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WARSHIPS Sailing Warships

On 13 October 1775, the Continental Congress ordered the purchase of two merchantmen for conversion to fighting ships. Later, additional vessels were constructed and purchased, including frigates, brigs, sloops, and schooners. In 1777 the Continental Navy reached its peak strength with thirty-four ships and approximately 4,000 men. The navy guarded convoys to the West Indies and Europe, conducted commerce raiding, and fought several ship-to-ship actions, the most famous of which was the Bonhomme Richard, commanded by John Paul Jones, against the British Serapis.

After gaining its independence, the United States sold all its naval ships. In 1794, however, the depredations of Barbary pirates against American shipping led Congress to authorize the building of six frigates. In 1798– 1800, during the Quasi-War with France, the superiority of American frigates was demonstrated by the victories of the Constellation, commanded by Commodore Thomas Truxtun, over the Insurgente (9 February 1799) and over the Vengeance (1–2 February 1800). In the Barbary Wars, 1801–1805 and 1815, U.S. squadrons of fighting sail brought the rulers of these North African states to terms. During the administration of Thomas Jefferson, the government, in order to cut defense costs, replaced large sailing warships with gunboats carrying one or two guns. These vessels were of little value.

At sea the War of 1812 was essentially a frigate war. The victories of such American frigates as the Constitution (Capt. Isaac Hull) over the Guerrière on 19 August 1812, and the United States (Commodore Stephen Decatur) over the Macedonian on 25 October 1812, shocked Britain and forced it to upgrade its frigate designs.

Changes in naval technology made inevitable the demise of the sailing warship. By 1845, when the Mexican-American War began, the navy had 67 sailing ships and 9 steam-powered ships. The trend toward steam was clear. When the Civil War ended the navy had 681 ships, of which only 109 were sail. By the 1870s the era of the sailing warships was over.

Steam and Nuclear Warships

The first steam warship, the Demologos ("Voice of the People"), was designed by Robert Fulton for the defense of New York against the British in the War of 1812. The Demologos had no true successor until 1837, when the large steam frigate Fulton was launched in New York. By this time there were already several hundred successful commercial steamers in the United States, but because the large paddle wheels presented vulnerable targets, American naval experts remained skeptical about the value of steam for warships.

The screw propeller solved this problem. The frigate Princeton, launched in 1843, was the first warship to be fitted with the new device. By the Civil War the United States possessed twenty wooden, screw-propelled men-of-war.

The Civil War marked the beginning of an era of rapid innovation in naval warfare. The clash of the ironclads Virginia (actually the captured Union Merrimack) and the Monitor at Hampton Roads in 1862 ushered in the era of armored steam warships. The Monitor and the Virginia were not the first armored warships, but they were the first to fight another armored ship and the first to be powered entirely by steam. In the period 1860–1890 armor improved in quality, guns increased in power, mines became more reliable, and the self-propelled torpedo, perfected around 1870, introduced a dangerous new factor into naval warfare.

For some years after 1865 the United States took little part in naval arms research. Congress was reluctant to appropriate money for new warships until 1883, when approval was given for three modern steel cruisers, the Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, and a dispatch boat, the Dolphin. Together, these four warships would come to be known as the "White Squadron" and would form the nucleus of the "New Navy" of the 1890s.

By the time of the Spanish-American War (1898) the United States possessed a respectable fleet, including four battleships, three other armored ships, and more than a score of cruisers, gunboats, and torpedo boats. The war with Spain spurred naval expansion, and by 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt was able to send a fleet of sixteen battleships (the "Great White Fleet") on a cruise around the world to demonstrate American military might. Yet all sixteen were by that time out-of-date, rendered obsolete by a new British battleship, the Dreadnought, which was faster and slightly larger than contemporary battleships and carried only guns of the largest caliber. The first American all-big-gun ships, the South Carolina and Michigan, were not completed until 1910.

With the introduction of the Dreadnought class, warships assumed the general characteristics they would retain for the next fifty years. Besides the battleship, there was the heavy cruiser, a fast, lightly armored ship of about 10,000 tons, armed with 8-inch guns and used for scouting, patrolling, and raiding commerce; the light cruiser, usually smaller than the heavy cruiser and mounted with 6-inch guns; and the destroyer, a small, fast ship of 1,000 to 2,000 tons armed with torpedoes and a few 4- or 5- inch guns. Originally designed as a destroyer of torpedo boats, the destroyer soon usurped their function and also proved invaluable against submarines.

The most important new warship developed between the two world wars was the aircraft carrier. In World War II the aircraft carrier made possible naval battles between fleets hundreds of miles apart in which the opposing surface forces never sighted each other.

