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From Sail to Steam - Evolution of a Navy

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A sailing ship leaving harbour.

In the opening years of the 19th Century, the arrival of a naval fleet was identified by acres of white canvas spread over tall masts and wide yards. By the end of that same century they had become low, noisy vessels covered by a haze of dark smoke. This transition was considered inconceivable at the beginning and inevitable by the end.

Almost all the ships in use today are powered by machinery. The transition from sail occurred in the first half of the 19th Century, with a few notable exceptions. Although the transition to steam was occurring in most of the developed navies at the same time, this Entry will concentrate on the US Navy. There were steamships active in both of the Opium Wars in China (1839-42, 1856-60) and the Crimean War fought in and around the Black Sea (1853-56); in all cases they still served alongside ships powered only by sail. The massive naval involvement in the US Civil War, the Union blockade, Confederate raiders and blockade runners all served to accelerate the development of the steam warship.

The Industrial Revolution

In the 18th Century a series of machines were designed to improve efficiency in the garment industry, including the spinning jenny, spinning frame and cotton gin. Many of the mills were located next to fast-moving rivers and streams to provide the power for these machines; other sources of power came from wind, animals and even men turning the main shaft. A better source of power was needed.

In England a crude steam engine was being used to pump water from the mines. When a young mechanic named James Watt was asked to repair one of these engines in 1769 he began developing ways to improve their efficiency. The basic elements of the modern steam engine were introduced and, for the next hundred years, new ways would be found to use this source of power.

The great cost and weight of a boiler and engine limited the application until new ideas were developed. Although many associate early steam transportation with the rail road and Stevenson's Rocket in 1829, the use of steam in riverboats and ships dated back to the turn of the century.

Although by no means the first commercial steamboat, the most famous is Robert Fulton's Claremont, that conducted a lucrative trade along the Hudson River starting in 1807. She carried goods and passengers between New York City and Albany almost 150 miles up-river.

Early Steam in the US Navy

The first steam vessel in the US Navy was named the Demologos1, but was soon renamed the Fulton after her designer, who had passed away before her first sea trials in 1815. She had been built as a defence for the harbour of New York, with the hope she could drive away the ships of the British blockade. The War of 1812 had ended several months before she was ready for service.

The Fulton was built with a large well along her centreline protecting her single paddle-wheel from enemy fire. She was designated a crew of 200 men to serve the 24-32 pound2 guns mounted on her gun-deck.

She spent her career as a receiving ship in New York providing a barracks for sailors waiting to be assigned to an active ship. The Fulton was destroyed by an accident in her powder magazine on 4 June, 1829. The resulting explosion killed 30 men and injured several others.

The Sea Gull was a steam 'Galliot'3 that had been built as a river steamer. She was purchased by the navy in December, 1822 for service in the West Indies against pirates. Before employing her on active service the navy insisted on outfitting her with masts and sails as a precaution against engine failure. She proved quite capable of entering the small estuaries where the pirates lurked, and was the first steam vessel used by the US Navy in combat. She became a favourite of Commodore David Porter, who made several trips to the capital at Washington in her.

In July, 1825 the Sea Gull was inspected and found unfit for further duty at sea. She was sent to Philadelphia, and served there as a receiving ship until she was sold for scrap in 1840.

The next steamship was built by the navy and commissioned in 1837. The Fulton II was a small ship equipped with paddle-wheels on both sides and mounted with only four cannons. She was an experimental ship, but saw active service until she was laid up at Pensacola, Florida in 1859. She was captured by Confederate forces at the start of the Civil War. When the harbour was abandoned, near the the end of the war, the Fulton II was destroyed.

A pair of side-wheel steamers, the Mississippi and Missouri were commissioned in 1841 and 1842 respectively. The careless handling of turpentine near the hot machinery caused a fire that destroyed the Missouri at Gibraltar in 1845.

The screw steamer Princeton followed in 18434. Her main advantage over her predecessors was that the screw (or propeller) was below the waterline and safe from damage. She was also equipped with two large cannons called the Oregon and the Peacemaker. While conveying the President and many of his cabinet on the Potomac River in February, 1844, the Peacemaker exploded, killing the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy among others.

Six frigates of the Merrimack class were commissioned, starting in 1855. The Hartford and Pensacola followed in 1859, each with its own improvements on the earlier design. The majority of ships in commission were still powered by sail.

The Clipper Ships

In a strange twist of fate, even as the technology of steam power was becoming practical, the development of sail power was also reaching its own zenith. Huge ships with acres of sails were developed for the China trade and the gold boom in California. Less than three months were required for a voyage from New York to California, even though it still included the treacherous rounding of Cape Horn, off the southern tip of the Americas. Carrying fuel for an engine reduced the valuable space for paying cargo, and was an expense that could not be justified. The age of these ships would last until the US Civil War, and the stray tramp sailing merchantman would continue until World War II. Commercial sail is still used today in some Third World nations.

