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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/October 1886/Sketch of General John Newton

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 29‎ | October 1886

PSM V29 D740 John Newton.jpg


GENERAL NEWTON has commended himself as one who is entitled to acknowledgment for useful and distinguished service in two fields. As a member of one of the branches of the military establishment he did active duty as an army engineer and a commander of men, acquitting himself with honor on every occasion, during the whole period of the war of the rebellion. In peaceful times, his career has been within his own preferred field of work, where theoretical knowledge and practical skill in application and execution were equally in demand, and were united in carrying out the important enterprises that were intrusted to him. In his works as an engineer, which may be found all along our Atlantic sea-coast, and particularly in the clearing of the channel of Hell-Gate, he has shown himself a man who held the resources of science in his hand, and knew exactly what to do with them; and in the use he made of them, to promote the greatest public benefit, the originality of the devices which he contrived, and the certainty with which he accomplished his designs, he has shown himself to possess the highest title to scientific recognition.

John Newton was born in Norfolk, Virginia, August 24, 1823. His father, Thomas Newton, represented the Norfolk district in Congress for thirty years, and was, when he retired, the oldest member in service in the United States House of Representatives. After having been given such instruction as the schools of Norfolk could confer, young Newton, when about twelve years old, was placed under private tuition, especially in mathematics, for which he showed a marked taste, with the purpose, already formed, apparently, of making a civil engineer of him. He entered the Military Academy at West Point in July, 1838, where, we are informed, his worth as a careful and comprehensive student was known and recognized by his superiors, and his natural bent and acquirements were at once given opportunity for play. Upon his graduation from the Academy in 1842, he was appointed a second-lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. He served as assistant to the Board of Engineers in 1842 and 1843; and in the Academy, first as assistant professor and afterward as principal assistant Professor of Engineering, from 1843 to 1846. In the latter year he was designated as assistant engineer in the construction of Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, and Fort Trumbull, New London, Connecticut. From this work he was transferred to be superintending engineer of construction of Forts Wayne, Michigan, and Porter, Niagara, and Ontario, New York. In 1852 and 1853 he was engaged in superintending the surveys of Cobscook Bay, Kennebec River, and Matinicus Islands; and for the breakwater at Owl's Head, in Maine. Next we find him in Florida on similar work, looking to the improvement of St. John's River, the Haul-over Canal, and the repair of the sea-wall at St. Augustine; in Georgia, looking after Forts Pulaski and Jackson, and the improvement of lighthouses on Savannah River; at Sullivan's Island, attending to the trial and inspection of the dredge boat for the bar; and again in Florida, supervising the fortifications and lighthouses of Pensacola Harbor, from 1855 to 1858.

He was appointed in 1853 a member of the commission for devising a project for the improvement of St. John's River; in 1856, of the board to examine Pensacola dock; and of the special board of engineers to select sites and prepare projects for the coast-defenses of Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. There also appears, under the date of July 1, 1856, a record of Lieutenant Newton's appointment as captain of engineers, for fourteen years' continuous service. He was made chief engineer of the Utah Expedition in 1858, and afterward superintending engineer of the construction of Fort Delaware, and of repairs of Fort Mifflin, Delaware Bay; and of the special board of engineers for modifying the plans of the fort at Sandy Hook, and for selecting sites for additional batteries at Fort Hamilton.

These occupations engaged his attention down to the time of the outbreak of the rebellion in 1861, when he entered the active service as chief engineer of the Department of Pennsylvania, in which capacity he accompanied General Paterson's column in the Valley of Virginia, and was engaged in the action of Falling Waters. He was also, in this year, chief engineer of the Department of the Shenandoah, assistant engineer in the construction of the defenses of Washington, and commander of a brigade in the defense of the capital, till March 10, 1862; and was appointed major of the Corps of Engineers and brigadier-general in the volunteer service. In 1862 General Newton served in the Army of the Potomac in the Peninsular and Maryland campaigns, and was engaged in the actions at West Point, Gaines Mill, and Glen dale; in the retreat from the second battle of Bull Run; and in the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. At West Point, when it was found that the Union army was threatened by the interposition of the forces of Gustavus W. Smith, at Barhamsville, with their retreat cut off by the river in their rear, Newton went out at dawn to reconnoitre. He found that marshes covered all their position except a space sufficient for the movements of one brigade. He planted his own brigade there, and with it held the post against attack. At South Mountain General Newton's brigade, attached to General Franklin's corps, was one of the three brigades composing the division of General Slocum, which advanced up the side of the mountain, and repulsed the enemy's force. The same brigade won formal commendation for its behavior at Gaines Mill and at Glendale; and its commander was brevetted lieutenant-colonel (regular army) September 17, 1862, for gallant and meritorious services at the battle of Antietam.

