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The Clash of the Ironclads: The Battle of Hampton Roads at 158 Years


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Yesterday and today mark the 157th  anniversary of an event which changed naval warfare forever, the Battle of Hampton Roads. It was a watershed event which ended the reign of the great wooden ships which plied the oceans of the world under massive fields of canvas sails. 

It took place about 10 miles from my current office, which is just a few hundred yards from Drydock Number One, at Naval Station Norfolk, in Portsmouth, Virginia, then called Gosport. It was here that the Confederate Navy, salvaged the wreck of the Steam Frigate USS Merrimac, razed her to the waterline, and constructed an ironclad casemate over her and recommissioned as the CSS Virginia. 

On March 9th 1862, two very strange looking ships joined in battle. This is the story of the Battle of Hanpton Roads and the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. This is their story, and the story of the men who designed and commanded them. 


Padre Steve+ 

On the morning of March 8th 1862 the CSS Virginia steamed slowly from her base at at the former US Navy Shipyard, Gosport, in Portsmouth, Virginia into Hampton Roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Her mission, break the Union blockade.

Awaiting her was a US Navy squadron of wooden warships including the steam Frigate USS Minnesota, the Sloop of War USS Cumberland and Frigate USS Congress and a number of smaller vessels. Together these ships mounted over 100 heavy guns, and were backed up by the shore batteries at Fort Monroe, on the Hampton side of Hampton Roads.

The Ships, Their Captains, and Designers 

The CSS Virginia was an armored ram built from the salvaged remains of the large steam frigate USS Merrimack, which had been burned at Gosport (Now Norfolk) Naval Shipyard when the Navy abandoned the shipyard to keep her from being captured by the Confederates after Virginia had seceded from the Union on April 20th 1861.  She was raised in May and the wreck was placed in what is now called Drydock Number One, at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, which is the oldest Drydock in the Western Hemisphere, a historic landmark, and still in use on May 30th 1861. Upon inspection it was determined that her hull below the waterline was intact and her engines serviceable. Since Merrimac was the largest ship, wrecked or intact, with serviceable steam engines and boilers; Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory decided that she would be converted into an ironclad.

Her design was that of Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke, a former U.S. Navy officer, and Naval Constructor John L. Porter, who had been a civilian employee of the Navy at Gosport. The design was an ironclad ram, with a massive casemate armored with four inches of Iron and 24 inches of Oak and Pine, which protected her battery of six 9” Dahlgren smoothbores, which were at the Naval Yard, and four 7” Brooke Rifled Guns, designed by LT Brooke and modeled on the design of the Parrot Rifled Gun, used by both sides during the American Civil War.

Her stem and stern nearly underwater, a V Shaped breakwater was mounted forward of the casemate, and an iron ram mounted below the waterline, a throwback in Naval design which had been abandoned since the Middle Ages when cannons became the weapon of choice. This was because the Confederates discover that the guns mounted on her might not be effective against Union ironclads which were being designed. Her design would be the prototype for almost all future Confederate Ironclads.

         Iron Plates from CSS Virginia at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard

However, she was plagued with unreliable engines which had been condemned by the US Navy, even before she was burn and sunk, were scheduled to be replaced during her refit at Gosport. As such, her design limited her to a coastal defense role, and her engines limited her to a speed of 5 to 6 knots. Her turning radius was over a mile and it took her 45 minutes to make a complete circle. Though lethal to wooden ships in enclosed waters, she was hardly a threat to Union maritime supremacy. In heavy seas she would have been a death trap to her crew.

Her Captain, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan was a former U.S. Navy Captain originally from Maryland. In expectation that Maryland would secede from the Union, he resigned his commission on April 22nd 1861. When Maryland did not secede he attempted to withdraw his resignation but was rebuffed by Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. Thus  he left the Navy in May 1861 and joined the Confederate Navy in September 1861. He was appointed commander of the James River Squadron in February 1862 and selected CSS Virginia as his flagship. His Executive Officer was Lieutenant Catsby ap Jones. 

