William Sampson




NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Age of Steam and Steel (1866-1920)








Naval officer� In 1857 [he] received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy� Sampson ranked first in his class for three consecutive years and graduated in 1861. As a passed midshipman he was assigned to duty at the Washington Navy Yard, after which he reported to the sloop Pocahontas, then patrolling the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay for Confederate raiders. That summer Sampson was reassigned to the frigate Potomac, which served in the Gulf of Mexico.

The following year Sampson was promoted to lieutenant and was appointed an instructor at the naval academy� After nearly two years there, Sampson returned to sea as executive officer of the monitor Patapsco of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In January 1865 the ship was sunk by a mine off Charleston, South Carolina. Several dozen men died, but Sampson, who was standing on the top of a gun turret when the explosion occurred, survived without serious injury�

Following the Civil War Sampson served on the steam frigate Colorado on the European Station. Promoted to lieutenant commander in 1866, he returned to the United States in 1867 to begin a four-year tour teaching in the Department of Natural Philosophy (later the Department of Physics and Chemistry) at the naval academy� After three years at sea� Sampson returned to the naval academy (1874-1878) to head the Department of Physics and Chemistry�

Sampson next returned to sea duty on the Asiatic Station, where he commanded the screw gunboat Swatara (1879-1881). He then had three assignments ashore: assistant superintendent of the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. (1882-1884), inspector of ordnance at the Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island (1884-1886), and superintendent of the naval academy (1886-1890)� Promoted to captain in 1889 or 1890, Sampson in 1890 received command of the protected cruiser San Francisco. He next became inspector of ordnance at the Washington Navy Yard for a year, after which he moved up to head the Bureau of Ordnance (1893-1897), one of the navy's most important administrative positions�

Late in 1896 Sampson was appointed to a special board established to formulate plans in the event of war with Spain. He then commanded the navy's newest battleship, the Iowa, before chairing the board of inquiry established in 1898 to investigate the sinking of the Maine. Once the board's work was concluded late in March, Sampson was promoted to acting rear admiral and given the navy's most prestigious post afloat, command of the North Atlantic Squadron� No combined army-navy operations had occurred since the Civil War, making it necessary for Sampson and [Army general William Shafter] to relearn this difficult art. The brevity of the Spanish-American War did not allow sufficient time, and disagreements between Sampson and Shafter continued�

[After the war,] both Sampson and Schley were� promoted to rear admiral on the permanent (as opposed to temporary wartime) list of ranks� Sampson continued in command of the North Atlantic Squadron, but rapidly failing health� led him to request assignment ashore in 1899� He turned down the presidency of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the hope he could remain on active duty until he reached the mandatory retirement age in 1902. He was named commandant of the Boston Navy Yard, a post that was not considered demanding� Sampson died in Washington, D.C., and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery�

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Date: 1899
Date: 1899