A "Ram" is a ship whose principal weapon is its own bow, hardened and reinforced to penetrate the hull of an enemy ship, and usually strengthened internally to avoid or reduce self-inflicted damage from the collision. Rams had a long history of success during the age of oared fighting ships, which could maneuver at will, and were particularly suitable for combat in coastal and inland waters.
The ram was impractical on sailing ships, which were less maneuverable and encumbered by extensive masts and rigging, but steam propulsion brought it back into favor. During the American Civil War, the Confederacy made extensive use of the ram, both on specialist ships and on ironclads that also carried heavy gun armament. Some conventional Union warships were modified for ramming and the North also employed a modest number of specialist rams in the Mississippi River area. These included the "Ellet Rams", which were Army ships that cooperated with the Navy, several rams captured from the Confederates, and two ships (Avenger and Vindicator) constructed for the Army but turned over to the Navy before completion in 1864.
Though subsequent events showed the ram to be a difficult weapon to use effectively and all too likely to harm friends more than foes, the incidents of the Civil War and the 1866 war between Austria and Italy kept it in favor beyond the end of the 19th Century. The battle of Lissa of 1866 contributed to "ram fever" in the 1870s and 1880s. On 20 July 1866, the armored warships of Austria and Italy both deflected many direct gunnery hits, but Italy's newest armored sail-and-steam frigate, Re d'Italia, caught at a dead stop, was rammed by the Austrian flagship Ferdinand Maximilian and sunk.
The fear at the time was that should Great Britain be disposed to make war upon the United States, it would be in a sudden dash with all her forces to demand enormous ransoms from unprotected cities and coasts, or effect so widespread a ruin as to appal America into an immediate submission to any terms she might propose. This idea could not be entertained for a moment should America provide the means for coast defence. But even a non-intercourse between the two countries for a few months would reduce the British masses to great misery, and, were the period of its continuance indefinite, to actual despair. With America, the masses would not suffer want in any degree, but there would be heavy taxes, discomfort, and, perhaps, great losses inflicted on personal property, much of which would be British, and certainly a great deal of national humiliation.
Indeed, were America's naval fighting force at the time to be doubled and concentrated at one port on the Atlantic and another on the Pacific, there would have been several European powers that could send double the number of US vessels in either port from their normal force to attack, and leave still a larger contingent at home. The US had coasts on the Atlantic and on the Pacific, each of thousands of miles of extent, and bays and inlets from which the entrance of an enemy cannot be estopped by fortifications.
The task of the US Navy would he able to drive him away or to destroy his ships of whatever type. Proponents of this view held tha battleships and the various other classes of vessels-of-war would not meet the necessities of the situation. Rather, it would require marine rams pure and simple, built for that special purpose; given that the supposed protection of any vessel from ramming through any thickness of armor was a fallacy.
Though the ram was usually fitted as an auxiliary weapon on ships mainly armed with guns, the US Navy did build one specialist ram ship in the 1890s, USS Katahdin. This was the third steel ship built by Bath Iron Works and one man was lost in its construction. USS Katahdin was launched by Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine, 4 February 1893; sponsored by Miss Una Soley, daughter of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy; and commissioned at New York Navy Yard 20 February 1896, Comdr. Richard P. Leary in command. Katahdin failed to meet her contract speed of 17 knots, and the Navy refused to accept the ship. She went to New York after delivery where she spent 1 year at dockside and was decommissioned in 1897.
This armored ram was an experimental ship which because of design changes was obsolete when launched. It was intended that a large number of these rams would be built to work as part of an integrated system of harbor defenses, however, Katahdin turned out to be a one-off.
The experimental, harbor-defense ram was a departure in ship design, though strongly anticipated by the CSS Manassas, a 387-ton ironclad ram purchased by the Confederate Government in December 1861. Like the CSS Manassas, the much larger 2155-ton USS Katahdin was built to ride extremely low in the water with her bow awash while under way. For the time, the hull lines were very streamlined. Her hull embodied several new features later used in early submarines. She was fitted with a double bottom that could be partially flooded to lower the ship's silhouette and consequently present a smaller target. Katahdin employed inclined armor, two to six inches thick, to form an armor turtleback. Superstructure and deck fittings were minimal, including the heavily armored conning tower, stack, signal mast, ventilators, davits and skid beams for the ship's boats and four 6-pounder six pounder rapid firing rifled guns. The principal weapon was the enormous cast steel ram at the prow.
She had brief periods of active service, including Spanish-American War coast-defense duty in the western Atlantic. Katahdin departed New York Harbor 4 March 1897, the day of President McKinley's first inauguration, and sailed to Norfolk before decommissioning at Philadelphia Navy Yard 17 April. A year later, with the Navy preparing for an impending war with Spain, she recommissioned there 10 March 1898. Many residents of New England and other Northeastern coastal states, goaded by inaccurate press reports, panicked over fears of attack by overrated Spanish "galleons." To mollify vocally nervous residents and their government representatives, the Navy assigned ships of the U.S. Northern Patrol Squadron to cruise the Atlantic coast from Cape Ann to Vineyard Sound. Serving aboard one of the American ships - the unique submarine-shaped ram USS Katahdin, known as "Old Half-Seas Under" - was Passed Assistant Paymaster David Potter, who later was promoted to rear admiral and served as chief, Bureau of Supplies and Accounts. She was attached to the North Atlantic Squadron and operated along the Atlantic Coast from New England to Norfolk protecting the Nation's seaboard cities from possible attack. After decisive American naval victories at Manila Bay and Santiago Harbor eliminated this threat, the ram decommissioned for the last time at Philadelphia Navy Yard 8 October 1898.
Katahdin advanced knowledge of naval weaponry to her end. She was struck from the Navy List 9 July 1909; and designated "Ballistic Experimental Target 'A'". Katahdin was sunk by gunfire at Rappahan-nock Spit, Va., in September.
The ram Katahdin should not be confused with two totally un-related ships of the same name. The first Katahdin was launched by Larrabee & Allen, Bath, Maine, 12 October 1861; and commissioned at Boston Navy Yard 17 February 1862, Lt. George Henry Preble in command. The "90-day gunboat" was assigned to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. After the Confederate collapse in April 1865, the veteran gunboat returned north and decommissioned 14 July 1865. Katahdin was sold at New York 30 November and documented as Juno 20 October 1866. The first Sunnadin (AT-28), a tug, was laid down on 3 December 1918 at the Puget Sound Navy Yard as Katahdin; renamed Sunnadin on 24 February 1919; launched on 28 February 1919; and commissioned on 20 October 1919.
During the two World Wars, the ram enjoyed a brief revival when many destroyers and other smaller warships were given specially hardened bows to attack surfaced submarines.
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