Monday, January 23, 2012

They should have named it the USS Omen.

So, I'm reading American Heavy Frigates 1794-1826 and it jogs my memory into recollecting that the Continental Navy had an actual American-built ship-of-the-line. (Which makes one wonder how you can have just one ship-of-the-line. Wouldn't that be a ship-of-the-point?)

Congress authorized the building of America's first battleship, to be predictably-if-prosaically named the America, on November ninth of 1776. There immediately followed a multi-year saga of cost overruns, design changes, naval politics, design re-changes and un-changes, budgetary shortfalls, shortages of materials and skilled labor...

The thing was finally launched just four days short of six years later, but Congress had already voted to give her to France two months earlier as repayment for a French 74-gunner that had gone to Davy Jones' locker in Boston Harbor after doing the nautical equivalent of jumping a curb.

After flying the tricolour for only three years, she was scrapped when it was found she was all ate up with dry rot and nothing but a giant floating metaphor for the future military-industrial-congressional complex.


Ed Foster said...

Joshua Humphries and live oak. Joshua Humphries, a Quaker oddly enough, designed the best heavy frigate in the world, and live oak made it possible.

Most frigates tended to "hog", or sag at both ends, if loaded with too heavy a batch of ordinance. In addition to the usual keel and ribs of white oak, Humphries used the incredibly tough and springy live oak as a secondary set of ribs, running from just under each 24 pounder to the center of the keel.

I spend as much time as I can up in the Charlestown Navy Yard visiting Old Ironsides. The crusty old Chief who runs maintenance told me that when they took out the live oak stringers her keel hogged two and a half feet. When they put them back in, she straighened out to within a few inches.

Also, credit has to go to the quality of the navy crews on the U.S. frigates during the war of 1812. With the glaring and very unusual exception of H.M.S. Shannon, there were few if any Brit frigates as well handled as the worst of the American ships.

At the beginning of the war, the American merchant marine had almost as many ships as Britain, albeit much smaller in size.

That meant about as many ship's officers, most of them on the beach due to the British blockade, and an endless supply of experienced recruits for a very small navy and a much larger number of privateers.

The British had been blockading France off and on, mostly on, for two generations, and the drain on men and ships made for an often mediocre performance. That, and the sequestering of most first rate talent in the main line of battle usually left little of brilliance in the cruiser divisions.

They were not at all lacking in guts, as Cyane and Levant showed against Constitution. But overall, the Royal Navy was getting quite tired by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and it showed when they went up against people of the same culture and tradition, but much deeper pockets on a ship by ship basis.

aczarnowski said...

Well, there is some comfort in knowing we had to practice to get this bad at large .mil projects. I was starting to wonder if we were savants.

Anonymous said...

Damn unions...

Brad K. said...

@ aczarnowski,

I think it was then Sec'y Defense McNamara that encapsulated and coded into rules and regulations the worst of the bean-counter's approach to "fair" procurement practices. And assured that financial performance a contract was far more important than any use of delivered services or materials. Thus, the golden toilet seat, a legitimate expense for the cost of a contractor doing business with the Byzantine levels of bureaucracy, review, oversight, and pork barrel politics of government procurement.

@ Tam,

Naw, Ship of the Line refers to a battle line, a class of ship useful in trading broadside volleys against 'capital' ships, the big boys capable of getting hit a time or ten and still returning fire.

The smaller ships can get in a lick, but count on dodging, not sucking up damage, to keep on harassing the enemy.

Having just one ship of the line just means you don't have a line, not that the class of the ship is an oxymoron.

There is a video on YouTube of Johnny Horton's "Sink the Bismark" with some nifty WWII pictures of English ships of the line, and the German Bismark, too.

Tam said...


I have a question. Do you think I am retarded, or is my sense of humor just way too dry?

staghounds said...

The two are not mutually exclusive.

And perhaps Brad skipped the first page of Euclid.

The procurement if the first six, er, four, um, five, no wait, seven, hold hard alright four- does Essex count? frigates is absolutely crazy, too.

I can't agree that blockade service ground the R. N. down, all that sea keeping made for superior ship handling.

The frigate victories of 1812-14 were generally technological ones. "Old Ironsides" was no idle nickname.

Anonymous said...


I just ruined a keyboard by spewing coffee on to it after your reply.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Also, IIRC, the USN was building "super-frigates" compared to the typical British ones of the epoch.

Which meant that Frigate vs. Frigate the USN one was just a bigger meaner animal.

I feel bad for the French, for all the problems of the French Fleet (Lessor training/practice, a lot of less than brilliant admirals.)