The USS Monitor

However, Virginia’s plans had been leaked to the US Navy by a Union sympathizer at Gosport, and taken to Washington, DC, by a freed slave named Mary Louvestre in February 1862. She met with Welles and sped the efforts of the Navy to complete and commission a number of ironclad ships of different types, but most importantly Welles pushed the Navy and builders to speed up the completion of the USS Monitor. 

Monitor was the brainchild of the Swedish Engineer John Ericsson, who had a troubled history with the US Navy. He invented the Screw Propeller for steamships, an idea rejected by the British Royal Navy, but then recruited by the ambitious American, Captain Robert F. Stockton to come to the United States. His propellers were first used on USS Princeton, for which he also designed a 12” breech loaded, rotating gun named Oregon. The gun which he designed was built in England and used hoop construction, also known as built up construction to pre-tension the breech. This method involved placing red-hot iron hoops around the breech-end of the weapon thereby allowing the gun to take a higher powder charge than previous cast iron weapons, which relied on using thicker iron to take an increased charge, making the weapon larger and heavier without increasing its strength.

However, Stockton moved to ensure that Ericsson was not acknowledged as the primary designer. Likewise, he decided that “his” ship should have two 12” guns, Ericsson’s and his own, which used the older technology and heavier iron, but without the tensile strength of Ericsson’s gun. Its huge size made it the more impressive looking weapon, but with the tendency common to such weapons, to burst.

However, Stockton’s gun was hastily built and had only a few test firings before demonstrating it before President John Tyler, his future wife Julia, former First Lady Dolly Madison and an assortment of cabinet officers, congressmen, and their families, numbering close to 400 on February 27th 1844. While coming back up the Potomac River, Stockton personally fired a shot in honor of George Washington at Mount Vernon. Stockton pulled the lanyard and the left side of the breech blew out, sending large fragments of cast iron, killing Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Chief of the Navy Board of Construction and Repair, Captain Beverley Kennon. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Captain Stockton, and another 14-18 crew members and visitors were wounded.

Stockton, who had a benefactor in President Tyler, blamed Ericsson who went on to many other accomplishments, but who refused any dealings with the Navy until Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles convinced him to design an ironclad in 1861. Ericsson responded with yet another revolutionary design which was at first ridiculed by naval experts. Ericsson based the hull of the ship on that of shallow draft Swedish lumber barges, but constructed completely of iron and not equipped with sails. He armed the ship with a heavily armored turret mounting two powerful 11” Dahlgren guns, which rotated a full 360 degrees. The turret was designed to mount two 15” Dahlgren guns, but they were not yet available. Had those guns been ready, Monitor might have sunk the Virginia.

Monitor was completed in under 100 days as Ericsson had promised. She was laid down on October 25th 1861, launched on January 30th, and commissioned on February 25th 1862. Her Captain was Lieutenant John Worden. Worden had served in the Navy since 1834, and he would go on to many great accomplishments, finishing his career as a Rear Admiral, having commanded another monitor, USS Montauk, Superintendent of the Naval Academy, Commander of the Mediterranean Squadron, and President of the Naval Institute.

However, in February 1862 the relatively old lieutenant took Monitor to sea two days later, but the deployment was cut short by a steering failure, which resulted in the ship returning to New York for repairs. She sailed for Hampton Roads again on March 6th and she would arrive on the evening of March 8th, not long after Virginia had wreaked havoc on the Union ships at Hampton Roads. His Executive Officer was Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene, son of the future Union General and hero of Culp’s Hill at the Battle of Gettysburg, George Sears Greene. 

The Battle



During the ensuing fight of March 8th Virginia rammed and sank Cumberland which though fatally wounded disabled two of Virginia’s 9” in guns. Virginia destroyed Congress by gunfire which burned and blew up and appeared to be in position to destroy Minnesota the following day as that ship had run hard aground. The losses aboard Cumberland and Congress were severe and included the Captain of the Congress and Chaplain John L. Lenhart of Cumberland, the first US Navy Chaplain to die in battle. During the battle Virginia had several men wounded including her Captain, Franklin Buchanan who during the action went atop the casemate to fire a carbine at Union shore batteries. He was wounded by a bullet in the leg and though he survived he missed the next day’s action.