The most striking development in warship design after World War II was the use of nuclear power as a propulsion

source, employed first in the submarine U.S.S. Nautilus in 1954. Besides giving warships greater speed and reliability, nuclear power made them virtually independent of their bases. The success of the Nautilus led the U.S. Navy to apply nuclear propulsion to surface ships; and in the early 1960s three nuclear-powered vessels—the U.S.S. Enterprise, a carrier, the Long Beach, a cruiser, and the Bainbridge, a frigate or super destroyer—were completed. All were considerably larger than their World War II counterparts. The Bainbridge at 8,580 tons was nearly as large as a conventional cruiser, while the Enterprise at 85,000 tons was more than twice the size of the World War II carrier.

Beginning in the late 1950s, missile weapons began to replace guns as the primary armament of the larger surface ships. A typical American warship of the 1970s carried antisubmarine and antiaircraft missiles of various types in addition to, or instead of, its gun armament. By the end of the century Navy ships were commonly fitted with an array of ship-to-ship missiles, cruise missiles, jamming equipment, and other computer-guided tactical weapons.


By the time of the American Revolution ordinary ships were still being armed with cannon in rough-and-ready conversion to warships. But throughout the eighteenth century, increases in the size and penetration power of cannon necessitated the thickening of a warship's hull, thus increasing its cost at least three times that for a merchantman of identical dimensions. As the Bonhomme Richard was actually sunk by the much stouter Serapis, combat between an extemporized and a true warship was generally fatal for the former. Yet, since only a nation could afford to build warships, especially the giants "fit to lie in the line of battle" (and hence originally called "ships of the line"), converted merchantmen were generally used for privateering or raiding. By 1900 "battleship" had its present meaning and was sometimes listed as a "capital ship." After 1928 capital ships included aircraft carriers.

Although the South Carolina and Michigan anticipated (on the drawing board) the definitive "all-big-gun, centerline turrets" design, the British Dreadnought was afloat before them in 1906 and its name became a synonym for battleship. The largest battleships ever were the World War II Japanese Yama to class of 63,000 tons, with nine 17.9-inch guns. The toughest battleship, perhaps, was the German Bismarck, 52,000 tons with eight 15-inch guns.

The 1921–1922 Washington Naval Conference stemmed the battleship race. Although the United States had parity with Great Britain and was allowed fifteen modern vessels, it had only ten "treaty" battleships by World War II. It had scrapped an eleventh. All ten treaty ships had 16-inch main batteries. Six of the vessels displaced 35,000 tons: the 1940–1941 North Carolina, Washington, Alabama, Indiana, Massachusetts, and South Dakota; and four others displaced 45,000 tons: Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Their collective durability was outstanding in a war in which the British lost five battleships, the French six, the Japanese eleven (their all), the Germans four (their all), and the Italians three. No conventional battleship was sunk after World War II, although American ships served during the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars.


During the era of wooden ships, the term "cruiser" denoted a form of duty rather than a type of ship, namely, the task of sailing along trade routes either to attack or to defend merchantmen. Even ships of the line (the largest class of ships) might be so employed, as the British had done when they had more ships than any other nation. Frigates and smaller men-of-war, however, were the everyday cruisers. The introduction of steam, horizontal shell fire, and armor confused the entire classification of naval vessels. When it became apparent that speed was a good defense, the unarmored ship became popular; and the cruiser gradually evolved into the now familiar warship, rated just below the relatively ponderous battleship.

The first American cruisers by type were designed in 1882: the 4,500-ton Chicago and the 3,000-ton Atlanta and Boston. Heralded as the "cavalry of the seas" for their speed of 14 knots, the Chicago, bearing an 8-inch rifled main battery, and the other two, bearing 6-inch main batteries, could overtake most extant merchantmen and easily evade battleships with 12-inch guns. This ship was a prototype of the heavy cruiser and was classed as "CA," or heavy cruiser, in the 1920s. Later CAs retained 8-inch guns but added belt armor to protect propulsion spaces, gun turrets, and control positions. The thickness of armor was calculated to stop 8-inch projectiles on the premise (carried over from sail-ship construction) that a vessel's side should stop the penetration of a shot identical to the size of its main battery. The light cruiser (CL) had 5- or 6-inch guns and equivalent armor.

Naval architects successfully sought greater speeds, the wisest defense against battleships and the best offense against commerce and weaker warships. The 1889 protected cruiser Charleston made 19 knots and the 1904 Charleston made 22; later cruisers reached a plateau of 33 knots with the 1942 Rochester. Light cruisers are generally a knot or two faster than heavy cruisers.

Tonnage rose a little more quickly. The 1889 Charleston was 3,730 tons and the second Charleston was 9,700 tons. World War I classes leveled off at approximately 14,000 tons, including the mined San Diego, the largest vessel lost by the United States in that conflict. In World War II the 8-inch guns of America's thirty-two heavy cruisers were mainly used in shore bombardments. More frequently they used their secondary batteries for antiaircraft fire, as did most of the forty-two light cruisers. Indeed, the Atlanta and Juneau (five-inch, 38-gun light cruisers) were designed as antiaircraft vessels. Altogether, ten cruisers were lost during World War II.

