Friday, October 13, 2017, marks the Two Hundred Forty-Second birthday of the United States Navy. I have compiled a history of the Navy from its inception through the present. The entire document comprises over eleven thousand words and twenty pages. This is the second of four installments culminating in the final posting on October 13.
U. S. Navy II
Compiled and Authored by: Garland Davis
War of 1812 (1812–1815)
Much of the war was expected to be fought at sea; and within an hour of the announcement of war, the diminutive American navy set forth to do battle with an opponent outnumbering it 50-to-1. After two months, USS Constitution sank HMS Guerriere; the crew was most dismayed to see their cannonballs bouncing off the Constitution’s unusually strong live oak hull, giving her the enduring nickname of “Old Ironsides.” On 29 December 1812 Constitution defeated HMS Java off the coast of Brazil and Java was burned after the Americans determined she could not be salvaged. On 25 October 1812, USS United States captured HMS Macedonian, after the battle, Macedonian was commissioned into American service. In 1813, USS Essex commenced a very fruitful raiding venture into the South Pacific, preying upon the British merchant and whaling industry. The Essex was already known for her capture of HMS Alert and a British transport the previous year and gained further success capturing 15 British merchantmen/whalers. The British finally took action, dispatching HMS Cherub and HMS Phoebe to stop the Essex. After violating Chile’s neutrality, the British captured the Essex in the Battle of Valparaiso.
The capture of the three British frigates led the British to deploy more vessels on the American seaboard to tighten the blockade. On 1 June 1813, off Boston Harbor, the frigate USS Chesapeake, commanded by Captain James Lawrence, was captured by the British frigate HMS Shannon under Captain Sir Philip Broke. Lawrence was mortally wounded and famously cried out, “Don’t give up the ship!”. Despite their earlier successes, by 1814 many of the Navy’s best ships were blockaded in port and unable to prevent British incursions on land via the sea.
During the summer of 1814, the British fought the Chesapeake Campaign which was climaxed by amphibious assaults against Washington and Baltimore. The capital fell to the British almost without a fight, and several ships were burned at the Washington Navy Yard, including the 44-gun frigate USS Columbia. At Baltimore, the bombardment of Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the hulks blocking the channel prevented the fleet from entering the harbor; the army re-embarked on the ships, ending the battle. The American naval victories at the Battle of Lake Champlain and Battle of Lake Erie halted the final British offensive in the north and helped to deny the British exclusive rights to the Great Lakes in the Treaty of Ghent. Shortly before the treaty was signed, USS President was captured by four British frigates three days after the treaty was signed, the Constitution captures HMS Levant and Cayne. The final naval action of the war occurred almost five months after the treaty on 30 June 1815 when the sloop USS Peacock captured the East India Company brig Nautilus, the last enemy ship captured by the U.S. Navy until World War II.
Continental Expansion (1815–1861)
After the war, the Navy’s accomplishments paid off in the form of better funding, and it embarked on the construction of many new ships. However, the expense of the larger ships was prohibitive, and many of them stayed in shipyards half-completed, in readiness for another war, until the age of Sail had almost completely passed. The main force of the Navy continued to be large sailing frigates with some smaller sloops during the three decades of peace. By the 1840s, the Navy began to adopt steam power and shell guns, but they lagged behind the French and British in adopting the new technologies.
Enlisted sailors during this time included many foreign-born men, and native-born Americans were usually social outcasts who had few other employment options, or they were trying to escape punishment for crimes. In 1835, almost 3,000 men sailed with merchant ships out of Boston harbor, but only 90 men were recruited by the Navy. It was unlawful for black men to serve in the Navy, but the shortage of men was so acute this law was frequently ignored.
Discipline followed the customs of the Royal Navy, but the punishment was much milder than typical in European navies. Sodomy was rarely prosecuted. The Army abolished flogging as a punishment in 1812, but the Navy kept it until 1850.
During the War of 1812, the Barbary states took advantage of the weakness of the United States Navy to again capture American merchant ships and sailors. After the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, the United States looked at ending the piracy in the Mediterranean which had plagued American merchants for two decades. On 3 March 1815, the U.S. Congress authorized the deployment of naval power against Algiers, beginning the Second Barbary War. Two powerful squadrons under the command of Commodores Stephen Decatur, Jr. and William Bainbridge, including the 74-gun ships of the line Washington, Independence, and Franklin were dispatched to the Mediterranean. Shortly after departing Gibraltar en route to Algiers, Decatur’s squadron encountered the Algerian flagship Meshuda, and, in the Action of 17 June 1825, captured it. Not long afterward, the American squadron likewise captured the Algerian brig Estedo in the Battle of Cape Pelos. By June, the squadrons had reached Algiers and peace was negotiated with the Dey, including a return of captured vessels and men, a guarantee of no further tributes and a right to trade in the region.
