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Ship Building 1885-89 - Cleveland, Grover

The First Democrat elected after the Civil War, Grover Cleveland was the only President to leave the White House and return for a second term four years later. Cleveland won the Presidency with the combined support of Democrats and reform Republicans, the "Mugwumps," who disliked the record of his opponent James G. Blaine of Maine.

Cleveland vigorously pursued a policy barring special favors to any economic group. He angered the railroads by ordering an investigation of western lands they held by Government grant. He forced them to return 81,000,000 acres. He also signed the Interstate Commerce Act, the first law attempting Federal regulation of the railroads.

In December 1887 he called on Congress to reduce high protective tariffs. Told that he had given Republicans an effective issue for the campaign of 1888, he retorted, "What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?" But Cleveland was defeated in 1888; although he won a larger popular majority than the Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison, he received fewer electoral votes.

The American people began to not only show interest in the navy but to take pride in it, and public sentiment was ready to support congress in making further additions to it. Under these circumstances, congress was ready to vote the money for more ships, and the session of 1886 authorized a marked increase ha the strength of the navy.

Up to 1886 there had been considerable discussion as to the necessity for battleships in the navy. The modern battleship was regarded more as an experiment and congress hesitated to authorize the expenditure of so large a sum for a single ship the value of which had yet to be demonstrated. William C. Whitney had accepted a position in President Cleveland's first cabinet as secretary of the navy and he brought his powerful influence to bear in favor of the battleship.

Congress, therefore, in 1886 authorized the construction of no less than nine new warships, including two battleships, the Maine and the Texas, four monitors, the Amphitrite, Monadnock, Puritan and Terror, one protected cruiser, the Baltimore, one dynamite gun cruiser, the Vesuvius, and one torpedo boat, the Cushing. The program thus authorized was a notable one in the history of the new navy. Congress clung to the tradition of the monitor, reasoning that any war in which the United States became involved would necessarily be one solely of defense, and that instead of building ships to strike the enemy at a distance, the United States need only build ships capable of defending the coasts and harbors at home. It was a popular argument and was pressed with considerable force. In fact a majority of the American people believed it; and yet only twelve years later the United States was engaged in war and sent its fleets to fight and win battles half way around the globe.

But, if congress had not yet reached the point where it was willing to give up the monitor, it made a large concession to new ideas in providing two battleships and a torpedo boat. The torpedo boat was a new development of naval science. It had its origin abroad and England and France were building large numbers of them. The fact that their utility had never been demonstrated except in theory deterred congress from embarking too rashly, and therefore only one torpedo boat was provided, more as an experiment than anything else.

Another radical departure was the dynamite gun cruiser, the Vesuvius. The Vesuvius was distinctly an American idea. The cruiser, instead of carrying the usual armament of rifled guns of large caliber, was equipped with two tubes extending from the hold of the vessel through the decks and directed at an angle of 45 degrees to the stern of the boat. The shells, loaded heavily with dynamite, were fired through the tubes with compressed air. Much was hoped for of the Vesuvius, but after she was placed in commission she proved a disappointment to her designers. During the Spanish-American war the Vesuvius was placed in commission and sent to assist in the blockade of Cervera's fleet in the harbor of Santago. Here, therefore was an opportunity to test the value of the dynamite gun under the most favorable circumstances in real war. The tests were made but were not satisfactory. The Vesuvius threw a number of dynamite shells over the hills into the city of Santiago, doing some damage, but not more than would have been done by an ordinary shell from a heavy gun. There were too many disadvantages to be overcome. The dynamite guns could be fired only when the cruiser was in one position. The guns, or rather tubes, were immovably fixed and could not be aimed at the target. They could scarcely be used at all except in smooth water. The experiments at Santiago ended the career of the Vesuvius.

