Tag Archives: uss princeton

The Civil War and the Transformation of Naval Warfare


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

For the past month I have been doing a lot of work on my Civil War and Gettysburg text. As I looked at the first chapter which deals with the Civil War being the first truly modern war, I realized that the text was entirely land-centric. Part of this was because no naval forces were involved at Gettysburg, but they did have a significant and even a pivotal role in the defeat of the South. The technical developments at sea during the Civil War still affect us today. Since many of my students are Naval officers and our Staff College focuses on joint operations I thought it wise to include a brief introduction to those transformational developments of the Civil War.


Padre Steve+

Another aspect of the American Civil War that made it the first modern war was the naval war. There are several components of which we should take note. The first of which are the major technical advances in naval warship design, particularly in the matter of armor protection and steam propulsion. While both armor protection and steam propulsion were not new. Steam power had been introduced in the United States Navy in 1814 when Robert Fulton’s USS Demologos was launched. That ship was innovative but saw little service. The U.S. Navy commissioned a number of steam frigates, first paddle-wheel steamers and later screw-frigates in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s. However during the ante-bellum era only seventeen of fifty-seven major ships (ships of the line, frigates and first rate sloops of war) were steam powered. By the end of the war most ships were steam powered or had sails just to supplement their steam plants.

The second major technical innovation was the use of iron in shipbuilding, particularly armor plating for protection. What had changed was that the French and British navies had adopted explosive shell in the 1830s. The first use of them by the Russians against the Turks at the Battle of Sinope in 1853 proved devastating to the Turks and convinced both the British and the French that something had to be done to counter the threat. The result was the ironclad.

During the Crimean War the French built ironclad floating batteries as well as “three small purpose built…gunboats…whose ironclad hulls proved equally impervious to solid shot and explosive shell.” [1] The French commissioned their first ironclad shell firing battleship, the Gloire in 1859. The British Royal Navy commissioned their first ironclad, the HMS Warrior in 1860. Though she did not have the rotating turrets and maintained sails as an auxiliary source of propulsion, Warrior was “rightly regarded as the first battleship of the modern age. Warrior was steam-propelled, shell firing, iron in construction from keel to bulwarks and heavily armored as well.” [2]

But it was in America that the steam powered ironclads changed naval warfare in a dramatic fashion. The Confederacy led the way in the development of ironclads largely out of necessity to break the Union blockade. As necessity is the mother of invention the Confederates were most creative in attempting to answer the Union blockade, which was tightening significantly by 1862 as Union Naval and Army forces conducted amphibious operations along the Confederate Coast seizing six of the nine ports with rail connections to the southern interior, while blockading the remaining ports. The “blockade reduced the South’s seaborne trade to less than a third of normal,” [3] which included imports of vital war materials as well as the export of the South’s only real commodity, cotton.

The blockade had a devastating effect on the southern economy and war effort: “by bringing about serious shortages in strategic items, not only added to the inflationary trends but also frustrated efforts to maintain the transportation network and to increase industrial output.” [4] A southern naval officer “conceded after the war that the blockade “shut the Confederacy out from the world, deprived it of supplies, weakened its military and naval strength.” [5] It also contributed to the decline in the southern standard of living, weakening the political will of the southern people by “accentuating the hardships of war by reducing the southern standard of living and denying consumers enough of many of the imports, such as coffee, which they valued. This was a cost of war which northerners did not have to bear.” [6]

The blockade and Union amphibious operations soon deprived the Confederacy of its major naval facilities and forced the confederate Navy to rely on small shipyards in often isolated locations. The isolation meant that the often paltry amount of supplies such as iron, wood, and weapons, could not get to these facilities, hindering the construction of warships. But the Confederate Navy also suffered from its secondary status to the Army and since “Davis favored the army, the navy received inadequate funding.” [7]


CSS Virginia in drydock

Despite this, southern naval personnel were decidedly inventive in attempting to find creative ways to defend their harbors as well as break the blockade. First was in the development of ironclad ships armed with large rifled cannons which fired the explosive shells which were so devastating against wooden ships. The first operational Confederate Ironclad the CSS Manassas was destroyed at New Orleans by Admiral Farragut’s fleet, but the most famous Confederate Ironclad had a decided effect on the war. This was the CSS Virginia formerly the Federal steam frigate USS Merrimac which had been burned at Norfolk to prevent her from falling into Confederate hands. The ship had burned to the waterline but its hull was intact. Likewise its engines, which even before the sinking were seriously in need of replacement, were intact.