In 1973 heavy cruisers were the largest gunships in commission and almost invariably were flagships. Between 1980 and 1994, 27 cruisers in the Ticonderoga class were commissioned. This class, a modification of the Spruance class, uses a gas-turbine propulstion plant and Kevlar armor, and is slightly longer than its predecessors.


The invention by Robert White head of England of a self-propelled torpedo in 1868 instigated a race to build speedboats capable of using the new weapon. Some enthusiasts thought that these vessels would supersede all other kinds of warships. By 1884 Russia had 138 such speedboats, Britain 130, and France 107. The first speedboats in the United States, the Cushing (1890) and the Ericsson (1897), had three 18-inch torpedo tubes and four 1-pounder quick firers. Manned by a crew of 22, the Ericsson could travel at 24 knots and its hull measured 150 feet by 15.5 feet, drawing 4 feet 9 inches and displacing 120 tons.

Congressional reluctance was soon justified because a ship designed specifically as a torpedo-boat destroyer was proving far superior. The 1900 Decatur, for instance, had two 18-inch tubes and was capable of going 28 knots. A second Decatur, used during World War II, had four 18-inch tubes and went 36 knots. This was the famous "four-piper" type, of which fifty were leased to Britain in 1940 after the Battle of Dunkirk. The United States had 267 destroyers in World War I and none were lost. Of the 459 destroyers used in World War II, 71 were lost, plus 11 of the 498 lesser version known as the destroyer escort. The 1956 Decatur had similar torpedo armament plus additional armament for antisubmarine attack, three 5-inch and four 3-inch guns, and 311 men, went 33 official knots, and displaced 3,800 tons. Experimentation in the 1970s focused on hydrofoils, "surface effects," and "captured air bubbles" and possibilities of speeds in excess of 100 knots, and led to the 22 ships of the Spruance class, which were commissioned between 1975 and 1983. The first U.S. ships to use gas-turbine propulsion and advanced self-noise reduction technology, they also had a high degree of automation. The Arleigh Burke class, a guided missile destroyer, was first authorized in the fiscal year 1996 budget. The first ship in this class, the Oscar Austin, was commissioned on 19 August 2000, and was the first destroyer to use "Smart Ship" technology.


Among sailing vessels, the frigate was the intermediate man-of-war and was principally employed as a cruiser. Present at battles between ships of the line, frigates had the subordinate roles of repeating signals from the flagship, towing disabled ships, and rescuing survivors. Generally frigates never fired at ships of the line in single duel, except for token shots "for the honor of the flag." The first U.S. frigates were exceptionally sturdy compared to those of the British and were armed as heavily as practicable; thus, the stirring victories during the War of 1812. The most famous frigate was the 44-gun Constitution (which still sails from its berth next to a maritime museum in Boston).

The advent of horizontally fireable shells—differing from the long-standing use of mortars or "bombs"—and steam propulsion confused the rating of warships. By the 1870s the frigate was more commonly called the cruiser.

World War II and British usage revived the term "patrol frigate" to designate convoy escorts larger than destroyer escorts. The 100 patrol frigates built by the United States had an exceptionally long range: 17,000 miles at an economical 11 knots. Some 28 of these vessels were lend-leased to the Soviet Union to form the core of a Pacific fleet for service against Japan. After 1945 many of the frigates were sold or given to such friendly nations with small navies as Colombia and South Korea. In 1975 an American frigate like the Mitscher had the displacement of a World War II light cruiser, might be nuclear powered, and was armed principally with missiles. The Oliver Hazard Perry class, introduced in 1979 with the McInerny, and running through 1989 when the Ingraham was commissioned, has a displacement of 2,750 tons light and 4,100 tons when fully loaded.


Baxter, James P. III. The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968.

Bennett, Frank M. The Steam Navy of the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Chapelle, Howard L. The History of the American Sailing Navy. New York: Norton, 1949.

Cowburn, Philip. The Warship in History. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

George, James L. History of Warships: From Ancient Times to the Twenty-First Century. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Landstrom, Bjorn. The Ship. London: Allen and Unwin, 1961.

Sprout, Harold, and Margaret Sprout. The Rise of American Naval Power, 1776–1918. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.

R. W.Daly

Paul B.Ryan

RonaldSpector/a. r.

See alsoArmored Ships ; Battle Fleet Cruise Around the World ; Bonhomme Richard–Serapis Encounter ; Constitution ; Dreadnought ; Gunboats ; Ironclad Warships ; Nautilus ; Navy, United States ; Privateers and Privateering ; "White Squadron" ; World War II, Navy in .