General Newton was given the command of a division in the Rappahannock campaign, in which he was engaged in the battle of Fredericksburg. In the Chancellorsville campaign, having been in the mean time made a major-general of volunteers, he was attached to General Sedgwick's corps, counseled and participated in the storming of Marye Heights, and took part in the battle of Salem. In the Pennsylvania campaign he participated in the eventful battle of Gettysburg, and took the temporary command of the First Corps after the death of General Reynolds, and in that capacity followed in pursuit of the enemy to Warrenton, Virginia. For his gallant and meritorious services at Gettysburg he was, July 3, 1863, brevetted colonel. He still commanded the First Corps in the Rapidan campaign; but, when the "march through Georgia" was about to be entered upon, he was transferred to the Army of the Cumberland, and put in command of the second division of the Fourth Corps (General Howard's). In this campaign he was engaged in the storming of Rocky-faced Ridge, where the corps succeeded in carrying the ridge; in the operations around Dalton, the turning of which was regarded as a great step gained in the movement upon Atlanta; in the battle of Resaca; in the action of Adairsville, where his division had a smart skirmish with the enemy's rear-guard; in the pursuit of the enemy to the Etowah River, with constant skirmishing; in the battle of Dallas; in the movement on Pine Mountain, with almost daily heavy engagements; in the battles of Kenesaw, where, in McPherson's attack on Little Kenesaw, parts of his division were engaged in the assault by which the enemy's works were reached after a charge up the face of the mountain against a heavy fire. After the crossing of the Chattahoochee River, in closing up the Federal lines around the northern and eastern sides of Atlanta, General Newton's division was left to hold an important position on Peach-Tree Creek with an inadequate force, which offered itself as a temptation to the newly appointed Confederate commander, General Hood, to attack it. The readiness with which his command met Hood's sudden assault, and the efficiency of their fire, assisted by the batteries which General Newton had posted on each of his flanks, were material in deciding the failure of that attack. For this and for other gallant and meritorious services in the campaign he was, in March, 1865, brevetted brigadier-general in the regular army.

During the siege of Atlanta, General Newton participated in the attack on the enemy's intrenchments at Jonesboro, September 18th; in the battle of Lovejoy's Station on the next day; and in the events more immediately relating to the occupation of the famous stronghold. He was afterward assigned the command of the district of Key West and Tortugas, Florida, in which capacity he was engaged in the action of the Natural Bridge, near St. Mark's. On the 13th of March, 1865—the same day on which he was brevetted brigadier-general for his services in the Atlanta campaign—he was also brevetted a major-general in the United States Army for meritorious services in the field during the rebellion. On the 28th of December, 1865, he was made a lieutenant-colonel in the Corps of Engineers. On the 15th of January, 1866, he was mustered out of the volunteer service.

He was transferred at once to engineering service, to have charge of the construction of the new battery near Fort Hamilton, in New York Harbor, and of the construction of the fort at Sandy Hook. In 1866 he made an examination for the improvement of the navigation of Hudson River, the appropriation then being sufficient only for the repair of the dikes already constructed; but his report covers the whole ground, and the scheme then proposed is that which has been carried on, latterly entirely under his charge. The character of the improvements then indicated was 1.—A system of longitudinal dikes of a height not to exceed that of high water. 2. The dredging of the loose and movable material from the bottom. 3. The direction of the channel as defined by the dikes to be as straight as possible, and the changes of direction to be made by easy curves. 4. A gradual increase in width of the channel from Troy to New Baltimore as being more favorable for a higher rise of tides. 5. The closing of the side-passes generally, but leaving an opening for the influx of the flood. 6. Revetting of island-shores and river-banks where exposed to abrasion. 7. The limits of the encroachment on the river-bed to be defined and enforced by proper authority. 8. Deposition of dredged material beyond the action of currents. 9. The abandonment of the idea of obtaining a scouring effect by the height of the dikes. In fine, dikes are advocated with the view to give direction to the freshet, flood, and ebb currents; to prevent cross-currents, and consequent filling up of the channel; to lead and bring up a greater volume of tidal waters; and, consistently with these objects, the dikes should be constructed as low as possible, in order to allow the freshet-water to spread. Estimates were made for the work, to be completed in five years; it is still not complete, nor has the work been carried on without opposition from steamboat-men and parties judging that they were to be pecuniarily injured. Near Coeyman's this opposition was very strong, but, since construction, the opponents have acknowledged that their apprehensions of inconvenient results were erroneous, and have been satisfied with General Newton's engineering.

Gradually with the extension of navigation improvements General Newton reported on all the channels and harbors in the vicinity of New York, from Lake Champlain on the north to the Raritan and Arthur's Kill on the south, superintending constructions where appropriations had been granted. He was also one of the commissioners for the improvement of the harbor of Montreal.

