American scientist and naval officer. Born January 16, 1807 in Boston, Massachusetts. Davis studied mathematics at Harvard for two years before being appointed Midshipman in the United States Navy on August 12, 1823. Before the Civil War, he directed the first surveys of the New England coast (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine, including the Nantucket shoals) in association with the U. S. Coast Survey under Superintendents Ferdinand Hassler and Alexander Dallas Bache.
When Congress established the Nautical Almanac Office in 1849, Lieutenant Davis was placed in charge because he was an "experienced naval officer with a scientific background and personal associations with prominent American scientists."1 He set up the first offices in Cambridge, MA in close proximity to the talents at Harvard and proceeded to organize groups of "human calculators" to work out the positions of the sun, moon, and planets by hand. He also helped publish the first American almanac in 1852, The American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac for the year 1855, an extract of which was used by sailors.
During the Civil War, Davis served as fleet captain and chief of staff to S. F. DuPont through the expedition against Port Royal, SC in November 1861. Next, he replaced A. H. Foote in command of the Upper Mississippi Flotilla on May 9, 1862 and the following day forced the Confederate fleet away from Fort Pillow. On June 6, Davis directed the capture and destruction of seven Confederate gunboats and rams near Memphis, TN and received the surrender of the city. He then joined David Glasgow Farragut in the siege of Vicksburg, MS and later cooperated with the Army expedition up the Yazoo River (16-27 August 1862).
After the war, Davis (promoted to Rear Admiral in February 1863) became Chief of the Bureau of Navigation (1862-1865) and then was Superintendent of the Naval Observatory (1865-1867 and 1874-1877). He was a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences as well as serving as Commander in Chief of the South Atlantic Squadron, Commander of the Norfolk Navy Yard, and a member of the Lighthouse Board. He had also been a member of the board that recommended building the USS Monitor.
Davis died in Washington, D.C. on February 18, 1877 after a long illness. He was buried in Cambridge Cemetery in Cambridge, MA.2 His biography was published in 1899 by his son, Charles Henry Davis.
Davis is represented by a statue and plaque at the Navy Memorial at Vicksburg National Military Park, along with David Glasgow Farragut, David Dixon Porter, and Andrew Hull Foote. The statues were made by F. Edwin Elwell and erected in December, 1911.3
Three4 U. S. Navy ships have been named for Charles Henry Davis: a torpedo boat (TB-12), launched June 4, 1898 and decomissioned March 28, 1913; a destroyer (DD-65), launched August 15, 1916 and decomissioned June 20, 1922 which participated in World War I; another destroyer (DD-395), launched July 30, 1938 and decomissioned October 19, 1945 which received one battle star for service during World War II. The two destroyers were sponsored by Davis' granddaughter, Evelyn Davis, daughter of the second Charles Henry Davis. All three ships were eventually sold for scrap.
Other information was obtained from:
The text of some of Davis' published works is available online:
Narrative of the north polar expedition: US ship Polaris, Captain Charles Francis Hall commanding edited under the direction of the Hon. G. M. Robeson, Secretary of the Navy, by Rear-Admiral C. H. Davis, US Naval Observatory (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office) 1876.
"Explanation of the Seal of the U.S. Naval Observatory" in Astronomical and Meteorological Observations Made at the U.S. Naval Observatory During the Year 1865 by Superintendent C. H. Davis (Washington D.C.) 1867.