufactured by Winchester, oversaw development and testing of a smokeless powder made from a more stable guncotton base, created large reserves of ammunition, advocated the development of electric-powered mechanisms for turning gun turrets, and did all he could to improve the American steel industry's ability to produce ship armor. He also wrote a new gunnery drill manual emphasizing target practice and rapidity and accuracy of fire, and experimented with different types of ammunition hoists for battleships that would be more efficient and safer than those in use at the time.

Spanish-American War

On February 15, 1898, the battleship Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. Because of his expertise in ship manufacture and ordnance, Sampson was made president of the Court of Inquiry called to determine the cause of the explosion. The Court determined that there was nothing physically wrong with either the Maine itself, its crew, its ordnance, or its load of coal, and that, therefore, the only possible cause for the disaster was the explosion of a Spanish-planted submarine mine. This determination was an important factor in the later decision to declare war on Spain.

On March 24, 1898, Sampson replaced Montgomery Sicard (who was suffering from malaria) as Commander of the United States North Atlantic Squadron (the most prestigious post in the U.S. Navy), was made Acting Rear-Admiral, and took command of the Squadron's flagship, the armored cruiser New York. The New York spent the first several weeks of the war in tedious and often pointless blockade duty and seeing little actual action. That changed in May, however, when a Spanish fleet commanded by Admiral Pascual Cervera managed to slip past the blockade into Santiago Harbor. After a few unsuccessful attempts to block the harbor entrance by foundering ships, the New York spent a month standing guard outside the harbor to prevent Cervera from leaving, while Sampson launched a series of naval bombardments on Santiago, its fortifications, and the Spanish fleet. On July 3, while Sampson sailed the New York toward the Army base at Siboney for a conference with Brigadier General William Rufus Shafter, Cervera's fleet attempted to run the blockade. The American fleet, temporarily under the command of Winfield Scott Schley, decimated the Spanish fleet in a matter of hours. Although Sampson was not present during the battle, he has been credited with instituting the discipline and firing capabilities aboard the American ships that allowed the Americans to defeat a naval force that was actually superior in experience and equipment.

Later Life

Promoted to Commodore in 1898, Sampson returned to Cuba after the war to serve on the commission that oversaw evacuation of Spanish troops from the island and the preservation of governmental property. Already in failing health by the end of the war, he was forced to return home at the end of 1898 after contracting malaria. He maintained command of the North Atlantic Squadron until increasingly poor health forced him to step down in September of 1899. After suffering a stroke in September of 1901, Sampson went into seclusion at Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire. By February of 1902 he could no longer recognize his family, and he died of a brain hemorrhage on May 6, 1902. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Sampson began courting Margaret Sexton Aldrich while stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The two were married in 1863, and had five daughters. Margaret Sampson died in 1878. In 1882, Sampson married Elizabeth Susan Burling, with whom he had three sons.

The Spanish-American War Centennial Website

Civil War
Time Zones
Spanish-American War
Pascual Cervera
Winfield Scott Schley

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Naval History

This page was last updated on 02/08/2018.