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The Advancement of U.S. Naval Ship Design

By Charles Race
9/9/2016 • HistoryNet

Confederacy (1778-1783)

Authorized by the Continental Congress in 1776, the Confederacy (36) was one of the most remarkable Revolutionary War frigate designs. At 160’ length with a 37’ beam, she was one of the largest frigates to see action, 30%-35% larger than a comparably-rated English frigate. The Confederacy was revolutionary in design. Her gun deck had a freeboard significantly higher than most frigates which allowed her guns to be served in heavy weather. Below the gun deck, the ship was fitted with sweep ports for rowing in calm weather. Her quarterdeck was fitted with a speaking tube leading to her berth deck to direct sailors in the event her wheel was shot away. Despite her size, the Confederacy was a fast sailer. She was captured off the Virginia Capes by 2 British frigates in 1781 and entered into the British navy.

USS Constitution (1797-present)

The most celebrated ship in US naval history, the USS Constitution fought more than a dozen fleet and single ship actions, victorious in every one. One of three 44-gun frigates designed by the innovative naval architect Joshua Humphreys, she was built to out-fight any ship she couldn’t out-sail. With scantlings worthy of a ship of the line, and a weight of broadside greater than any frigate in existence, the Constitution was the ‘pocket battleship’ of her era. Ridiculed by the British navy prior to the war as over-gunned and over-sparred, the Constitution established her reputation as “Old Ironsides” early in the War of 1812 by defeating the frigates Guerriere (49 guns) and Java (49) in single ship actions. Towards the end of the war, she captured 2 British ships Cyane (34) and Levant (22) in an action which brought great credit to her commander, Charles Stewart. Following the loss of Java, the British Admiralty- in a tactical retreat- ordered its frigates to cease engaging superior American frigates in single combat.

This order, and the stepped-up blockade by the British, justified the wisdom of Humphrey’s design. Threatened by decay and a penurious Congress in 1830, the Constitution was saved from the breaker’s yard by public outcry, fueled by Oliver Wendell Holmes’ memorable poem. In 1908, and again more extensively in 1927 (thanks to public subscription), and most recently in 1997, Old Ironsides was restored to her 1812 condition, and remains the oldest commissioned warship in the US Navy.

USS Ohio (1820-1883)

The first American battleship named for a State of the Union, the USS Ohio was the epitome of sailing warships of the era, a fast sailer and heavily armed. In the words of one of her officers, “…a ship possessing in so great a degree all the qualifications of a perfect vessel of war.” Launched in 1820, the Ohio was capable of averaging 12 knots, and was more than a match for any ship of the line afloat, and the favorite command of the post-war navy. The Ohio one of the first ships to carry a standard armament, initially featuring all 32 pound cannons. Depending on her commander, the total number of cannon varied between 86 and 102. The Ohio was finally decommissioned in 1850, and sold in 1883.

USS Pennsylvania (1836-1861)

The 120 gun Pennsylvania, designed to be the most powerful First Rate ship in the world, was built not as an ocean cruiser, but as a coastal defense ship intended to overcome or drive off blockaders. Launched in 1836, the Pennsylvania had no pretensions of grace: she was built to be an enormous gun carrier, with 136 guns carried on 4 decks. Because of the expense to man her, the Pennsylvania saw little active service and those who commanded her found her cumbersome, lewardly and cranky. She remained in ordinary until 1842, when she became a receiving ship for the Norfolk Navy Yard. At the outbreak of the Civil War, she was burned to prevent her capture by the Confederates. By the time she saw active service, the Pennsylvania was approaching obsolescence due the advent of steam and exploding shell.

CSA Virginia and USS Monitor (1861-1862)

The era of the sailing navy, for all practical purposes, came to an end at Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862 when the USS Monitor cast off her mooring from the defenseless wooden steam frigate USS Minnesota and approached the Confederate ironclad ram CSS Virginia. Just the day before, the US Navy suffered one of its worst defeats as the Virginia sank the sloop USS Cumberland and frigate USS Congress in an effort to break the Union blockade. The Union cabinet in Washington was in a panic over the Virginia, and had dispatched the newly completed Monitor to challenge the Confederate ironclad. Returning that morning to finish the job, Virginia’s officers noticed a strange craft next to the Minnesota, a “cheesebox on a shingle” as some sailors described her. But the harmless-looking Monitor was the most revolutionary design in naval warfare. Designed by Swedish inventor John Ericsson, the ironclad Monitor mounted 2 rifled 11’’ Dahlgren guns in a revolving turret. After several hours of inconclusive muzzle to muzzle combat, the Virginia retired from action, leaving the Monitor victorious and the Union blockade intact. Some argued that by reducing her gun’s powder charges, the Monitor failed to demonstrate her true hitting power, but the result nonetheless ushered in a new era of naval technology.

SS-1 Holland (1897-1910)

The brainchild of Irish-American school teacher John Holland (1841-1914), the SS-1 was Holland’s 6th attempt to fulfill a US Navy contract to build an underwater warship. Launched in 1897 in Elizabethport, New Jersey, the 64 ton Holland underwent 3 years of extensive trials and modifications before the Navy purchased her in April 1900. She was the most advanced submarine yet designed, featuring a pneumatic torpedo tube firing an 18” Whitehead torpedo, a 8” dynamite gun, and an electric motor for underwater propulsion. She was used primarily as a training vessel until stricken from commission in 1910.

USS Arizona (1914-1941)

On March 1914, the keel was laid down in New York Navy Yard for the second ship in the Pennsylvania class, and christened USS Arizona (BB 39). The Arizona embodied the ‘All-Or-Nothing’ armored protection scheme, based on the proposition that armored piercing shells should either be completely stopped by armor, or not at all. A main armored belt 13.5in thick and 17.5ft deep covered some 400ft (approximately 70%) of the ship’s length, being closed at either end by transverse bulkheads of the same thickness, and topped by the main armored deck. Her twelve 14in (356mm) guns were mounted in four triple turrets. The Arizona and Pennsylvania were the first oil-burning battleships in the US fleet, with a top speed of 20.5 knots. At her launching, the Arizona was one of the world’s most powerful dreadnoughts. The ship was extensively modernized between 1929-31 with the lattice observation towers replaced by tripods, float aircraft added, and more advanced anti-aircraft weaponry installed. The Arizona had just finished being repaired in dry-dock after a collision with the Oklahoma when the Japanese launched a sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The Arizona was hit by a Japanese bomb, suffered an explosion and settled on the bottom with 1,100 sailors. She has been a national memorial since 1962.

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