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The New Navy

The appearance of the torpedo, the rifled cannon, and the ironclad marked significant advances in naval weaponry. But the War Between the States was a false start. After it was over, the Navy reverted from the pre-eminent steam navy of the world to a wooden-hulled, sail-driven, commerce raiding one that was unable to elevate its senior engineers to flag rank.

The Industrial Revolution did not arrive in the US Navy until the 1880s. During this decade the Navy transformed itself into the sea control battle fleet that has evolved to today's Navy from the twelfth-ranked one that could not go toe-to-toe with the Chilean Navy.


    • - the Navy finally threw away the sails for good and propelled our warships with steam,
    • - hulls were made of iron and steel, vice wood,
    • - rifled breach-loading guns replaced the broadside cannon,
    • - ships started being electrified.


    • - the separate rank structure for engineer officers was abolished, and engineers were now eligible to compete for command and flag rank,
    • - engineering curricula at the US Naval Academy were added and augmented,
    • - Industrial Age rates were added to the enlisted structure (examples are electricians mate and machinist mate) to provide the necessary skills,

    Doctrine and education:

    • - the Navy discarded the commerce raiding doctrine in favor of a sea control one,
    • - the Naval War College was founded to educate Naval officers in strategy and doctrine,
    • - Capt Mahan was brought onto the NWC faculty to become the apostle of sea control, a doctrine that matches the technology of the Industrial Age quite well.

When Lee surrendered, the United States Navy was the most effective sea power in the world. After the war, the Navy rapidly disposed of its wartime ships and personnel. Soon it returned to its antebellum composition, even though European navies were modernizing rapidly. The US Navy had in commission over 600 vessels at the close of the American Civil War. Nearly all of the new ships were wartime purchases, hasty constructions, or made from unseasoned timber. After the war, most were sold off or destroyed.

The modernization of the Navy lagged due to several reasons. The traditional American aversion to a large peacetime military left the Navy under-funded. There was a debate over whether the Navy's strategy should be defensive, offensive, or balanced, and thus disagreement over what types of ships should be constructed. There were also charges of corruption in shipbuilding and other Navy Department operations.

The period 1865-1880 was marked by the decline and stagnation of the US Navy. There was a massive postwar reduction in the fleet, with the Navy declining from third to twelfth in ranking. The US lost its status as naval pioneer, retaining old Dahlgren smooth bores and obsolete wooden frigates. The naval rationale was to let European navies pay for technological innovation and experimentation. Congressional parsimony reflected a preoccupation with reconstruction of the South. There was also a widespread public belief that the US was not belligerent, and isolationists argued that Europe preoccupied in the Old World. There was a limited naval mission; showing the flag and protecting commerce in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

A Board on Vessels convened from March to October 1869. Apparently the board was to determine standardized designs for cutters, steam cutters, whale boats, and barges for Navy ships. During the Navy's so-called "Dark Ages" underway in the 1870s, there were hopes that small and economical warships would be built to replace some of the aged Civil War era ships comprising the US fleet.

Although the Monitor had revolutionized naval warfare, the US Navy continued building rather traditional ships. For instance, USS Omaha, 2394-ton Algoma class wooden screw sloop built at the Philadephia Navy Yard, was commissioned in September 1872. For the rest of that decade, she served on the South and North Atlantic Stations. After being laid up during the first years of the 1880s, she was returned to active service and sailed for the Asiatic Station in 1885. Omaha spent some five years in the Far East, returning to the United States in 1891. USS Trenton, a 3900 ton steam frigate, was built at the New York Navy Yard and commissioned in February 1877. The largest warship begun for the Navy in the years between the Civil War and the beginning of "New Navy" steel ship construction in 1883, Trenton served extensively as a flagship, primarily on overseas stations.

Congress allocated only a small amount of money for new ships and facilities and was very reckless in the money that it did appropriate. There was little desire among many of the senior officers and civilian leadership to pursue new and innovative technologies that had been vigorously pursued by both sides during the previous war. Many naval authorities openly worried that the Europeans navies were already significantly better equipped for any future conflict.

Charles Dana, editor of the Democrat-leaning New York Sun, claimed to have an explanation for this national tragedy: government corruption. In a series of "investigative" articles published in 1872, Dana attempted to make the case that the new administration of Ulysses S. Grant was wasting, even stealing, public money allocated to ship repair and construction. He also claimed that construction materials and ships' stores were improperly bought and of substandard quality. While it was well known that Dana was an arch political opponent of the Grant administration and no other newspaper corroborated his claims, Dana created enough of a stir to force Congress to open a special investigation into the operations of the Government run Navy yards.

Two Congressmen and two senators (three Republicans and one Democrat) formed the committee shortly after Dana made his charges public. The hearings did not go on very long and by a three to one vote, the committee cleared the Navy of any wrong doing.

The Virginius crisis of 1873 was the nadir of the post- Civil War Navy. In 1868, a nationalist uprising had begun in Cuba. Cubans in New York supported the uprising with funds and men. However, the US kept true to its neutral position and continued to enforce laws on neutrality and foreign recruitment. However, in 1873, the Virginius, an American flagged steamer, attempted to land munitions and nearly 200 volunteers in Cuba. On October 31, the Spanish blockader Tornado spotted the steamer. The Virginius attempted to outrun the Spanish monitor and steamed for Jamaica. The Tornado caught her 18 miles off of the Jamaican coast and escorted the Virginius back to Santiago. Authorities in Santiago sentenced some 50 people aboard the Virginius to death, and within a few days their execution had been carried out. They executed the captain and a number of other Americans by beheading them and then callously cheered as horses trampled the bodies. The United States and Great Britian protested the actions of the Cuban authorities. The Virginius had been seized upon the high seas and the executions had been carried out without the respective governments being advised.

