Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 19th or 20th Century

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An oval ribbon marked "U.S.S. PENSACOLA AND CONFEDERATE MANASSAS" on top and "NEW ORLEANS —APRIL 24, 1862" frames an event from the Civil War Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip on the lower Mississippi River south of New Orleans. In the skirmish, the earliest Confederate ironclad warship Manassas tried to ram the propeller steamship USS Pensacola, but the larger steamship was able to turn and rake the ironclad with the broadside depicted here. Manassas survived the barrage, taking more hits from a Union line or warships, and ramming a couple as it tried to escape. It finally ran aground, was set on fire and exploded, sinking immediately. This battle led to the Confederate loss of New Orleans a few days later, which hastened the end of the Civil War.
The reverse of the tooth is etched with a scene of two seamen in a naval gun turret behind a pair of Dahlgren guns: big, heavy cast iron naval cannon developed during the Civil War. The source of this image is an 1862 engraving of the USS Passaic in the news magazine Harper's Weekly, but Pensacola also had Dahlgrens. In cursive below is engraved "The Dahlgren Guns".
Although the unidentified artist of this tooth copied his subjects from contemporary images, he drew freehand instead of using the pinprick method of scrimshaw, indicating a high level of skill.
Currently not on view
date made
19th - 20th century
Physical Description
whale tooth (overall material)
overall: 4 in x 1 5/8 in x 1 1/4 in; 10.16 cm x 4.1275 cm x 3.175 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur J. Gould
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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