(Hey, if you were French the senior service that got girls and glory was the army. And before anyone makes a snide comment, in that period the French Army was the gold standard. It took EVERY other army in Europe together to bring them to their knees, and only because Napoleon pissed away his armies.)

The reason I feel bad for the French navy is that by and large French ships were very well built to high technical standards. The RN loved to capture & refit them. Specifically the 74's had a very good reputation.

Then the Americans give them a clunker. Thanks guys.

Ed said...

Said anonymous coward.

North said...

Would three ships of the line floating in a non-linear formation justify "ship of the plane" nomenclature? Would this apply to planes?

Brad was plain out of line for not getting your point.

Matthew said...

A single ship of the line makes me think of the "we had to make our own" circle the wagons scene in Blazing Saddles.

Tam said...

"Brad was plain out of line for not getting your point."

That pun is exquisitely awful. :D

Justthisguy said...

We redeemed ourselves with USS Ohio, arguably the best ship of the line ever built. An Henry Eckford design, I believe she was.

WV: gyrimol.

Ate at a Greek fast food place? Tummy bothering you? Take Gyrimol, the analgesic alimentary lubricant! Available at drug counters everywhere!

Anonymous said...

RE: USS Chesapeake

I suppose that one can criticize Capt. Lawrence for taking his ship into battle before his crew was trained up and losing sight of his mission, which was less "sink enemy warships" and more "threaten enemy commerce and tie up his warships".

But, to quote Jack Aubrey:
"Lawrence shy? Never in life!" His courage was his undoing, God bless his memory.

As for the sad tale of the first US "battleship", the Navy had a rough time in general for the first century of its existence simply because there was no solid, consistent idea of what it should do. I recall reading that Jefferson even had the mad idea of a totally coast-defense navy of nothing more than heavy gunboats that MIGHT make it more than a few miles offshore in good weather. The US Navy isn't going to threaten anybody, nosirree.

It took Mahan and his disciples (notably TR) to make the Navy what it is and ought to be.

Cincinnatus said...

docjim505, the idea of coastal gun boats was an anti-Federalist idea. It was to explicitly prevent the creation of a national armed force, especially one capable of foreign adventure. It was actually created by the anti-Federalist administrations leading up to the War of 1812 and turned out to be a pathetic half-assed disaster in attempting to fight off the British blockading ships and even more pathetic in attempting to resist the British amphib ops.

Justthisguy said...

Some of the Jefferson gunboats were taken all the way across the Atlantic, to help against the Barbary pirates. I betcha that was (Not!) fun.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...


I imagine that was littorally the case.


Ed Foster said...

Staghounds, we'll have to agree to disagree. The term "gangster" was coined in Cornwall England for the bands of roving thugs who attacked and beat into submission tens of thousands of lubberly landsmen to provide untrained warm bodies to poorly fitted out ships with often spoiled food and water.

The American light frigates and sloops of war did quite well in ship to ship combat as well, at least when the morons in the war department allowed them to be armed with real cannons instead of short range carronades. That's what lost us the Essex, after a really superior demonstration of seamanship and guts by Porter.

The carronade was deadly at close range (perhaps why they were usually refered to as "smashers"), but had less than half the range of a long barreled gun.

Interestingly, the Guerriere had a heavier broadside than Constitution due to it's faster firing 32 pound carronades, which easily penetrated the hull of Old Ironsides due to the great weight of shot and higher angle of attack.

Also handicapped in a close engagement by it's slow loading "Long 24's", Constitution won through supirior marksmanship, shooting out Guerriere's masts.

The fact that the fighting tops of American warships were filled with Marines, each carrying four loaded 1803 rifles and a satchel of grenades, didn't make command and control any easier for the Brits either.

Anonymous said...

The things one learns here...

Thanks especially to Robin and Ed Foster.

Rich T said...

Cool post. Thanks.

Cincinnatus said...

Ian Toll's book "Six Frigates" also tells some of this story in an engaging way.

Old NFO said...

And not a damn thing has changed... sigh

the pawnbroker said...

This Porch is such a damn cool place. Thanks to you Tam, and to the commenters as well.

NotClauswitz said...

Damn cool, with lime and mint.

Windy Wilson said...

"Brad was plain out of line for not getting your point."
The sheer density of puns in that line indicates that we are in the presence of a master.

I recall a television program that indicated through experiment that part of the problem with the Chesapeake was that, due to budget cuts, the Oak that it was supposed to be built with, was replaced by Fir, which does not have the same resiliency, and splinters much more easily when shot by cannon.