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory realized that innovation was the key to Confederate hopes at sea and he told the Naval Affairs committee in the new Confederate Congress “I regard the possession of an iron-plated ship as a matter of first necessity.” [8] Mallory sent agents to Europe to contract with French and British yards to build such ships but those efforts fell through when both countries decided to enforce their neutrality laws which forbade them from producing warships for a belligerent nation.

This caused Mallory to embark on converting the Merrimac into a large ironclad ram. In 1861, not long after the seizure of Norfolk and the Gosport Naval Shipyard, Mallory’s Chief of Ordnance and Hydrography, Lieutenant John M. Brooke, “had drawn up a design for transforming Merrimac’s hull into the iron plated CSS Virginia.” [9] The ship was cut down to the waterline and rebuilt with a “170 foot long casemate sloped at an angle of 36 degrees” [10]bolted onto the hull. Construction was agonizingly slow despite the efforts of officers on the scene. The ship’s executive officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones “pressed the workmen to labor overtime, seven days a week” [11] but despite their efforts the ship was completed nearly four months after its projected completion date of November 1861. This was largely due to issues that would plague the Confederate shipbuilding industry throughout the war; “shortages of iron, congestion on the railroads hauling materials, and the necessity of retooling the Tredegar Iron works[12] to roll the armor plate slowed her construction.

The ship’s casemate had a four inch layer of armor plate, and the hull below was given a one inch armored belt extending to three feet below the waterline. Armed with six 9 inch Dahlgren smoothbore naval guns on the broadside, two 7 inch rifles forward and two 6.4 inch rifles aft and equipped with a seven foot iron ram on her bow, when complete, the new Virginia was unlike anything seen before. [13]

During construction Union spies leaked the plans to the North which catapulted the Lincoln and his Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles into action. “When Welles learned of enemy plans for Merrimac, he appointed an Ironclad Board to study the problem. It recommended that the Navy Department let contracts for three experimental ironclads, one of them designed by John Ericsson and known as the Monitor.[14]


Ericsson, a Swede, was the inventor of the screw propeller and designer of the first U.S. Navy Screw Frigate the USS Princeton. The Monitor too was like nothing ever seen on the ocean. Described by some as a “cheese box on a raft” the small ship had all of her machinery located below the waterline on a completely iron hull that only drew 11 feet of water. The hull was protected by armor plate, but the most notable and innovative feature was a heavily armored revolving turret with eight inches of armor, mounted two massive 11 inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns which “could fire a 170-pound shot or 136-pound shell in any direction except straight ahead, where the pilot house sheathed in nine inches of armor was located.” [15] Future ships remedied this defect. Ericcson’s ship was mocked around the navy and by naval designers, but he and it would prove them wrong.

Monitor was completed two weeks before Virginia, but the Confederates elected to strike quickly. On March 8th 1862 the Virginia sailed under the Command of Franklin Buchanan, a veteran officer who had left the U.S. Navy to confront the Federal blockade force off Hampton Roads. During the battle she rammed and sank the large sailing Sloop of War USS Cumberland and shelled the sailing Frigate USS Congress, one of the Navy’s original six frigates until that ship caught fire and exploded during the night. The steam Frigate Minnesota, a sister ship of Merrimac and the flagship of the blockade force had run aground attempting to come to the aid of the two doomed ship and was at the mercy of Virginia. But tides and darkness caused Buchanan to withdraw for the night. March 8th was the “worst day in the history of the U.S. Navy. The Virginia sank two proud ships within a few hours – a feat no other enemy would accomplish until 1941. At least 240 bluejackets had been killed, including the Captain of the Congress – more than the navy suffered on any day of the war.”[16]

That night the tiny Monitor arrived and when Virginia steamed out on March 9th to complete the work she had begun the previous day, her crew saw a strange craft laying aside Minnesota. They did not realize that this was the new Union ironclad. As the Virginia approached Minnesota to finisher her off, the Monitor went into action. The ships fought a fierce engagement for several hours. The engagement was a draw and never fought again as neither side wanted to risk their only operational ironclad. Virginia had to be scuttled to avoid capture when Union forces captured Norfolk in May of 1862. However, the encounter had revolutionized naval warfare and doomed the graceful wooden wall of the sailing ships of the line and frigates. When the news of the action reached London the effect was shattering. The London Times commented:

“Whereas we had available for immediate purposes one hundred and forty-nine first class warships, we now have two, these being the Warrior and her sister Ironside. There is not now a ship in the English Navy apart from these two that it would not be madness to trust to an engagement with that little Monitor.” [17]

Designers on both sides experimented with various designs of ironclad warships. The Confederacy focused on building ironclad rams based on the Virginia, which featured a central armored casemate where all the ships guns were mounted. Eventually they completed twenty-one more such vessels which were used mostly in harbor defense activities. All of these ships faced construction challenges largely due to the shortage of iron plating, adequate propulsion systems and weapons. Some ships had armor plating consisting of railroad tracks which were bolted onto wooden casemates.


The U.S. Navy, with more shipyards and resources had a number of designs including the Eads river ironclads, the ironclad frigate USS New Ironsides and various types of “Monitors” featuring heavily armored revolving turrets designed by John Ericcson. Other designs were rejected for various reasons. While ironclads were the preferred type of ship, neither navy had the ability to build completely ironclad fleets and wooden ships still had a decided speed advantage over ironclads. Thus field-expedient protection was devised used which resulted in ships being protected by lumber, cotton and tin. However, by the end of the war the United States Navy had 58 monitors in operation. In addition to the monitor fleet another dozen or so ironclads of various types served in the U.S. Navy.

When the Ironclad Board of the United States Navy prioritized the types of ship to construct to meet the demands of the war, they rightly recognized that first priority had to be given to what we now call “the Brown Water Navy.” The Board determined that:

“Our immediate demands seem to require, first, so far as practicable, vessels invulnerable to shot, of light draught of water to penetrate our shoals, rivers, and bayous. We therefore favor the construction of this class vessels before going into a more perfect system of large iron-clad sea-going vessels of war.” [18]


The new designs which featured steam propulsion and armor protection instantly made all previous ships obsolete and by the 1880s these features would be incorporated in warship design by navies around the world. The effect was immediate in England where “After 1865 all the Royal Navy’s new ships were built of iron; the most modern of the old were cut down and iron clad.[19] France and Russia followed, but the United States, in its post war draw down allowed its fleet to crumble and it would not be until the 1880s that the first steel ships would be built to replace the now obsolete monitors and the remaining wooden steam frigates.


Two other naval developments from the Civil War still play an important role in naval warfare and strategy. Two were related to the modern submarine. The first that of a semi-submersible “torpedo boats” known as Davids, one of which disabled the massive USS New Ironsides, hitting the ironclad with a 60 pound charge on the tip of a spar torpedo mounted on its bow off of Charleston on October 5th 1863. The fifty foot long craft and two of her crew returned it to a heroes’ welcome. A Union torpedo boat under the command of Lieutenant William Barker Cushing, brother of Army Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, a hero of “the Angle” at Pickett’s Charge, sank the ironclad CSS Albemarle on the Roanoke River with a spar mounted torpedo on October 27th 1864.

On February 17th the fully submersible CSS Hunley exploded a spar torpedo on the side of the USS Housatonic a steam sloop anchored off Charleston. The torpedo sank Housatonic and swamped the tiny Hunley taking her and her nine man crew to their watery grave. These early Confederate innovations spurred the development of submarines, something that the U.S. Navy pioneered and still leads the world in many ways. In many ways the submarine is the most deadly naval and strategic weapon system in the world today, and they trace their roots to the humble CSS Hunley, the first to sink a warship in combat.


The Hunley and Monitor remain today the most famous ships of the Civil War, each of which irrevocably changed the character of naval warfare for generations to come.

The last development was the development of what were then called torpedoes, but are now known as mines by the Confederate Navy. Authorized by the ever innovative Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, these weapons were used to protect blockaded ports from Union Naval forces and by the end of the war these “infernal devices” had sunk or damaged forty-three Union warships.” [20]

The lessons learned from the battles along America’s Littorals demonstrate the importance of being able to conduct both blue water as well as actions along contested shorelines and inland waterways. Likewise they demonstrate to naval strategists the importance of not ignoring any means that a weaker opponent can use to defend his coastline. The surprise attack on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole by terrorists with an explosive laden craft on October 12th 2000 demonstrate the vulnerability of even the most modern warships to technology not much different than that used against New Ironsides, Housatonic and Albemarle in the Civil War.


