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The Old Steam Navy

During the early 19th Century, steam propulsion was hailed as the most important naval development since the cannon. Other advancements during this time were stronger engines, screw propellers, and coal was used instead of wood. Following the War of 1812, the Navy underwent technological changes. Before the Civil War, new scientific advances foreshadowed the incredible technological revolution that continues into today's world.

Smaller than the army, more isolated from public attention than the soldiers, the navy evolved more slowly institutionally than did the army. It adopted a bureau system in 1824 in order to centralize administration but failed to name a commanding admiral. The United States Naval Academy was not founded until 1845. Prior to that date officers were commissioned directly from civil life or earned their commissions through the midshipman system. Meeting the challenges of rapidly changing naval technology, in gunnery, steam propulsion, and iron hull construction forced the sea service to move beyond the old system of learning to sail and fight through the direct experience of sailing and fighting.

The nature of the naval service hindered institutional development. In peacetime the navy served largely overseas to represent American commercial interests, protect citizens and their property, and explore and chart unknown waters. The navy's wartime service was two-fold: to protect American coasts and attack enemy commercial shipping. Given these peacetime and wartime roles, the navy served in small squadrons across a wide geographic area with only a slow and tenuous communications link with the Navy Department. Such service gave a great deal of independence to squadron and ship commanders, and made it difficult to impose central control over the entire force.

A captain that fought the Invincible Armadla would have been more at home in the typical warship of 1840, than the average captain of 1840 could have been at that time in the advanced types of the Civil War. As a, matter of fact, it was, no uncommon thing in 1861 to find officers in command of steamers whio had never served in steamers before, and who were far more anxious about their boilers than about their enemy. Naval science had advanced more in the last twenty-five years than in the two hundred years preceding.

Friction between the United States and Mexico, aggravated by an ever-increasing American population in the southwest and admission of the Texas Republic into the Union, resulted in war in 1846. The Navy's Home and Pacific Squadrons blockaded the enemy's east and west coasts during the Mexican War, seized numerous ports, and conducted amphibious operations. From the Gulf of Mexico, Commodore M. C. Perry, with small sidewheel steamers and schooners, fought his way up tortuous rivers to capture Frontera, San Juan Bautista and other enemy strongholds and supply sources. Sailors from the Pacific Squadron under Commodores John Stoat and Robert Stockton landed at Monterey, San Francisco, and San Diego, assuring success in the California campaign. Veracruz, key to ultimate victory on the Gulf, fell before a brilliantly executed amphibious assault planned by Commodore David Conner. Over 12,000 troops were put ashore with their equipment in a single day, and at the request of General Winfield Scott naval gunners and their heavy cannon landed. Joined by guns of the fleet and Army artillery, the naval battery pounded the enemy into submission, and opened the way for the capture of Mexico City.

World Wide Developments

In 1842 the Russian Ministry of the Navy established the Steamship Committee and appointed Admiral Pyotr Rikord to direct it. The Baltic Fleet was supplied with four steamer frigates, and, in 1849, the first 23-gun screw-propeller frigate was built and christened the Archimede. However, the pace of modernization began to lose momentum.

The Crimean War persuaded all maritime powers that sailing ships must be converted to steam power for a nation to secure its waters. During the 1854 Crimean War British and French naval forces operated in the Baltic and off the Crimea. Steam, screws, and shells were used extensively for the first time.