Due to the coming of darkness and a falling tide the acting commander of Virginia, Lieutenant Catsby Ap Roger Jones her executive officer took her in for the night. During the night Monitor, under the command of Lieutenant John Worden arrived and took up station to defend Minnesota.


The next morning Virginia again ventured out and was intercepted by the Monitor. The ships fought for over three hours, with Monitor using her superior speed and maneuverability to great effect. During the battle Monitor suffered a hit on her small pilothouse near her bow blinding her Captain Worden.  Monitor’s executive officer, Lieutenant Dana Greene, took command. Neither side suffered much damage but the smokestack of Virginia was pierced in several places affecting her already poor engine performance.  Jones broke off the action and returned to Gosport for repairs while Monitor remained on station, still ready for battle.

Gideon Welles wrote after the battle: “the performance, power, and capabilities of the Monitor, must effect a radical change in naval warfare.”


It did. The battle showed the world the vulnerability of wooden warships against the new ironclads. Monitor in particular revolutionized naval warfare and warship construction. From that time on the truly modern ships were fully iron and later steel, with revolving turrets, and within twenty years without sails, even as a back up to their steam engines.

Her defining mark was the use of the armored gun turret which over the succeeding decades became the standard manner for large ships guns to be mounted. Turrets like the warships they were mounted upon grew in size and power reaching their apex during the Second World War, only to be superseded by the next revolution in Naval warfare, the Aircraft Carrier.


Both Virginia and Monitor reached less than glorious ends. Virginia had to be destroyed by her crew to prevent her capture just over two months after the battle on May 11th 1862. Monitor survived until January 31st 1862 when she sank during a heavy storm off Cape Hatteras North Carolina with the loss of 16 of her 62 man crew. The remains of two of those men, recovered during the salvage of Monitor’s engines, turret, guns and anchor were interred at Arlington National Cemetery on March 8th 2012. The relics from Monitor and some from Virginia are displayed at the Mariners Museum in Newport News (http://www.marinersmuseum.org )while one of Virginia’s anchors resides on the lawn of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. Two of her iron plates are on display at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Those early ironclads and the brave men who served aboard them revolutionized naval warfare and their work should never be forgotten.


Padre Steve+

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The Battle of Savo Island and Threats to the U.S. Navy Today


                         USS Quincy under Attack off Savo Island 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight I am going back to my World War II vault and reposting an older article about the Battle Of Savo Island off Guadalcanal. It was the most lopsided defeat in modern American Naval history. It happened a long time ago and in an age where the United States Navy has not lost a ship in combat, other to mines since August 6th 1945, we forget to remember that should a war break out with a near-peer competitor, like the Chinese Communists or the Russians in waterers where they can gain local superiority, or even regional powers such as Iran which could use asymmetric means of large numbers of small missile equipped ships and attack boats, costal submarines, and land based anti-ship missiles in “swarm attacks” to overwhelm technologically superior American ships in confined waters. We have come close to losing major ships, the cruiser USS Princeton and Helicopter Carrier USS Tripoli, to very primitive moored mines during the First Gulf War, the USS Ruben James to a mine during the tanker wars, and the USS Stark which was hit by Iraqi Exocet anti-ship missiles in 1987. Likewise we have come close to losing the Guided Missile destroyers USS Cole (Terrorist attack), USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald (avoidable collisions with merchant ships). 

We have been lucky. We won’t be as lucky in a real live shootout today. Ships will be lost, damaged, and sailors will die. Compounding the problem for the United States is that years of focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, failed experiments with reducing crew size (smart-ship), reductions in numbers of ships and sailors to satisfy the budgets needs to the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, and the stress put on remaining ships and aircraft have worn us down. Readiness rates remain down, and we no longer have the shipbuilding and repair facilities to replace losses and repair damaged ships, especially in a war with China. 

That is why instead of commenting on today’s news I write about the worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy in the modern era, which I label from World War II to the present. 

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+ 

On August 8th 1942 the U.S. Task Force supporting the invasion of Guadalcanal was tired. The crews of the ships had been in continuous combat operations conducting naval gunfire support missions, fending off numerous Japanese air attacks and guarding against submarine attacks for two days. The force commanded by Admiral Richmond K. Turner was still unloading materials, equipment and supplies needed by the men of the 1st Marine Division who they had put ashore on the morning of the seventh.

