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Ship Building 1881-85 - Arthur, Chester

Dignified, tall, and handsome, with clean-shaven chin and side-whiskers, Chester A. Arthur "looked like a President." On July 2, 1881, an embittered attorney who had sought a consular post shot President Garfield, and when he died on September 19, 1881, Vice President Chester A. Arthur succeeded him. Chester Arthur belonged to a different wing of the Republican party. Honorable in his personal life and his public career, Arthur nevertheless was a firm believer in the spoils system when it was coming under vehement attack from reformers. To the indignation of the Stalwart Republicans, as President, Arthur was a champion of civil service reform. Public pressure, heightened by the assassination of Garfield, forced an unwieldy Congress to heed the President.

Acting independently of party dogma, Arthur also tried to lower tariff rates so the Government would not be embarrassed by annual surpluses of revenue. Congress raised about as many rates as it trimmed, but Arthur signed the Tariff Act of 1883. Aggrieved Westerners and Southerners looked to the Democratic Party for redress, and the tariff began to emerge as a major political issue between the two parties.

In 1881 Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt appointed an advisory board to determine the requirements of a new navy. It recommended 21 armored vessels besides 70 unarmored, together with rams, and most significant of all declared that the material of construction should be steel. That was the knell of the iron navy - although as a matter of fact, iron had never fully replaced wood. Meanwhile there was not a plant in the United States capable of making forgings for guns of more than six-inch calibre - nor one able to make armor plate or torpedoes or machine guns.

It was not until 1883, when William E Chandler of New Hampshire was secretary of the navy in President Arthur's cabinet, that congress could be induced to take the first steps in the construction of a modern navy. The beginning was a modest one. American naval authorities had watched the progress of warship building in England and France. They had studied the problems as they had been worked out by British and French designers. Many of the foreign ideas in naval construction they rejected, others they accepted and improved. Consequently, the first modern warships built for the navy represented a distinct advanced American type.

Modernization began in the early 1880s during the administration of President Chester A. Arthur. Rapid growth in overseas markets and a foreign policy aimed at U.S. control of communications across the isthmus of Central America drove the country toward naval expansion. Two years of debate on the nature of this expansion culminated with the Navy Act of 1883, authorizing the construction of the steel cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago and the dispatch vessel Dolphin. The American fleet that began with these greatly superior vessels came to be known as the New Navy.

The forty seventh congress in a bill approved by President Arthur on March 3, 1883, provided for the construction of three protected cruisers and a dispatch boat. Under this authorization the navy department built the Atlanta, the Boston, the Chicago, and the dispatch boat Dolphin. They were the first cruisers of the new navy, the forerunners of a long line of fighting vessels which to-day are the pride of the American people and the admiration of the naval powers of the world.

Of these three pioneer cruisers the Chicago was the largest, having a displacement of 3,000 tons and a speed of 15.5 knots. The armament consisted of four 8-inch guns and fourteen 5-inch guns, besides a secondary battery of fourteen smaller guns. The Chicago was a steel cruiser, the first of its type ever built in the United States and had a steel protected deck of 1-1/2 inches. The guns were protected by shields of 4-inch steel armor. Although the Chicago's original cost was $889,000, the cruiser was later practically rebuilt. She was supplied with entire new armament and was one of the best of her class afloat. For the greater part of the time since she has been in commission the Chicago was in service as the flagship of the south Atlantic squadron. Tbe Atlanta and Boston were protected cruisers of 3,000 tons displacement. The Dolphin was designed as a dispatch boat and until after the Spanish-American war was used as the president's yacht. The Boston took an important part in the battle of Manila bay, on May 1, 1898.

The joint Army-Navy Gun Foundry Board was established by the Naval Appropriations Act of 1883. Its purpose was to consider the problem of how American industry could produce both armor plate and armor-piercing guns, upon which a modern navy depended, that would be comparable to the products of European industry. After touring European armament factories, the board recommended that the government award generous contracts to U.S. companies to stimulate their development of steels and forgings, and that the government itself assemble the new materials into weapons at both the Naval Gun Factory and Army arsenals.

In 1884 the U.S. Navy's newest ships were wooden-hulled steam sloops built in the previous decade.

The forty eighth congress in 1885 authorized the construction of two protected cruisers, the Charleston and the Newark. and of two gunboats, the Petrel and the Yorktown. The Newark had a displacement of 4,098 tons and the Charleston, 3,370. The Charleston remained in active service until 1899. It was the Charleston that was hurried to Manila to replenish the ammunition magazines of Dewey's ships after the destruction of the Spanish fleet. On the way to the Philippines the Charleston stopped long enough to capture the island of Guam, now held as an American naval and cable station in the Pacific. The Newark took part in the blockade of the Cuban coast during the war with Spain in 1898, and after the destruction of Cervera's fleet, was selected by Rear Admiral Watson as the flagship of the fleet ordered to proceed to the coast of Spain. The signing of the peace protocol, however, made the voyage unnecessary. The Petrel performed valiant service in the battle of Manila bay. After Dewey had destroyed the Spanish ships he sent the Petrel alone into Cavite bay to destroy Spanish shipping and a few of the smaller warships which had sought refuge within the inner harbor. The Petrel did the work successfully, not only destroying the Spanish ships, but the shore batteries and capturing the Spanish naval yards, depots and supplies.

The six cruisers and two gunboats added to the navy by congress in 1883 and 1885, aroused popular enthusiasm for the new navy to a degree not known since the days of the Civil war. The new cruisers formed what soon became to be popularly known as the white squadron. Several of the new cruisers visited European ports where they received notable receptions from naval authorities and the public.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:52:26 ZULU