The two battleships provided in the naval program of 1886 were the Maine and the Texas, both rated as second class because of their comparatively small tonnage. The Maine had a displacement of 6,682 tons, but carried a heavy armament and full armor protection. She embodied all the best ideas of modern battleship construction and was built from designs prepared by American naval officers. The Texas, also rated as second class, had a displacement of 6,315 tons and was built from plans purchased in England. Both of these battleships, the pioneers of the great fighting vessels of the present American battleship fleets, were destined to play an important part in the Spanish-American war.

Of the other vessels authorized in 1886, the Baltimore, a protected cruiser of 4,413 tons displacement, figured prominently in American history. In 1892 while the Baltimore was at the Chilean port of Valparaiso the crew sent ashore on leave was attacked by a mob and two of the American sailors killed. Capt. Winfield Scott Schley was in command. He immediately trained the guns of the Baltimore on the city and demanded the arrest and punishment of the murderers. The incident nearly precipitated war between the United States and Chile, but the South American republic finally made ample apology and reparation. The Baltimore took part in the battle of Manila bay, leading the squadron in the second attack on the Spanish ships. The monitor Monadnock although designed solely for coast defense, was sent to Manila soon after Dewey's victory, accompanied by the monitor Monterey in order that their heavy guns might strengthen the American naval force.

In May 1887 contracts were signed with the Bethlehem Iron Company for gun forgings and armor plates and in the same year the great naval gun factory in the Washington navy yard was begun.

Congress, in 1887, added six more vessels to the new navy, including two protected cruisers, the Philadelphia and the San Francisco, the monitors Miantonomah and Monterey and the gunboats Bennington and Concord. The policy of adding protected cruisers to the navy was deemed a wise one. There was need of ships of a modern type for cruising along the South American coasts, through the West Indies and even in European waters, and the navy was deficient in this class of vessels. The gunboats, too, were needed in rivers and small ports where the water was too shallow for vessels of greater draught.

American naval policy was further enlarged by congress in 1887 when two new types of war vessels were provided for. The naval program of that year included the armored cruiser New York, the first of its class ever built by the United States and the forerunner of the magnificent armored cruisers now the pride of the navy. The New York, in fact, was practically a second class battleship of 8,200 tons. She was larger than either the Maine or the Texas, then the only ships of the battleship class in the navy. She carried eight 8-inch guns, twelve 5-inch guns, and a powerful secondary battery of twenty three rapid fire guns of smaller caliber. The New York was Rear Admiral Sampson's flagship during the Spanish-American war, and took part in the blockade of Havana, the bombardment of Matanzas and San Juan, and the blockade of Cervera's fleet in Santiago harbor.

With the New York, congress in 1887 authorized the construction of three unprotected cruisers, the Detroit, the Marblehead and the Montgomery. They were given a displacement of 2,089 tons and were designed for cruising in foreign waters and to show the flag in foreign ports. The same program included the two famous protected cruisers, the Olympia and the Raleigh, both of which took part in the battle of Manila bay, the Olympia being Admiral Dewey's flagship. The protected cruiser Cincinnati and the gunboat Bennington were also added to the navy by the vote of 1887.

The naval increase provided by congress in 1889 was modest in the extreme. A second dynamite gun cruiser of the Vesuvius type was authorized but never built. Two gunboats, the Castine and the Machias, were authorized.

Then congress tried another experiment. It authorized the navy department to construct a new type of warship to be known as a ram. The Katahdin was the result. The vessel cost upwards of $1,000,000 and has been useless. The Katahdin is simply a cruiser with an enormous steel pro wand the idea of its designer was that in battle it would force its way into the thick of the combat and ram the vessels of the enemy, depending on its speed and the thickness of its armor, rather than upon its guns for protection. The value of the Katahdin was soon regarded by naval men as practically nil. Conditions of modern naval warfare had changed and sea battles are fought at ranges of 2,000 to 6,000 yards, the destructiveness of gunfire proving as formidable at long ranges as at the close quarters that prevailed in the combats even of the Civil war.



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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:52:27 ZULU