The Rodman Controversy


Shortly after the Civil War, certain events which had occurred at the Watertown Arsenal were brought to the attention of the Congressional Committee on the conduct of the war. The controversy centered around the alleged disloyalty and mismanagement of the Arsenal by commanding officer Thomas J. Rodman. Among the allegations against Rodman were the charges that he had "neglected to join officially in the observance of expression of joy at the surrender of the rebel General Lee, and of the sorrow at the death of President Lincoln." He was also accused of employing disloyal men; of interfering with the right to petition by refusing to allow female employees to circulate a petition in the laboratory and afterwards discharging 19 of them for doing so; of retaining an employee who had twice been found under the influence of liquor; of employing 57 foreigners (thought to be less loyal) out of 98 enlisted men; and of excessive spending in the building of the new commanding officer's quarters.


More than 90 witnesses were examined by Honorable Mr. Gooch of the Congressional Committee, who appears to have carefully selected for testimony those persons who advocated Rodman's removal; and to have asked leading questions to any witnesses who may have been in sympathy with the commanding officer. Rodman himself was not allowed to participate in the cross-examination of the witnesses; and was able only to refute the charges in a letter sent to Brig. Gen. A.B. Dyer, Chief of Ordnance. He protested that he had given much attention to the loyalty of his men, and he showed his vigilance in pointing out that there had been no accidents at the Arsenal during his tenure there. He further explained that he had not fired a salute in recognition of the end of the war and of the President's death because he had never received official orders to do so.


Major Rodman also attempted to meet the charges that he was having new quarters constructed which were considered extravagant for a commanding officer. Opponents of the new quarters estimated that the costs would be as high as $100,000 to $150,000; and that Rodman was seeking to build the house for his own benefit. The commanding officer countered these claims by stating that he had been ordered to build the new quarters by the Ordnance Department, which had sent plans and specification for them. He argued that every economy possible was being observed in constructing the house; and other witnesses supported him by estimating that the cost would be between $40,000 and $60,000.


The total cost, in fact was $63,478.65. Although that figure was half of what some critics had estimated, in 1865 such a sum could only produce a rather magnificent dwelling. The Commanding Officer's Quarters is still today one of the highlights of the Watertown Arsenal site, and remains virtually unaltered after over 100 years' residence by Watertown commanding officers. The three -story brick Bracketed style mansion, approached by way of the tree-lined Talcott Avenue (originally known as Main Avenue) overlooks the Charles River. Its hipped roof is crested with a wooden balustrade, and chimneys of paneled brickwork add to the irregular silhouette characteristic of the period. A Victorian veranda surrounds part of the house and supporting the porch roof are delicate single and paired Corinthian cast-iron columns from which spring arches of lace-like ironwork. Paneled brick pilasters place emphasis at the corners and a series of brackets supports the heavy cornice.


The plan of the main portion of the house is built around a central large hall which provided access to the principal rooms. The interior is richly ornamented with heavy moldings, ceiling medallions, and marble fireplaces. The abundant use of fine woods also enhances the decorative program. Among the building materials ordered in 1865 were large amounts of cedar, chestnut, black walnut, butternut and spruce, many of which were used in the beautiful polychromatic hardwood floors in the main portion of the house.


The evolution of the plan and design of the house was an involved one. The first set of plans was rejected by Rodman, who had his draughtsman, George W. Horn of Watertown, incorporate certain changes in the arrangement. After some of these changes were accepted in Washington, a revised set of plans was submitted to Rodman. According to Horn, when Major Dyer was promoted to Ordnance Chief, Rodman received consent to build quarters like those in Springfield. Dyer also suggested the addition of an ell, and later the height of the rooms in the main story was raised in the first floor from 12 to 13 feet and in the second story from 11 to 12 feet. This necessitated the making of an entirely new set of plans and elevations by Horn, and a continuation of letters passing between Watertown and Washington.


The master mason of the Commanding Officer's Quarters was Captain Thomas L. French (1809-1890), a Watertown leader and employee of the Arsenal for over 25 years. French was by trade a mason and builder in Holliston and Watertown, where he "did a large and lucrative business." He was also very active in Watertown town affairs, serving as a selectman for 15 years and holding other minor town offices. Solon Whitney's history is 1890 credits French with having built most of the large buildings at the Arsenal during the Civil War. Specifically which buildings they were is unknown.


French, Horn and stonecutter J. William O'Donnell all testified that they felt the costs incurred in building the new quarters would fall within reasonable expenditures. Also in response to the one-sided testimony taken by Gooch, a plethora of affidavits was sent to Washington attesting to the commanding officer's character and administrative ability. The citizens of Watertown voted in their own town meetings to petition for Rodman's continuance in command and stated: "His integrity and uprightness, his loyalty and devotion to the government, his enthusiasm in the profession he pursues, his his great business ability, his skill and accuracy as a mechanic, his energy and efficiency as a public officer, and his great industry and untiring devotion to his duties are characteristics that of the most influential citizens of the vicinity," expressed their strong support of Major Rodman and demanded that he receive a fair hearing.


The exact outcome of the charges made against Rodman is not known. Records show, however, that in July, 1865, after the interrogations had been completed, Rodman left the Watertown Arsenal for Rock Island, Illinois, where he supervised much of the planning and construction of the new arsenal there. In spite of the allegations made at Watertown, he continued his distinguished career and was made a Brevet Brigadier General. Later know as the "Father of Rock Island Arsenal," Rodman was buried at Rock Island National Cemetery on June 7, 1871.


The Commander's Mansion was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places January 30, 1976.

artist rendering of mansion