When the building of fast cruisers was begun, the Secretary of the Navy made a comparison of the destruction effected by the Confederate cruisers in the Civil War with what might obtain through our superior means of destruction, should American have a war with a commercial power.
By the early 1890s the mode of propulsion and the speed of merchant steamers had undergone a great transformation, and the routes of traffic of greatest value had changed. Although for some years the aggregate tonnage of sailing vessels had been steadily augmenting relative to steamships engaged in ocean traffic, sailing vessels of belligerents would naturally be laid up in the event of war, as would a large proportion of ocean steam tramps of the nations engaged. Their traffic in cargoes not liable to seizure as contraband would pass to neutral flags.
Cruisers were allotted a duty which, in the Age of Sail, was fulfilled by pirates and privateers -to pursue merchant ships,fall on them by night and sink or seize them, with passengers, crews and cargoes, with the object of cutting the communications and paralysing the trade of the enemy. The following passage, "Les Guerres Navales de Demain," is an interesting illustration of this: "A war on commerce will have its regulations, precise, constant, and unconditional; the weak will be attacked without mercy, the strong will be evaded by flight without any false shame. Our torpedo-boats and cruisers as soon as they discover an English squadron from afar, or even a single battleship, it may be not exceeding them in fighting strength, but capable of offering even slight opposition, will be bound to disappear."
Should America have a war with any considerable power other than Great Britain, the US would find that increased war rates of insurance would throw almost the entire traffic on the high seas of both combatants under the British flag. In Asiatic waters, France would have steamers from her Mediterranean ports, probably not many in number; they would run little risk of capture by US cruisers, had America unhappily a war with that power. Cable dispatches would give information of the proximity of hostile vessels and enable the steamers either to remain in port or to be convoyed by fast vessels-of-war.
In a war with Great Britain American fast cruisers would be subject to grave disadvantages. An examination of Coaling, Docking and Repairing Facilities of the Ports of the World, 3d Edition, 1892, published by the Navy Department, will show how illusory is the idea that fast cruisers could seriously affect the merchant flag of Great Britain in distant seas, where neutrality laws would estop coal supplies, and dockage to clean their bottoms, in neutral ports. The docking and coaling facilities set forth in the document referred to, if marked on a chart of the globe, show how conveniently the cruisers and the battleships of Great Britain can reach out in all directions with clean bottoms and full coal bunkers. This favorable condition could not obtain for any other power, even should all neutrals fail to observe their neutrality obligations.
The American fast cruisers were the equals of those of any other power, and probably a few were superior, especially those with triple screws. American cruisers had as high a rate of speed as those of Great Britain; yet, only a novice will have the idea that they will represent the normal speed on the high-seas. Contractors take care that nothing is omitted to make the speed all that is possible, with bottoms perfectly clean, picked coal, and the employment of the most expert firemen, with forced draught. It was well known that considerable repairs are frequent after speed trials, from taxing the machinery and boilers to their utmost, and perhaps injuries result that do not come to light for some time.
A forced draught was so destructive to boilers when inexperienced firemen are employed, that only a few hours steaming may seriously impair them. A British admiral styled a forced draught a device of the devil. The question may occur why vessels of war cannot or do not use forced draughts as well as ocean liners. The latter have the best firemen obtainable; if one lacks in intelligence or usefulness he is discharged at the earliest opportunity; in the naval service he cannot be discharged for ordinary incompetency nor can he be schooled to competency. Engineers suggested lengthening the smokestacks to create a stronger natural draught and dispensing with the use of forced draughts, as was done on board of the Campania and the Lucania, the ocean liners that made the shortest runs across the Atlantic in the early 1890s.
The commerce-destroying cruisers like the Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, and San Francisco, that averaged in cost more than $2,250,000, looked so formidable, and were the objects of so much pride. But of which the sides would offer little more resistance to even the smallest rapid-fire guns of an enemy than so much pasteboard.
There was not one of the US fast cruisers that could profit to any extent by the use of sail power even in strong winds, although their enginery enables them to attain a high rate of speed, with a correspondingly large coal consumption. The Alabama and other Confederate cruisers did very well under a low head of steam; in fact, they did not require a large coal consumption when steaming ten knots an hour, which was at that time sufficient for their purposes. In trade-winds or other breezes abeam, or abaft the beam, they would readily sail more than ten knots per hour. A fast cruiser on an unfrequented sea, with disabled machinery or without coal, would be as pitiable an object as can well be conceived. Her crew would bail the appearance of an enemy in war as a much needed friend.
But even one contemporary critic of the Fast Cruisers concluded "To those who think that the world is made up of adulators and fault-finders I would say that we should be content as a whole with our fast cruisers. They will serve purposes in war that could not be dispensed with without grave disadvantages. Were all of the American battleships that were then under construction, completed, and the number doubled, we still, in my belief, would have undefended coasts, so far as the navy should serve as an indispensable auxiliary to fortifications and for its own purposes."
The term "Fast Cruiser" was more one of popular usage than official designation, and seemed to have largely fallen out of common usage in the early years of the 20th Century as more precise terms of art came into play.
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