[1] Keegan, John The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare Penguin Books, New York and London 1988 p.110

[2] Ibid. Keegan The Price of Admiralty pp.110-111

[3] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.382

[4] Currant, Richard N. God and the Strongest Battalions in Why the North Won the Civil War edited by Donald, David Herbert A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York 1996 p.33

[5] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.381

[6] Jones, Archer. Military Means, Political Ends in Why the Confederacy Lost edited by Boritt, Gabor, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1992 p. 75

[7] Millet, Allan R. and Maslowski Peter For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States, Revised and Expanded Edition The Free Press, New York 1994 p.220

[8] McPherson, James War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies 1861-1865 p.96

[9] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation pp.129-130

[10] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.97

[11] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.130

[12] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.97

[13] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.97

[14] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense Revised and Expanded edition p.221

[15] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.99

[16] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.376

[17] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.377

[18] _____________ The Daybook: Civil War Navy Special Edition – Technology U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Center retrieved from http://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/nhhc/browse-by-topic/War%20and%20Conflict/civil-war/cwsetech.pdf 16 January 2015 p.9

[19] Ibid. Keegan The Price of Admiralty p.111

[20] Ibid. McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom p.314


Leave a comment

Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

The First Aircraft Carriers Part One: The First American Flattops- Langley, Lexington and Saratoga

saratoga aircraft approach for landingAircraft over Saratoga

Note: This is the first in a series on the early aircraft carriers.  Two others will follow on the British and Japanese carriers.  My dad was a Chief Petty Officer in Naval Aviation.  As such I grew up around Naval Air Stations, Squadrons and of course Aircraft Carriers.  My dad retired off of the USS Hancock CVA-19 in 1974.  I spent two weeks underway on USS Coral Sea CV-43 as a NJROTC Cadet in the summer of 1976.  It was an experience that I will never forget.  While on the Cruiser USS Hue City CG-66 we deployed with the USS John F Kennedy CV-67 for Operation Enduring Freedom.  There is something about the power and majesty of the modern carriers at the same time there is a sense of timelessness in the first aircraft carriers.  Three of the first four American ships were converted from other platforms.  As a kid, a young adult and even now I am fascinated by all things Navy, especially ships that made history.  Here is my look at the first American Aircraft Carriers.

The United States did not invent the aircraft carrier although Eugene Ely flew an aircraft onto and off of the Armored Cruiser USS Pennsylvania on January 18th 1911.  It was the British Royal Navy which first built and operated aircraft carriers beginning with the HMS Furious which had been converted from a light Battle Cruiser.  The Royal Navy would covert the sister ships of the Furious, the Glorious and Courageous as well as the auxiliary ship the Argus before building their first carrier that was designed from the keel up, the HMS Hermes.     With the British building carriers and the Japanese following suit the United States began a program of aircraft carrier production and operation unmatched in history.

uss langleyUSS Langley CV-1 The “Covered Wagon”

The first US carrier was the USS Langley, CV-1.  Langley was converted from the collier USS Jupiter beginning in July 1919.  She was commissioned as USS Langley CV-1 on 21 April 1920.  Displacing 15,150 tons fully loaded Langley embarked 34 aircraft and had a maximum speed of 15.5 knots.  Langley was primitive but groundbreaking.  She was the first carrier equipped with catapults and on 18 November 1922 achieved the first catapult takeoff by an aircraft.  She served as an invaluable training platform for Naval Aviators and helped provide the fleet with highly skilled flight crews that would operate from the USS Lexington and USS Saratoga.

langley as av-3Langley after conversion to AV-3

Nicknamed the “Covered Wagon” she served initially in the Atlantic until November of 1924 when she was transferred to the Pacific Battle Force.  She served as a carrier in the Pacific until 1936 when she was converted into a Seaplane Tender AV-3 and assigned to the Pacific in September 1939 based in Manila.  She was in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked and was sent south to Australia.  She was assigned to the ABDA forces defending the Netherlands East Indies and was sunk by her escorts after being bombed and disabled by Japanese aircraft while delivering fighter aircraft to Java with the loss of 16 sailors.

