The Civil War monitors of the Miantonomoh class -- although regarded as the best of this type of warship by American naval officers -- deteriorated rapidly after the war. George M. Robeson became Secretary of the Navy in 1869, but had great difficulty getting Congress to allocate sufficient monies for upkeep. The wood armor backing and other timbers in the ships' hulls suffered from dry rot and within the first ten years after the war their combat value had become almost.
The October 1873 "Virginius Affair," almost provoked a war between Spain and the United States. On October 31, 1873, the Virginius was captured by Spanish officials in international waters, and 36 crew members and 15 passengers, including several American citizens and British subjects, were executed.
By 1874-75 Robeson wanted to build five new monitors, but Congress would only appropriate funds to repairs. So Robeson decided to carry out extensive "repairs" on the Miantonomoh class monitors. The "repairs" were so extensive -- involving the construction of new iron hulls -- as to result in entirely new ships. However, since the funds for new construction had not been appropriated by the Congress, Robeson maintained the fiction that the ships were actually still the Civil War monitors and so the names never dropped from Navy List. A national scandal resulted when this and the fact that Robeson had been paying for the new ships with old came to light. But, Robeson's action marked the beginnings of the movement to reestablish the United States as a strong naval power.
By some accounts Secretary George M. Robeson [served 26 June 1869 to 12 March 1877] was one of the least effective Secretaries ever to be placed in charge of the Department. A lawyer by trade, George Maxwell Robeson was a political supporter of Grant and exchanged in some very shady business practices. Naval historian Robert Albion discovered that Robeson moved all of the Navy's accounts used to pay for overseas operations from a well established and connected British accounting firm to an American firm on the verge of bankruptcy that had no offices in foreign ports. Despite his reputation, an 1872 investigation cleared him and the Department for the time being. In the election year of 1876, House Democrats initiated numerous investigations of the Grant administration, including possible corrupt practices by Secretary Robeson, who received $300,000 for giving out contracts to preferred businesses.
It is important to realize that all of the "repaired" ships were actually completely modern ships of war bearing only a vague resemblance of the first ships of the name. This seems to have been a common practice at that time. USS Nipsic, a 1375-ton Adams class gunboat, was built at the Washington Navy Yard, DC, the last significant ship to be constructed at that facility. Officially, she was the Civil War gunboat Nipsic rebuilt, but she actually was a completely new ship, with a displacement more than half again that of the original. The new Nipsic was commissioned in October 1879.
Such practices were not restricted to the Navy, but extended to the Coast Guard as well. The 1883 Fessenden was a purported rebuild of the 1865 William P. Fessenden when in fact that vessel was completely dismantled and her hull and fittings sold for a little over $3,000; the only major part of the vessel kept was her machinery. The work was done by the Union Dry Dock Company of Buffalo, New York. The 1865 Fessenden's machinery was placed in a newly built iron hull which was successfully launched from her builder's yard on 26 April 1883. The "new" vessel was accepted by the Revenue Cutter Service on 11 August 1883. The "rebuild" cost the government $97,379.60.
Although this matter smacks of the corrupt practices of the Grant era, it also reflects the transition from wood and sail to steam and steel. In the age of sail, the hull of a wooden ship had to be rebuilt on average every 15 or so years in order for the ship to remain seaworthy. Without frequent major repairs to her hull, a wooden warship became unseaworthy. Thus, USS Constitution was rebuilt more than once. Constitution was repaired in Boston in the early 1830's. The ship was rebuilt right down to her keel. She was stripped down to her keel outside and in, for the purpose of undergoing a repair that would make her, to all intents, a new ship.
The Historic Fells Point Foundation maintained that the 1853-4 rebuild of Constellation did not make her a new ship, because much of the material was retained from the original 1797 ship and used to equip the rebuilt ship. The Constellation that exists today, the Foundation said, is in a continuous historic provenance from the original ship launched in the shipyard of David Stodder at Harris Creek, Canton, in 1797. Since Congress had not appropriated money for a new ship, Chief Naval Constructor John Lenthall resorted to a practice occasionally done by the Navy before and after 1853 - building a new ship with repair money to occupy the "room" of the old ship, retaining the old name, and classifying the ship as "rebuilt." The original Constellation was completely scrapped in Norfolk in 1853, and an entirely new ship of the same name built in her place. In 1855 the Navy's "modifications" were completed and the Constellation was transformed from a 36 gun frigate to a 22 gun sloop of war. The new sloop of 1853 was a new and independent hull.
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