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ABCD - The New Navy

By the early 1880s, the deficiencies of the US Navy had become too obvious to be ignored. In 1883, the U.S. Navy convinced Congress that it was time for the nation to develop expertise in the construction of steel warships. To this end it secured authorization for the construction of three protected cruisers, USS Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, and the gunboat Dolphin, collectively known as the ABCD ships. Each 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. The CHICAGO was a twin-screw protected steel cruiser and the largest of the initial ships of the New Navy. Two smaller protected steel cruisers were named ATLANTA and BOSTON. The initial ship was named DOLPHIN, an unarmored cruiser built as an example of a high speed commerce raider. DOLPHIN was officially designated a dispatch vessel or gunboat. These were the pioneers of the United States Navy's warships of steel.

William Henry Hunt; lawyer, professor, and Confederate Army officer and in March 1881 became the Secretary of Navy. Hunt had but a short tenure in that position, but during the time he was there, his legacy was rebuilding a Navy neglected by a country still recovering from a four-year Civil War. Hunt began with the creation of a Naval Advisory Board that on Nov. 7, 1881, dared to ask Congress for $30 million to build 21 armored ships, some with steel hulls rather than iron, and nearly 70 unarmored vessels.

The first Advisory Board, which convened June 29, 1881, was made up of 15 representative officers and materiel corps of the Navy. The use of mild steel for construction of hulls was so fully discussed and the difference of opinion so varied the Nov. 7, 1881 report was “divided” in its recommendation. Three of those dissenters would be officers of the Construction Corps of the Navy, who were concerned more about the ability of American manufacturers to produce the steel without excessive cost rather than using the steel itself.

Presenting a divided report on Nov. 7, 1881, gave the Naval Committee of the House of Representatives a chance to add two-cents. A four-month “exhaustive examination” included meetings/interviews with ship-builders and iron and steel manufacture workers, visits to those factories and testing at the Washington Navy Yard.

One who gave testimony to the committee was George Wilson, the superintendent of machinery at the Washington Navy Yard, who pointed out the biggest difference in working with iron and steel was the greater chances of “spoiling” up to 10 percent of iron flanges. “You may have men working 10 days on a sheet of iron, and then have it spoiled. But we have never spoiled but one sheet of steel. In the many thousands that we have used in the last four years we have spoiled but one; and even that we could have used,” he said.

At the time, only one company had constructed any ships with steel plating: Pusey & Jones Company of Wilmington, Del. The owner spoke to Congressional members about the reliability of steel hulls in collision and groundings of his river-steamers, claiming “vessels built with these sheets of steel, much thinner than we have ever used for iron vessels, and they have been thumped and banged against rocks and stones until one of those boats is all dinged…yet there has been no sort of fracture.”

The House Committee on Naval Affairs was sold on the idea. In a follow-up report accompanying H.R. Bill 5001 on March 8, 1882, it states that “after carefully taking the opinions of the most extensive and experienced manufacturers of steel and iron in this country whom we could reach, we have unanimously decided that steel should be used instead of iron…”

The House Committee went on to say if the members of the Naval Advisory Board could have had the same information before them and had been as “fully informed as to the progress, extent and present condition of the manufacture of steel in this country as the committee have been, they would have all united in recommending steel as the only proper material for the construction of vessels of war.”

They weren’t too far off. Once presented with the information, all but one of the Naval Advisory Board dissenters agreed steel was the way to go. The committee was also pleased to report the United States was able to manufacture steel better than it is made in Europe through the open-hearth method, which was best for ship-building, and there should be no problems in procuring steel “in sufficient quantity and at a reasonable cost.” It took another year for both sides of Congress to maneuver the March 3, 1883 Naval Appropriations Act that approved four ships with steel hulls for $1.3 million, a far cry from the nearly 90 ships and $30 million the first Naval Advisory Board had recommended. But it was a start.

Called by some naval historians the "founder of the modern navy," Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler ordered construction of the "ABCD" steel cruisers in 1883, maneuvering around the Navy Department's bureaucracy to set up control of the project in a technical advisory board. Each 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. Passed on 03 March 1883, the 1884 Navy Appropriation Act authorized construction of the cruisers. These steel ships was the first equipped with modern breechloading guns and this act marked the beginning of the transition from wood and sail to steel and steam.