With the adoption of steamers for naval warfare, sailing ships gradually disappeared from the composition of navies. Yet as late as the beginning of the Crimean war, the Black Sea fleet counted only 7 steam-frigates, of 1960 steam-power, armed with 49 guns, the remainder of the fleet being composed of sailing ships. The allied fleets contained the following number of steamers: England 24, of 5859 steam-power; the French 12, of 4960 steam-power. The number of guns on the Russian fleet was about 2000, and on the allies 2449. The impossibility of sailing ships accepting battle with freely manoeuvring steamers was then fully demonstrated, for the greater part of the Black Sea fleet was destroyed. It is not to be wondered at that the Baltic fleet, composed of weakly constructed vessels, made even a less successful show against the allies.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet was concentrated at Sevastopol under Vice-Admiral Kornilov. Admiral Menshikov, responsible for defending the Crimea. From October 1854 to August of 1855, the British and French continued to besiege and bombard the town, making periodic attempts to invade the fortress. On 28 August 1855, the remaining Russians abandoned Sevastopol. The entire Russian Black Sea Fleet was annihilated; three admirals, 106 officers and 3,777 sailors were killed; nearly 14,000 seamen and officers were wounded.

In early June of 1855, the Allied naval commanders brought more than 100 ships to Kronstadt, including twenty screw-driven ships of the line and four screw frigates. The disparity between Allied and Russian vessels was now even more obvious; to battle the fleet of Dandas and Peno, the Baltic sailors had only one screw- propeller frigate, the Polkan. Although they were bolstered by an additional sixteen mortar floating batteries and sixteen screw- propeller gunboats, the Allies still refused to attack Kronstadt. The fortress's recently refurbished, batteries posed a threat to the French and British. Part of the Russian resistance was also credited to the deployment of newly created blockade mines. Although these early mines were primitive in design and their explosive force was too weak to penetrate the thick hull of an enemy ship, that is, their charge was insufficient to cause sinking, they had a psychological effect, and during a reconnaissance mission, four allied steamers suffered mine damage. Unopposed in the Black Sea after the fall of Sevastopol, the Allies took Kerch in 1855, raided the Russian coast, and forced Kinburn to surrender. Ascending the throne after Nicholas I's death, Alexander II began peace negotiations. A treaty was concluded in paris on 18 March of 1856, stripping Russia of its fleet and coastal fortifications on the Black Sea. In exchange for Kars, the Allies returned the devastated port city of Sevastopol to Russia.

The first appearance of armored ships also dated back to the time of the Crimean war.The bombardment of Sevastopol by the combined Anglo-French fleets showed the allies that their wooden vessels might easily be set on fire and destroyed, in a battle with fortresses. The consequence of this discovery was an attempt to protect vessels with iron plates,and in 1854 France began the construction of three armoured floating batteries destined for attack upon the Russian coast fortifications in the Black Sea. The English, with the intention of attacking Kronstadt in 1856, constructed seven floating batteries. The Russian shells directed against these batteries only occasioned damage when they accidentally fell into the embrasures. From this the conclusion was drawn that if vessels were built well protected with armor, and able to manoeuvre freely in the open sea, they would be indestructible. The Crimean War bore witness to steam-powered, armored shell-firing vessels that blasted apart Russian fortifications in the Baltic and Black Seas with impunity.

Having used steam powered ironclad barges during the Crimean war, and with their experiments in early 1857 with rifled guns, the French decided that armor was necessary for their next class of warships.

Gunboats were traditionally shallow draft sailing vessels armed with a couple of long guns mounted and firing forward, supplemented by a broadside armament of carronades. The Crimean Gunboats of the 1850s were essentially a steam powered variant of this design.

John Ericsson Ericsson's 1854 "sub-aquatic" concept, submitted to Napoleon III during the Crimean War, had all the basic attributes of the Monitor: low-freeboard, light-draft, iron-hull, and a heavily-armored rotating turret mounting a small heavy battery. The outbreak of the Civil War found Ericsson returning to the service of the Navy. Once back, he produced a revolutionary armored ship, USS Monitor, that carried two Dahlgren guns in a rotating turret.