But the great construction with which General Newton's name is identified is the improvement of the Hell-Gate Channel, the important water-way between Long Island Sound and East River, of New York city. His first examinations for the improvement of Hell-Gate, and the report, with cost of constructions, were made to Congress February 12, 1867. The first propositions were merely tentative. The plan recommended for the removal of reefs was by holes drilled from a platform above water. A contract was given to Maillefert & Co. to remove Pot Rock and some other like obstructions by depositing explosives on the surface of the rock and firing them. This was found to be very expensive and tedious, and the contractor who undertook to drill from above the water was not successful.

In June, 1869, General Newton submitted a report for the removal of Hallet's Point by sinking shafts on the shore-side to a sufficient depth, and from the bottom of these shafts running galleries under the rock to be removed, the opening below being calculated to be sufficient to remove all the rock from above. The same project was to be applied also to the Gridiron Reef. This method of excavation was not new, as it had been proposed by General Alexander, of the United States Engineers, for the removal of Blossom Rock, San Francisco Harbor, and afterward carried out by Van Schmidt, a civil engineer; but that reef was a very small one in comparison with those to be removed at Hell-Gate. The general also, in the same report, proposed a plan for a scow to remove the isolated reefs. This scow was constructed in 1870. It consisted of an iron dome thirty feet in diameter, supported centrally in a well, in a scow one hundred and twenty feet long by forty-eight feet beam; this dome could be raised or lowered by derricks on the scow. When resting on the rock, the space inclosed was virtually cut off from all currents, the drills could be worked steadily, and the space was accessible to divers. Above the dome were steam-drills, the drills passing through tubes in the dome. This dome-scow proved a practical success, and was not only used at Hell-Gate but also on other reefs, as at Coenties and Diamond Reefs.

The progress was so satisfactory at Hallet's Point that shafts were sunk at Flood Rock in 1876. General Newton had been at the same time making extensive experiments on all the known explosives, to test their applicability to the breaking up masses of stone, while extensive experiments were also made with batteries, wires, and fuses, with a view to their use in the final blast. The excavation being completed, and the mines charged and wired, the explosion at Hallet's Point took place September 24, 1876.

It was a success. The work at Flood Rock was prosecuted more energetically, but with varying appropriations; essentially in its general features it was like the work at Hallet's Point, but with such modifications as had been developed by experience. In one essential feature both differed from what had been originally designed by General Newton. In his first report he had proposed to make the cavities of the galleries sufficient to receive the superincumbent stone. As he proceeded, he did not consider this necessary; a great deal of stone since the blast at Hallet's Point had been removed by grapples, which was practically found to be cheaper than by mining. In its application to the work at Flood Rock, the spaces were smaller compared with the solid rock than at Hallet's Point; galleries were considered only necessary to give access, so as thoroughly to shatter the rock. Flood Rock was fired on the 10th of October, 1885, and a full description of the work was furnished by General Newton for the February number of this journal.

All the problems which were involved in the several steps leading up to the consummation of that stupendous work were completely and conscientiously studied out; and the accuracy of the studies was fully exemplified in the exact correspondence of results with what was aimed at that was realized in every part of the labors. The resources of science were drawn upon with an unerring vision of their scope; the appliances of engineering art were employed with precise adaptation to their purpose, and an exact measurement of the effect they were intended to produce; so that in all that has been achieved there has been no failure and no waste. The demonstration which General Newton has made in this work of the power of science, whose least effort can be made useful to such immense results, commands its recognition of him as its vigorous man of action. The knowledge and skill which he has thus been able to apply to such exact measurement and direction are the outcome of a life of special training and exercise; and it would be hard to produce a higher testimonial to the value of the faithful pursuit of the studies that relate to the work one is destined to do in the world than these achievements at Hell-Gate.

There is yet one enterprise connected with the improvement of the harbor of New York—the opening of the Harlem River to Spuyten Duyvel, on which General Newton reported in 1875 and 1876 which has been postponed by conflicting interests of property-owners and the difficulty of securing rights.

Since his station at New York, General Newton has often been called into consultation on many civil-engineering works. In connection with the various duties of his office his experience has been large and varied, and it would be impossible to name an engineer who has been so uniformly successful.

Recently, when the city of New York—having a more important work in view than it had yet undertaken in a municipal capacity—found it necessary to secure a man of superior skill and scientific training to superintend its Department of Public Works, General Newton's name was the first, and, we might well say, the only one that suggested itself. The only doubt expressed on the subject was whether he would be willing to leave the body with which he had been connected all his life, with such distinguished honor, for one the record of which has not always been free from the taint of political manipulations. This question was happily solved by General Newton's declaration of his willingness to accept the position on the retired list of the army, to which he was entitled, in order to go to the place where he was more needed. The fitness of his appointment has been universally recognized, and is most felicitously expressed in the words of one of the newspapers, that he is the "ideal man" for the position.