In a report dated 25 October 1883, the Navy Advisory Board noted "In response to your verbal request for an expression of opinion by this Board with regard to the types and number of vessels which should be commenced at once, in order to carry forward the work of reconstruction of the unarmored fleet, we have the honor to submit the following remarks and approximate estimates for your consideration:

"The rapid deterioration of the vessels composing the present fleet makes it necessary that the work of reconstruction should bo carried forward constantly and »s rapidly as the demands of proper economy in expenditure will permit, in order that, as the old ships are condemned and withdrawn from service, new ones may be available with which to replace them. In undertaking this work of a complete reconstruction of the fleet, every type and size of vessel which it is proposed to introduce should be carefully studied and decided upon in order that the general result may represent the highest development of efficiency and compactness.

"To secure these results the types and gradations in size should be few in number and distinct from each other, and whilst each vessel should possess qualities rendering her adaptable to a wide range if service both in peace and war, the gradations should be such as to develop some one of the main requirements to its fullest extent, so that the fleet may be prepared to deal thoroughly with every exigence of naval service.

"It is considered that in the commencement of this reconstruction at least one of the vessels of each final type and size should be designed and built, in order that as the work progresses an equal amount of improvement due to work and experience may be realized in all.

"There are now in course of construction three of the distinct types and sizes of steel unarmored cruisers of which the fleet will be entirely composed. Of these the Chicago is a representative of the fully equipped cruising fighting vessel, with qualities of speed, endurance, battery power, and handiness carried to the maximum of development permissible without gaining in one at the expense of the other. Her size is at the limit which is considered the test for the full attainments of these qualities, due consideration being given to the question of economy in construction and maintenance. The vessels of this type will replace those of the Wabash, Tennessee, and Trenton types in the old fleet, gaining greatly in power, efficiency, and compactness by the improvements and consolidation. The experience gained in the completion of the design of the Chicago, and the necessity for the eauly acquirement of more vessels of this description, have led the Board to recommend the immediate construction of one ship of this class and type.

"Although the Chicago represents the maximum of unarmored fighting efficiency, her cost of construction and maintenance limit the number which can be built and the general active cruising capacity. For this reason the Boston and Atlanta were designed, which, by an alteration in the type, made necessary the restrictions in the dimensions, maintain a combination of fighting and cruising - qualities approximating closely to those of the Chicago at a much reduced cost. This type of ships replaces the two types of the old fleet represented by the Hartford and Omaha, whose service records give the best possible evidence of the great efficiency and absolute necessity of this size of vessels in an unarmored fleet. We recommend that one more vessel of this type be commenced at once ... "

The problem of building a cruiser arose with the advent of ships made of steel with steam engines, the latter seriously reducing any such driven ships' endurance. The proposed vessels were intended as cruisers in time of war and in time of peace. But a few years earlier the powers of Europe, including even the Ottoman Government, consulted together with a view of abolishing privateering, and of establishing what should be considered contraband of war. Among other things, it was decided that all kinds of coal should be so considered. In case of the United States having a war with any foreign power all the coaling stations of the world would be closed against American warships; hence the necessity that the US should build vessels having full sail and steam power, so that they could make good speed cruising under sail, with fires banked ready at a moment's notice to get up steam.

Take the Chicago for example. She would have only 14,000 square feet of canvas in her principal sails. Any seaman knew that so small an amount of canvas can only be considered "auxiliary," and would only propel the vessel through the water in a very fresh breeze. With the very peculiar rig of the Chicago, without bowsprit and jibs projecting beyond the bow, no vessel would work under sail in smooth water, much less in a heavy sea.

The US Navy was essentially in denial regarding the Industrial Revolution until the 1880s -- the Civil War was an aberration after which the Navy returned to a sail-driven, sea denial navy for a quarter century. But in the 1880s -- heralded by the iron-hulled ABCD cruisers -- a dramatic and controversial shift to an Industrial Age Navy occurred. This slide illustrates some of the important events and characteristics in the Navy's confrontation with the Industrial Age -- nearly a century after it began. What it doesn't illustrate was the upheaval associated with personnel getting their paradigms shifted.

Prior to this time, engineers were prohibited from command and barred from making admiral -- second class citizens. Along with changing that situation, the Navy also invented a dozen and a half new rates, all designed to support an Industrial Age Navy. Further, the general literacy about engineering was upgraded throughout the Navy, as evidenced both by upgrade of engineering curricula at the Naval Academy and by recruiting practices -- instead of wharf rats, recruiting was targeted machinery-savvy farm boys from the Midwest (note the training center at Great Lakes).

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. 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.

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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Page last modified: 10-05-2019 11:48:37 ZULU