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GUNBOATS, in the simplest sense, are tiny men-of-war that are extremely overgunned in proportion to size. Their influence dates to the 1776 Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain when Benedict Arnold, with fifteen green-timber boats with cannon, halted a British invasion from Canada. (The Philadelphia, one of eleven gunboats sunk during the battle, was raised and restored in 1935 and is exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution. Search teams subsequently found the remaining sunken gunboats, the last being discovered in 1997.)

The gunboats sent to Tripoli during the first Barbary War typically carried twenty to twenty-three men and two twenty-four-or thirty-two-pound cannons in a hull seventy feet long. The boats were effective only along a coast, since, for them to be stable on the open sea, their crews had to stow the cannons below deck. To President Thomas Jefferson, anxious to avoid entanglement in the Napoleonic Wars, such a limitation seemed a virtue.

Congress authorized further commissions, and 176 gunboats were at hand for the War of 1812. The gunboats were almost entirely worthless. Since the token two dozen U.S. blue-water frigates and sloops were highly effective at sea, the U.S. Navy learned an important lesson—do not overinvest in any single type of man-of-war.

In the Civil War, improvised gunboats were found on embattled rivers everywhere. Often, their heavy guns inhibited Confederate movement or prevented such Union disasters as those at Shiloh and Malvern Hill. In the decades before the Spanish-American War, European neocolonialism introduced "gunboat diplomacy," calling for larger, hybrid craft that could safely cross oceans, assume a year-round anchorage on a foreign strand, and possess sufficient shallow draft to go up a river. The 1892 U.S.S. Castine, for example, on which Chester W. Nimitz (who became U.S. commander of the Pacific Fleet in World War II) served as a lieutenant, was 204 feet over-all, weighed 1,177 tons, and had eight four-inch rifles, making it a far stronger man-of-war than the famous destroyer type then emerging. Of the score of American gunboats before World War II, the half-dozen-strong Chinese Yangtze River patrol was immortalized in the novel Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. In real life, the Panay was sunk without provocation on 12 December 1937 by Japanese bombers. The others in the Far East were destroyed early in World War II.

The inshore fighting of World War II led to the building of forty-one small gunboats (patrol gunboat, or PG) and twenty-three still smaller motor gunboats (patrol gunboat motor, or PGM), with the emphasis on a multiplicity of automatic weapons and on rocket launchers for shore bombardment. The Soviet Union became particularly interested in such vessels, and, by 1972, had at least 200 gunboats.

The U.S. Navy had no interest in modernizing gunboats until the Vietnam War spawned a variety of tiny types used in swarms, either to police the shoreline or to penetrate the riverways. The heaviest types revived the name of "monitor." Since the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy has developed heavily armed and computerized hydrofoil gunboats capable of exceeding seventy knots and fitted for nighttime amphibious operations.


Friedman, Norman. U.S. Small Combatants, Including PT-Boats, Subchasers, and the Brown-Water Navy: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1987.

Lundeberg, Philip K. The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776. Basin Harbor, Vt.: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 1995.

Tucker, Spencer. The Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

R. W.Daly/a. r.

See alsoBarbary Wars ; Navy, United States ; Panay Incident ; Warships ; World War II, Navy in .