Piracy in the Caribbean Sea was also a major problem, and between 1815 and 1822 an estimated 3,000 ships were captured by pirates. In 1819, Congress authorized President James Madison to deal with this threat, and since many of the pirates were privateers of the newly independent states of Latin America, he decided to embark on a strategy of diplomacy backed up by the guns of the Navy. An agreement with Venezuela was reached in 1819, but ships were still regularly captured until a military campaign by the West India Squadron, under the command of David Porter, used a combination of large frigates escorting merchant ships backed by much small craft searching small coves and islands, and capturing pirate vessels. During this campaign, USS Seagull became the first steam-powered ship to see combat action. Although isolated instances of piracy continued into the 1830s, by 1826 the frequent attacks had ended and the region was declared free for commerce.
Another international problem was the slave trade, and the African squadron was formed in 1820 to deal with this threat. Politically, the suppression of the slave trade was unpopular, and the squadron was withdrawn in 1823 ostensibly to deal with piracy in the Caribbean and did not return to the African coast until the passage of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty with Britain in 1842. After the treaty was passed, the United States used fewer ships than the treaty required, ordered the ships based far from the coast of Africa, and used ships that were too large to operate close to shore. Between 1845 and 1850, the United States Navy captured only ten slave vessels, while the British captured 423 vessels carrying 27,000 captives. Congress formally authorized the establishment of the United States Military Academy in 1802, but it took almost 50 years to approve a similar school for naval officers. During the long period of peace between 1815 and 1846, midshipmen had few opportunities for promotion, and their warrants were often obtained via patronage. The poor quality of officer training in the U.S. Navy became visible after the Somers Affair, an alleged mutiny aboard the training ship USS Somers in 1842, and the subsequent execution of Midshipman Philip Spencer. George Bancroft, appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1845, decided to work outside of congressional approval and create a new academy for officers. He formed a council led by Commodore Perry to create a new system for training officers and turned the old Fort Severn at Annapolis into a new institution in 1845 which would be designated as the United States Naval Academy by Congress in 1851.
Naval forces participated in the effort to forcibly move the Seminole Indians from Florida to a reservation west of the Mississippi. After a massacre of army soldiers near Tampa on 28 December 1835, Marines and sailors were added to the forces which fought the Second Seminole War from 1836 until 1842. A “mosquito fleet” was formed in the Everglades out of various small craft to transport a mixture of army and navy personnel to pursue the Seminoles into the swamps. About 1,500 soldiers were killed during the conflict; some Seminoles agreed to move, but a small group of Seminoles remained in control of the Everglades and the area around Lake Okeechobee.
The Navy played a role in two major operations of the Mexican–American War (1845–1848); during the Battle of Veracruz, it transported the invasion force that captured Veracruz by landing 12,000 troops and their equipment in one day, leading eventually to the capture of Mexico City, and the end of the war. The Pacific Squadron’s ships facilitated the capture of California
In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry led the Perry Expedition, a squadron of four ships which sailed to Japan to establish normal relations with Japan. Perry’s two technologically advanced steam-powered ships and calm, firm diplomacy convinced Japan to end three centuries of isolation and sign Treaty of Kanagawa with the U.S. in 1854. Nominally a treaty of friendship, the agreement soon paved the way for the opening of Japan and normal trade relations with the United States and Europe.
American Civil War (1861–1865)
Between the beginning of the war and the end of 1861, 373 commissioned officers, warrant officers, and midshipmen resigned or were dismissed from the United States Navy and went on to serve the Confederacy. On 20 April 1861, the Union burned its ships that were at the Norfolk Navy Yard to prevent their capture by the Confederates, but not all of the ships were completely destroyed. The screw frigate USS Merrimack was so hastily scuttled that her hull and steam engine were intact, which gave the South’s Stephen Mallory the idea of raising her and then armoring the upper sides with iron plate. The resulting ship was named CSS Virginia. Meanwhile, John Ericsson had similar ideas and received funding to build USS Monitor.
Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the U.S. Army at the beginning of the war, devised the Anaconda Plan to win the war with as little bloodshed as possible. His idea was that a Union blockade of the main ports would weaken the Confederate economy; then the capture of the Mississippi River would split the South. Lincoln adopted the plan in terms of a blockade to squeeze to death the Confederate economy but overruled Scott’s warnings that his new army was not ready for an offensive operation because public opinion demanded an immediate attack.
On 8 March 1862, the Confederate Navy initiated the first combat between ironclads when the Virginia successfully attacked the blockade. The next day, the Monitor engaged the Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Their battle ended in a draw, and the Confederacy later lost the Virginia when the ship was scuttled to prevent capture. The Monitor was the prototype for the monitor warship and many more were built by the Union Navy. While the Confederacy built more ironclad ships during the war, they lacked the ability to build or purchase ships that could effectively counter the monitors.
Along with ironclad ships, the new technologies of naval mines, which were known as torpedoes after the torpedo eel, and submarine warfare were introduced during the war by the Confederacy. During the Battle of Mobile Bay, mines were used to protect the harbor and sank the Union monitor USS Tecumseh. After Tecumseh sank, Admiral David G. Farragut famously said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” The forerunner of the modern submarine, CSS David, attacked USS New Ironsides using a spar torpedo. The Union ship was barely damaged and the resulting geyser of water put out the fires in the submarine’s boiler, rendering the submarine immobile. Another submarine, CSS H.L. Hunley, was designed to dive and surface but ultimately did not work well and sank on five occasions during trials. In action against USS Housatonic the submarine successfully sank its target but was lost by the same explosion.
