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The New Navy - ABCD Construction

Not long after assuming his post in early 1881, Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt appointed a board of fifteen naval officers to study the overall problem and make a recommendation. The board was chaired by Admiral John Rodgers, former captain of the ill-fated Galena and now in the twilight of a long and illustrious career. The Rodgers board (the First Advisory Board) spent the summer considering the future of the fleet. Reporting back to the secretary that fall, Rodgers and the panel recommended that the Navy immediately build sixty-eight ships, for a total cost of almost thirty million dollars. While desirable from a naval perspective, this request proved too much for the political tenor of the time, despite the approbation of Chester Arthur, who became president when Garfield was assassinated in July 1881.

Modernization began during the administration of President Chester Arthur in the early 1880s. When Vice President Arthur became president he nominated William E. Chandler to be his Secretary of the Navy. Chandler fought the comfortable practice of repairing wooden vessels, which were worthless in the new era of post-Civil War ordinance. He fought to reduce the extravagant Navy Yard establishment. Called by some naval historians the "founder of the modern navy," Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler stated in his annual report for 1883: "In order to be prepared, not merely by the potentiality of our immense resources, but also by an actual armament, to assert at all times our natural, justifiable, and necessary ascendancy in the affairs of the American hemisphere, we unquestionably need vessels in such numbers as fully to keep alive the knowledge of war, and of such a kind that it shall be a knowledge of modern war; capable; on brief notice, of being expanded into invincible squadrons."

In August 1882 Congress authorized two steel ships but appropriated no funds for their construction. Although this congressional response seemed disappointing, it was the catalyst for the creation of the Second Advisory Board in the fall of 1882 by a new Secretary of the Navy, William Chandler; this board was chaired by Rear Admiral Robert Shufeldt. Taking a more realistic approach to the problem than its predecessor, the Shufeldt board recommended only four steel ships. After some minor modifications to the proposal, Congress agreed and on 3 March 1883 appropriated $1.3 million for the construction of three steel cruisers and a dispatch boat-the so-called (after the initials of their names) ABCD ships - the Dolphin, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta, the first ships of the New Navy.

The three new "protected" steel cruisers, the Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago contained a thin steel hull, but heavier protection for its vital areas. The cruisers were designed to use sail power for normal cruising, but could rely on steam power during battles.

Efforts to construct the first steel warships indicated the extent of the deterioration of the Navy during the post-war years, including the shore facilities. The Navy recognized that it could not build these ships and had to rely on contractors. However, the bureaus lacked the technical expertise in preparing drawings and specifications. Consequently, preparation of plans was not completed until after the contracts had been awarded. During the Civil War technology (the steam engine and steel hull) and wartime pressure had forced the service to depend on the private sector to modernize. The relationship with private contractors during the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s and its efforts to integrate them into the ship-building process foreshadowed the military industrial complex that began taking shape during the construction of the steel Navy in the 1880s. Private enterprises began refining existing military technologies, often developed initially under official auspices, and introducing sophisticated variations that rivaled or surpassed the original versions.

John Roach's Morgan Iron Works had submitted the lowest price for each of the four ships; Roach was duly awarded all four contracts. Construction of the USS Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin was to be rife with controversy, with the three cruisers eventually completed in the Navy's own yards.

The contract went to a prominent Republican, and when the administration changed to Democratic in 1885, Cleveland's new Secretary of the Navy, William Whitney, found the contractor to be in default and attempted to take control of the construction. He discovered, however, that no Navy yard was large enough to construct these ships, so the Navy Department completed construction of the ships in the contractor's yards, under the supervision of Navy engineers.

The incoming Cleveland government, the first elected Democratic administration of the postwar era, raised politically charged questions about the contract. Roach depleted his capital reserves, entered receivership, and forfeited the contracts for the three cruisers. The Navy finished them, in Roach's shipyard.

These new ships were followed by larger battleships, such as the Maine, Texas, New York, and Olympia. These ships required smaller escort ships and auxiliary vessels, especially colliers. A modern Navy was beginning to form.



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