uss lexingtonUSS Lexington CV-2

The second two American Aircraft Carriers were also conversions.  Unlike Langley the Lexington and Saratoga were converted from a new class of large and powerful battle cruisers whose construction had been canceled by the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty.  Commissioned on December 14th 1927 Lexington was 880 feet long and displaced 38,746 tons.  Saratoga was commissioned on November 16th of the same year and of similar dimensions and displacement.  Both of these ships could steam at 33.25+ knots and had a complement of 90 aircraft.  They were armed with eight 8” guns mounted in 4 turrets at the behest of more traditionally minded officers who felt that the armament might be needed for surface actions.

Saratoga underwayUSS Saratoga CV-3

They were the largest American carriers built until the Midway class appeared inin late 1945 and early 1946.  Of other nations pre-war carriers only the Japanese Navy’s Akagi and Kaga, converted from a battle cruiser and battle ship for the same reason as a the Lexington’s were comparable in size, air group capacity, protection and speed. Saratoga’s 8”battery would be replaced by twin 5” 38 caliber mounts in 1942.

lexington sinkingLexington Burning and Sinking

Both ships were used to help develop carrier doctrine and the concept of the carrier task force. Future leaders of Naval Aviation including Marc A. Mitscher trained aboard or flew from these ships.  Of particular note was that during Fleet Problem XIX in 1938 Saratoga launched a surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor from a point 100 miles off Oahu, setting a pattern that the Japanese copied in December 1941.

saratoga 1945Saratoga 1945

During World War II both helped hold the line after Pearl Harbor along with Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet. Lexington was the flagship of TF-11 during as series of raids on Japanese outposts in the Solomons.  TF-11 joined Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher’s TF-17 at the Battle of Coral Sea, the first Naval Battle fought outside of eyesight of the respective forces. Lexington’s aircraft helped sink the Japanese light carrier Shoho on May 7th 1942 and heavily damage the fleet carrier Shokaku the following day. However aircraft from Shokaku and Zuikaku hit Lexington with two torpedoes and 3 bomb hits which her damage control parties seemed to have under control when vapors from ruptured aviation fuel lines were ignited resulting in a series of explosions which ignited uncontrollable fires. Her crew was evacuated by escorts and she was torpedoed by the destroyer USS Phelps.

Saratoga served throughout the war. She engaged in patrols after Pearl Harbor and while enroute to joining Enterprise was hit by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-16. After repairs she was rushed to Hawaii to join the American Task Forces at Midway but arrived in Hawaii the day after the battle.  Following this Saratoga operated in the Central Pacific in the first offensive at Guadalcanal.  She participated in the landings as the flagship of Admiral Fletcher and then at the Battle of Eastern Solomons sank the Japanese light carrier Ryujo and damaged the seaplane carrier Chitose.  Following this battle she was hit by a torpedo from the I-26. After repairs she again went to the Solomons joined by the light carrier USS Princeton.  On November 5th the two carriers conducted a brilliant strike on Japanese ships and aircraft facilities at Rabaul which were threatening the landings at Bougainville.

saratoga 1944Saratoga September 1943

Following these operations Saratoga operated in the Gilberts and then with the British in the Indian Ocean.  She then was used as a training carrier for new pilots and aircrews at Pearl Harbor before being brought to Iwo Jima to operate night fighters against Kamikaze raids.  While conducting these operations she was attacked by Japanese aircraft in which 6 Japanese aircraft score 5 hits on her in 3 minutes.  Her forward flight deck was wrecked and she suffered great damage below decks and she lost 123 sailors.

saratoga kamikaze 2Saratoga burning after Kamikaze hits in 1945

Following repairs she resumed training duties and after the defeat of Japan was involved in Operation Magic Carpet to bring Servicemen back from overseas.  Surplus to Navy needs at the end of the war Saratoga was sunk in Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll by an underwater atomic blast in the “Baker” bomb test a mere 500 yards from her position. She sank 7 hours later.

saratoga sinkingThe End of an Era- Saratoga goes down at Bikini


Filed under History, Navy Ships