On the afternoon of the eighth Turner was informed by Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher that he was pulling his carrier task force out of action. Fletcher alleged that he did not have enough fighter aircraft (79 remaining of an original 98) and as low on fuel. The carriers had only been in action 36 hours and Fletcher’s reasons for withdraw were flimsy. Fletcher pulled out and left Turner and his subordinate commanders the responsibility of remaining in the area without air support with the transports still unloaded, and full of badly needed supplies and equipment.


                                          Admiral Gunichi Mikawa

As the American drama played out, the Japanese moved forces into position to strike the Americans. Admiral Gunichi Mikawa commander of the 8th Fleet and Outer South Seas Force based at Rabaul New Britain quickly assembled a force of 6 heavy cruisers, the 14,000 ton Atago Class Chokai, and the four smaller ships of the Kako Class, the Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa and Furutaka, the light cruisers Yubari and Tenryu and the destroyer Yunagi. Mikawa raised his flag aboard Chokai and the force sped down “the slot” which ran the length of the of the Solomon’s chain mid day on the seventh.

The Americans had warning of their coming. The first sighting was by B-17s before the Japanese forces had reached Rabaul. The second was the elderly U.S. Navy submarine S-38 at 2000 on the 7th when they were 550 miles away not far from Rabaul. This report was discounted because it would not be unusual to find a number of fleet units steaming near a major naval base and fleet headquarters. The last which should have alerted the allies was a sighting by a Royal Australian Air Force patrol aircraft on the morning of the 8th. However the pilot did not report the sighting until he returned from his mission returned to his base and had his tea. The eight hour delay in reporting the information as well as errors in it which reported 2 submarine tenders as part of the force lulled the Allied forces into believing that the Japanese were setting up a seaplane base and posed no threat to the invasion forces. It was a fatal error of reporting and judgment by the pilot.


USS Astoria on August 8th off Guadalcanal and USS Chicago (below)


In the absence of good information Turner deployed his support ships to cover the three entrances into what soon would be known as Iron Bottom Sound. He placed the Anti Aircraft Cruiser USS San Juan and Australian Light Cruiser HMAS Hobart to the east with two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott. To protect the south west entrance into the sound south of Savo Island Turner placed the Heavy Cruisers USS Chicago, HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral R.A.C. Crutchley RN who in theory commanded the screening force. To the north of Savo he deployed the Heavy Cruisers USS Vincennes, USS Astoria and USS Quincy and two destroyers under the tactical direction of Captain Frederick Riefkohl aboard Vincennes. To the west of Savo he placed two destroyers to act as picket ships. Unfortunately these ships radar sets were insufficient and would fail to pick up the approaching enemy.


                                                   Allied Dispositions

During the early evening Turner recalled Crutchley to his flagship for consultations of what to do regarding Fletcher’s retreat. Crutchley came over in his flagship the Australia denuding the southern force of its commander as well as one of its three heavy cruisers. He left the commanding officer of Chicago Captain Howard D. Bode in tactical command but Bode did not have his ship take the lead position in the patrol assuming Crutchley would return bymidnight.


USS Vincennes (above) and USS Quincy (below)


HMAS Canberra Sydney Harbour

                                                    HMAS Canberra 

Mikawa launched float planes to scout the locations of the American ships and to provide illumination once the battle began. Some of these aircraft were spotted but no alert measures were taken as many assumed the Japanese to be friendly aircraft. Many commanding officers were asleep or resting away from the bridge of their ships, lookouts were tired and not expecting the Japanese and Condition Two was set in order to provide some of the tired crews a chance to rest.


Light Cruiser Yubari illuminating American cruisers at Savo Island

Admiral Mikawa now new the Allied disposition and ordered his ships to battle stations at 0045. At 004 he sighted and passed astern of USS Blue the southern picket which also failed to detect the Japanese force. Mikawa assumed that the destroyer might have reported his presence, briefly turned north but turned back to his original course when a lookout allegedly spotted a destroyer to his northeast. He gave the order to attack at 0132 and promptly spotted the American destroyer USS Jarvis which had been heavily damaged and without radio communications was making her way toAustralia for repair and passed her after some ships fired torpedoes and raced toward the southern force at 26 knots. With the southern force just a few miles away Mikawa ordered his ships to commence firing at 0136 and at 0138 torpedoes had been launched.