Also known as the "Leviathan", Great Eastern was constructed and launched in 1858 for the Eastern Steam Navigation Co. to establish a steamship route from Great Britain to the Far East and Australia around the Cape of Good Hope. These routes were dominated by the "clippers". The Great Eastern was the world's largest steamship until the Oceania in 1899 exceeded her length of 211 meters [692 feet] and in 1906 the Lusitania entered service surpassing the Great Eastern's 22,500 ton displacement. Commercially the vessel was a flop - perhaps because she was a transportation solution in search of a problem. The market for such large ship passenger transportation was still under-developed. The opening of the Suez Canal then dealt another blow cutting journey times to the Far East and Australia. Great Eastern was too big for the canal. Great Eastern's last voyage was from the Scottish Clyde to Liverpool and a Birkenhead scrap-yard in 1889.

France decided to build sea going 'ironclads' with iron armour on top of the wooden hull. The French hoped this would give them a technological edge over the Royal Navy. In 1858, by order of the Emperor Napoleon III, the building of the first armoured frigate Gloire was begun on the plan of the celebrated engineer Dupuy de Lome. This frigate, in the words of its builder, was to be "a lion in a flock of sheep.''The cost of construction reached 280,000 -that is,almost three times the cost of the greatest line-of-battle ships, but in view of the immense results that were expected, this outlay was not considered extravagant.

Even as their first French ironclad, Gloire, was under construction Britain built an answer, the impressive HMS Warrior, half as big again and with an iron hull. She can still be seen today at Portsmouth where she is preserved.

Commissioned in 1861, HMS Warrior brought together a series of technological innovations which highlighted Britain's industrial power and her determination to remain in complete command of the sea; she was built completely of iron, her steam engines produced a speed of 14.5 knots and she was armed with new breech-loading type guns. Britain had shown she could out-build any potential rival and the French naval challenge soon collapsed.

Warrior had a relatively uneventful career and served in home waters as the only dry dock large enough to take her was in Britain. Since the aim of her construction was to deter the French, however, she completely succeeded in her role. A French decision to build only ironclads in the future led to a similar decision in London and ironclads soon replaced wooden ships as the major fleet units in the Royal Navy.

Meantime the other maritime powers, recognising that they were almost defenceless without increase of their fleets of armoured vessels, began with feverish activity to attempt to attain what is apparently unattainable -that is, to build armored vessels which would resist the action of the strongest artillery.

The Civil War

Fearing that the United States was falling behind England and France in the arms race of the mid-19th century, Congress on April 6, 1854, authorized the construction of six first-class frigates "to be provided with screw propellers." One of those six, the Merrimack, was built at Boston Naval Shipyard, and five of her sister ships were built among the other government-owned shipyards of the time. The Colorado and Roanoke were assigned to Gosport, the Minnesota to Washington, and the Wabash at Philadelphia. Only the Niagara was contracted to a civilian firm, in New York.

These Merrimack-Class Frigates were designed along the traditional lines of sailing ships from the Congress-class frigate of 1839 rather than from more contemporary designs seen in European navies. Key Congressional leaders and Navy Secretary J.C. Dobbins bowed to the conservative senior officers who had grown up in the era of wooden hulls and canvas sail. The emphasis on an established sailing frigate design, one that placed steam propulsion far to the back of bulky lines and rigging and left little room on deck for larger caliber guns and modern armament.

Steam engineer Benjamin F. Isherwood cautioned that older timbers, probably more suitable for narrower vessels, were being used or ``worked in'' as the vessel's principal timbers. At the beginning of the Merrimack's construction, she was supposed to have engines designed by John Ericsson, would later win fame as the designer of the federal ironclad Monitor.

Although certain developments in the character and construction of ships and of weapons had been foreshadowed before the Civil War, and had even been partially realized, it was while the struggle was actually in progress that changes took place in these respects which amounted to a revolution in naval warfare. At the beginning the fact that sailing vessels were soon to be laid aside was still far from general recognition, especially among officers of conservative tendencies; three great weapons: the rifled gun, the ram, and the torpedo, were almost unknown in the service; and iron armor was still au experiment. The modifications of the previous fifteen years had accustomed men's minds to the idea, that considerable chagnes would gradually take place; but none foresaw or were prepared for the tremendous development that was wrought in four years of actual fighting.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:42:52 ZULU