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XCL Armed Merchant Cruiser / Auxiliary Cruisers

With the coming of iron ships, steam propulsion and technological advances in ordnance, the roles of warship and merchantman, once fundamentally similar and practically interchangeable, drifted apart. In general, steam meant speed and manoeuvrability for the man-of-war, power and endurance for the merchantman. This disparity between the two was not as pronounced by the turn of the twentieth century as it had been fifty years earlier, however, for the continuing improvements in shipbuilding which had originally bred separation of types evolved two classes of merchant ship which could be converted for naval purposes. These were some cargo ships, and fast passenger liners.

Cargo carriers, if they had uncommon endurance, could be handily armed as surface raiders and sent out on prolonged cruises prosecuting warfare against commerce far from any friendly base. Their appearance, inherited from peacetime occupations, gave them the positive advantage of a natural disguise -- and one easily made greater by such tricks as telescopic funnels and masts. Many passenger liners were also vessels of great endurance, whose speed compared favourably with that of contemporary warships.

The Secretary of the Navy Herbert in his report for 1893 (pp. 37, 38), pointedly questioned the military value of unarmored vessels. He says "The military value of a commerce-destroying fleet is easily overrated. Cruisers directed against an enemys wealth afloat are capable of doing great damage; . . . but unsupported by ships of the line their operations are never decisive of a war. During the twenty years from 1792 to 1812 French cruisers and privateers captured many thousands of British vessels and cargoes, but these captures operated more to provoke a spirit of determined hostility among the British people than to create such distress or alarm as would put an end to hostilities. English line-of-battle ships instead of scattering to convoy merchant vessels, hunted and destroyed the French vessels of war at the Nile, at Cape St. Vincent, and Trafalgar. In the mean time, in spite of her losses of merchant ships and their cargoes, England continued to grow rich byher commerce.

"Our own Civil War furnishes a more recent and familiar proof of my statement. The cruises of the Alabama and her sisterships were uncom- monly successful. Semmes rivalled the exploits of Jean Bar and Du Quay Trouin. His success delighted the Confederates, but it did not benefit their cause. . . . In the mean time in spite of depredations American commerce flourished. Commerce destroying was irritating, but it accomplished nothing. It would have been ineffectual even if the Confederates had possessed tea times as many cruisers, unsupported as they were by line-of-battle-ships."

But supporters of commerce-raiding contended that no theory can be sound that left the Confederate cruisers out of the category of sea power. The fact that their operations inured to the benefit of England rather than of the Confederacy was not accidental. On the contrary it was with deliberate purpose to that end that they were built in English yards, armed with English cannon, coaled with English coal, and manned by English seamen. The Confederate flag that they flew, so far as it pretended to represent the practical object of their existence, was a fraud. Their destruction of American commerce may not have helped the Confederate cause, but it operated beyond measure to promote England's dominion of the sea.

In April 1898, the Navy chartered four large passenger liners for conversion to auxiliary cruisers. USS Harvard and Yale were distinctive ships, with three smokestacks and "clipper" bows. Saint Louis and Saint Paul had a more "modern" appearance, with two stacks and plumb bows. All four were very active in the Caribbean, searching for the Spanish fleet, patrolling, blockading and cutting telegraph cables. On 22 June 1898, Saint Paul fought a sharp engagement with Spanish warships off San Juan, Puerto Rico. Harvard and Saint Louis were present at the battle off Santiago, Cuba, on 03 July 1898. With the elimination of Spanish naval power in the Caribbean area, the four big ships were used as transports. They were returned to their owners in September 1898, but reentered Navy service as troop transports during the First World War.

Eight medium-sized ships, and one smaller one, were purchased for conversion to auxiliary cruisers during the Spanish-American War. USS Dixie, Prairie, Yankee, Yosemite and Buffalo were 7500 ton ships of very similar design. Badger, Panther and Resolute were of 4000 to 5000 tons. The former pilot boat Peoria was the smallest of the lot and later became a tug. Except for Buffalo, all these ships were very active off Cuba and elsewhere in the Carribbean, serving as cruisers and as transports. The Navy retained most of them well into the next century, using the larger ones as training ships, transports and destroyer tenders. Dixie, Prairie, Panther and Peoria remained in service until the early 1920s.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:43:33 ZULU