Mikawa’s lookouts spotted the northern group at 0144 and changed course. The maneuver was badly executed and left the Japanese in two columns as they swiftly closed on the Americans. Mikawa’s flagship Chokai launched torpedoes at 0148 and Astoria the cruiser closest to the Japanese set general quarters at 0145 and at 0150 the Japanese illuminated her with searchlights and opened fire. Astoria under the direction of her gunnery officer returned fire at 0152 ½ just before her Captain came to the bridge unaware of the situation. He ordered a cease fire until he could ascertain who he was firing at assuming the Japanese to be friendly ships. He delayed 2 minutes and ordered fires commenced at 0154 but the delay was fatal. Astoria had opened fire on the Chokai which then had time to get the range on the American cruiser and hit her with an 8” salvo which caused fires which provided the other Japanese ships an aiming point.


Japanese artist depiction of attack on US Navy Cruisers at Savo Island

Astoria was left burning and heavily damaged barely maintaining headway but attempted to fight on scoring a hit on Chokai’s forward turret even as the Japanese opened up on the next cruiser in line the USS Quincy. Quincy caught between the two Japanese columns. Aoba illuminated her with her searchlight and Japanese forces opened fire. The gunnery officer order Quincy to return fire getting two salvos off before her skipper Captain Samuel Moore came to the bridge, briefly ordered a cease fire assuming that he was firing on Americans and turned on his running lights. Quincy was ripped by salvo after salvo which killed Captain Moore and nearly everyone in the pilothouse just as a torpedo ripped into her engineering spaces turning them into a sealed death trap forcing the engineer to shut down the engines. Burning like a Roman candle Quincy was doomed she was ordered abandoned and capsized and sank at 0235. However Quincy did not die in vain, at 0205 two of her 8” shells hit Chokai causing enough damage the Admiral’s chart room that Mikawa would order a withdraw at 0220 which spared the now defenseless American transports.


Vincennes, the lead ship and flagship was next in the line of death. Captain Reifkohl order General Quarters sounded not long after the Japanese illuminated the southern group. At 0150 Vincennes was lit up by the searchlights of three Japanese ships which opened fire on her. Vincennes returned fire at 0153 hitting Kinugasa before she was hit starting fires on her scout planes mounted on their catapults. The Japanese mauled Vincennes, three possibly four torpedoes ripped into her as shells put ever gun out of action. At 0215 she was left burning and sinking by the Japanese who soon withdrew from the action. Ordered abandoned she sank at 0250.

Savo_Island canberra

         HMAS Canberra being evacuated by the Patterson and Blue

Canberra struggled against the odds but was abandoned and was sent to the bottom by an American torpedo at 0800. Astoria also struggled for life but the damage was too great and she was abandoned sinking at 1215. Mikawa withdrew up the sound but on his return the Heavy Cruiser Kako 70 miles from home was sunk by torpedoes from the American submarine S-44 sinking in 5 minutes.

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The Americans and Australians lost 4 Heavy Cruisers sunk and one heavily damaged. Two destroyers were also damaged. Casualties were heavy; Quincy lost 389 men killed, Vincennes, 342, Astoria, 235, Canberra, 85, Ralph Talbot, 14, Patterson, 10, and Chicago, 2.

It was an unmitigated disaster, an allied force destroyed in less than 30 minutes time. Boards of inquiry were held and Captain Bode hearing that he shouldered much blame killed himself in 1943.


     Wrecks of the USS Quincy, Astoria, Vincennes, and HMAS Canberra

It was a rude awakening to a Navy which had believed that technical advances would give it victory and which  in the words of Admiral Ernest King  was not yet “sufficiently battle minded.” It was the first of many equally bloody battles in the waters around Guadalcanal which in the coming campaign became known as Ironbottom Sound.

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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.


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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

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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


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