The British sent a cruiser to Santiago, however, even this gesture did not prevent the execution of several British. Congress dispatched two wooden warships to Santiago de Cuba. There was talk of war, and several ships were purchased by the US Navy in December 1873 in anticipation of war with Spain. But the American ships sent to the scene probably could not have withstood a fight with the Spanish armored vessels. In Washington, there was embarrassment over the realization that the Navy would have lost its ships had a war with Spain begun. The US asked Spain for reparations to the families of the deceased and for a formal apology. The Spanish acceded to American demands and thereby defused the crisis. The Virginius incident added weight to the argument for an armored navy, but the event did not alter policy.

While Congress did authorize some new ships in the 1870s, the construction of the ships was conducted in a highly questionable manner. The first set was the Galena-class steam sloops, which the Navy officially classified not as new ships, but as "rebuilt" version of ships with the same name in order to stretch appropriations over a long period of time. The second set was the Enterprise-class steam gunboats.

In Norfolk, the yard received the contract to "rebuild" Galena and later to build the gunboat Alliance from the Enterprise authorization. Both ships took several more months to build than originally planned, and were largely obsolete when finished. Predictions were made during the Virginius crisis that Galena would be launched by the end of 1873. Instead, she was not launched until 1876. One ship, the Galena-class Quinnebaug, according to some historical sources was "rebuilt" in Norfolk, but other sources say Philadelphia.

In the 44th Congress (1875-77), the Democrats picked up over 100 seats, giving them a clear majority. Now in power, the Democrats set their sights on a full investigation of the Department to find out what was going on. Along with questions about ship construction, Congress also wanted answers on the practice of political kickbacks and patronage. The committee's goal was to answer the question "What is the cause of such evils?" Unlike the 1872 investigation, Congress tasked the entire Committee on Naval Affairs to look into the matter. The committee looked at each Navy yard individually and called everyone to testify, from Secretary Robeson and the commandants of the yards down to the 12 year old waterboy. Commodore Thomas Holdup Stevens II was commandant of the Norfolk Navy Yard from 1873 to 1876.

The chiefs of each bureau had blanket authority to command their section of the department. In Stevens' case, he answered to the Chief of the Bureau of Yard and Docks who would hand orders down to Stevens as to how and when to build ships. The orders would even include how many workers were to be hired to work on the ships. Many commandants openly complained that their sole job at the yard was to be a messenger boy to the chief engineer and constructors. The committee recognized this and was very careful not to embarrass the commandants as many were war heroes.

The committee's conclusions about the problems with the Navy were not unanimous. Eight of the 11 members, including three Republicans, voted for the conclusion. Congressman Washington Whitthorne, a Democrat from Tennessee, wrote out the details for the majority.

However, three Congressmen, all Republicans and one of whom was an ex-Confederate major from Alabama, disagreed and believed that the investigation into Norfolk was nothing more than a political witch- hunt on the part of the majority. The objectors pointed out that the report was coming out right before a Presidential election and the system of political patronage at the Navy Yard was several decades old. They believed, with some validity, that it was Congress who failed the Navy, and not Secretary Robeson or local Republican bosses, because Congress refused to appropriate sufficient funds to run the fleet correctly. In other words, the reason ships like Galena took so long to build was not because of inefficient workers, it was because Congress did not give the yard enough money to finish the ship in a timely fashion, forcing the yard to spread out appropriations over several years.

During the mid-1870s J.W. King, Chief Engineer of the US Navy, made many visits, official and private, to Europe to collect information relating to ship building, machinery and other aspects of naval warfare. The result was the 617 page The Warships and Navies of the World, Containing a complete and concise description of the construction, motive power and armaments of the modern warships of all the navies of the world; naval artillery, marine engines, boilers, torpedoes and torpedo boats. First published in 1877, this was an important book to establish reliable contemporary information. King's critical evaluations of naval architecture assumed that Congress might soon fund new designs for a re-equipped American navy.

By 1879 only forty-eight of the navy's 142 vessels were available for immediate service, and these were obsolete wooden or old ironclad ships. Naval technology had stagnated in the US, illustrated by the fact that there was not a single high-power, long-range rifled gun in the entire fleet. The War of the Pacific started in 1879, when Chile attacked Peru and Bolivia and quickly took the upper hand. The United States tried to bring an early end to the war, in part because of American financial interests in Peru. However, the American Pacific Squadron, containing only a few obsolete wooden vessels, was not taken seriously by the Chileans, who owned two new, state-of-the-art, British-built armored warships. Chile rather pointedly suggested that the United States mind its own business. The United States, unable to match Chilean naval power, backed down.

By 1882 the US did not have a modern vessel, and thirteen single-turreted monitors built in 1862 and 1863, armed with old-fashioned, muzzle-loading, smooth-bore guns, and thirty-seven unprotected wooden cruisers, composed the entire fighting force. In 1884 the US Navy's newest ships were wooden-hulled steam sloops built in the previous decade.

The United States Navy, much like the nation itself, was in a state of transition in 1898. Traditionally the navy embraced a defensive strategy with an emphasis on commerce raiding. Even the armored battleships under construction were designed to counter the threat of similar vessels in South American navies. In contrast, the navy was asked during the Spanish-American War to gain control of the waters around the Philippine Islands and the Caribbean Sea. After twenty years of rapid decline into obsolescence following the American Civil War, the navy was in the process of re-equipping itself with steel warships of modern design. The implications of these changes for the conduct of war at sea were not lost on America's naval leadership, who had spent the years and months prior to the war with Spain preparing for conflict with a European power. However, the war itself revealed the growing tactical and logistical complexities of modern naval warfare, and the U.S. Navy, like all navies, was in the process of overcoming the challenges presented by the technology of the new steel warships.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:40:41 ZULU