The Confederate States of America operated a number of commerce raiders and blockade runners, CSS Alabama being the most famous, and British investors built small, fast blockade runners that traded arms and luxuries brought in from Bermuda, Cuba, and The Bahamas in return for high-priced cotton and tobacco. When the Union Navy seized a blockade runner, the ship and cargo were sold and the proceeds given to the Navy sailors; the captured crewmen were mostly British and they were simply released.
The blockade of the South caused the Southern economy to collapse during the war. Shortages of food and supplies were caused by the blockade, the failure of Southern railroads, the loss of control of the main rivers, and foraging by Union and Confederate armies. The standard of living fell even as large-scale printing of paper money caused inflation and distrust of the currency. By 1864 the internal food distribution had broken down, leaving cities without enough food and causing food riots across the Confederacy. The Union victory at the Second Battle of Fort Fisher in January 1865 closed the last useful Southern port, virtually ending blockade running and hastening the end of the war.
Decline of the Navy (1865–1882)
After the war, the Navy went into a period of decline. In 1864, the Navy had 51,500 men in uniform and almost 700 ships and about 60 monitor-type coastal ironclads which made the U.S. Navy the second-largest in the world after the Royal Navy. By 1880 the Navy only had 48 ships in commission, 6,000 men, and the ships and shore facilities were decrepit but Congress saw no need to spend money to improve them. The Navy was unprepared to fight a major maritime war before 1897.
In 1871, an expedition of five warships commanded by Rear Admiral John Rodgers was sent to Korea to obtain an apology for the murders of several shipwrecked American sailors and secure a treaty to protect shipwrecked foreigners in the future. After a small skirmish, Rodgers launched an amphibious assault of approximately 650 men on the forts protecting Seoul. Despite the capture of the forts, the Koreans refused to negotiate, and the expedition was forced to leave before the start of typhoon season. Nine sailors and six marines received Medals of Honor for their acts of heroism during the Korean campaign; the first for actions in a foreign conflict.
By the 1870s most of the ironclads from the Civil War were laid up in reserve, leaving the United States virtually without an ironclad fleet. When the Virginius Affair first broke out in 1873, a Spanish ironclad happened to be anchored in New York harbor, leading to the uncomfortable realization on the part of the U.S. Navy that it had no ship capable of defeating such a vessel. The Navy hastily issued contracts for the construction of five new ironclads, and accelerated its existing repair program for several more. USS Puritan and four Amphitrite-class monitors were subsequently built as a result of the Virginius war scare. All five vessels would later take part in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
By the time the Garfield Administration assumed office in 1881, the Navy’s condition had deteriorated still further. A review conducted on behalf of the new Secretary of the Navy, William H. Hunt, found that of 140 vessels on the Navy’s active list, only 52 were in an operational state, of which a mere 17 were iron-hulled ships, including 14 aging Civil War era ironclads. Hunt recognized the necessity of modernizing the Navy and set up an informal advisory board to make recommendations. Also to be expected, morale was considerably down; officers and sailors in foreign ports were all too aware that their old wooden ships would not survive long in the event of war. The limitations of the monitor type effectively prevented the United States from projecting power overseas, and until the 1890s the United States would have come off badly in a conflict with even Spain or the Latin American powers.
In 1882, on the recommendation of an advisory panel, the Navy Secretary William H. Hunt requested funds from Congress to construct modern ships. The request was rejected initially, but in 1883 Congress authorized the construction of three protected cruisers, USS Chicago, USS Boston, and USS Atlanta, and the dispatch vessel USS Dolphin, together known as the ABCD ships. In 1885, two more protected cruisers, USS Charleston and USS Newark which was the last American cruiser to be fitted with a sail rig, were authorized. Congress also authorized the construction of the first battleships in the Navy, USS Texas and USS Maine. The ABCD ships proved to be excellent vessels, and the three cruisers were organized into the Squadron of Evolution, popularly known as the White Squadron because of the color of the hulls, which was used to train a generation of officers and men.
Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1890, was very influential in justifying the naval program to the civilian government and to the general public. With the closing of the frontier, some Americans began to look outwards, to the Caribbean, to Hawaii and the Pacific, and with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny as philosophical justification, many saw the Navy as an essential part of realizing that doctrine beyond the limits of the American continent.
In 1890, Mahan’s doctrine influenced Navy Secretary Benjamin F. Tracy to propose the United States start building no less than 200 ships of all types, but Congress rejected the proposal. Instead, the Navy Act of 1890 authorized building three battleships, USS Indiana, USS Massachusetts and USS Oregon, followed by USS Iowa. By around the start of the 20th century, two Kearsarge-class battleships and three Illinois-class battleships were completed or under construction, which brought the U.S. Navy from twelfth place in 1870 to fifth place among the world’s navies. Battle tactics, especially long-range gunnery, became a central concern.