The US Civil War

At the start of the American Civil War5 in 1861 the navy consisted of 90 ships, less than half of them capable of serving at sea. Almost half of the officers had resigned their commissions to serve with the Confederacy. Several of the ships were also lost to the Rebels as the Southern ports were abandoned.

Winfield Scott's 'Anaconda' plan to blockade all the Southern ports would require a vast increase in the number of ships and men available. The navy began a program of purchasing ships and arming them, as well as an aggressive building program. Seamen and officers were recruited to man the new armada. Almost all of the vessels purchased were powered by sail, although several steam ferries and river boats were added to the squadrons. Most of the newly built ships were steam-powered.

The Ironclads

The idea of armouring ships with iron was not a new one. The French had clad the screw-powered La Gloire with iron plates. Although she had been intended to be a new class of ship, her design was just a modification of an existing class of ships of the line, with the upper gun-deck removed to compensate for the weight of the iron plates.

The British had built the heavy frigate6  HMS Warrior   entirely from iron. Neither of these ships had been in combat.

When the US Navy abandoned its Gosport Shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, the ships that could not be removed were burned, including the screw frigate Merrimack. The hull and machinery of the Merrimack were salvaged and converted to the CSS Virginia   by the Confederates, who built a large iron casement on her upper deck. The Union responded by building the USS Monitor, a low-decked ship with two guns mounted in a revolving turret. Although the outcome was inconclusive, this first battle of the 'Ironclads' produced major changes in the navies of both sides, and eventually of the world.

As the war progressed, the Union produced dozens of Monitor-style ships, many including a second gun-turret. The Confederacy built several more casement-style ironclads for harbour defence. On the rivers, the lighter river boats could not support the weight of thick iron plates, and thin sheet metal was used instead. The lightly plated boats became known as the 'tin-clads'. In the South the shortage of iron produced the 'cotton-clad' boats, with their superstructure protected by stacks of cotton bales.

Although these specialised craft were solely powered by their steam engines, the seagoing craft continued to carry masts and sails as auxiliary power.

The War at Sea

One of the classic battles between two steamships was fought off Cherbourg, France on 19 June, 1864. The Confederate raider CSS Alabama had put into port for repairs where she was spotted and challenged by the USS Kearsarge. Both were wooden vessels, almost equal in size and armament. The Union ship had hung iron chains down her sides for additional protection from the incoming shot. Both ships tried to cross the other's bow; the entire battle was fought in a series of circles, both ships carefully avoiding the territorial waters of France. This strategy would not have been possible under sail because of a ship's inability to sail into the wind.

After an hour-long fight, the Alabama began to slip below the waves, fatally damaged. The survivors were rescued by the victor and a British yacht, the Deerhound.

As the war progressed the navy became more dependent on steam power. By the end of the war, only a small number of pure sailing ships remained in commission, and, as the size of the fleet was reduced back to a peacetime level, they were all retired.

The Dreadnoughts

The evolution of the steam warship continued throughout the second half of the 19th Century. Masts and sails were reduced; eventually all that remained were small signal masts and platforms for the look-outs. Steel replaced iron, producing stronger hulls. Engines were improved in both reliability and efficiency: the triple expansion engine allowed the same steam to power a series of cylinders of increasing size before being condensed back to water.

As the 19th Century proceeded, all of the industrial nations of the West modernised and increased the size of their navies. In the Far East, Japan also joined in the race for naval supremacy. The resulting conflicts must be left for other Entries.

One of the most publicised events of the steam navy was the explosion on 15 February, 1898 that destroyed the Battleship Maine in the harbour of Havana, Cuba. No one knew at the time what had caused the disaster, but the press7 were clamouring for a war with Spain – an unknown saboteur was blamed. The war with Spain was eventually declared, resulting in Cuban independence and both the Philippine Islands and Puerto Rico joining the US as protectorates. Many today believe the true cause of the explosion was a fire started in the coal bunker by spontaneous combustion.

In 1906 the British commissioned the battleship Dreadnought. This ship would revolutionise ship design for the next half-century. With all her main guns of the same size, the distribution of shells was simplified. Her engines had been replaced by steam turbines, increasing speed and efficiency. It was not until the Aircraft carrier came to prominence in the Second World War that the Dreadnought style of battleship would be reduced to a secondary role in the fleets of the world.

Naval Sail in the 20th and 21st Centuries

In the 1930s, Germany's goal to restore her naval forces was thwarted by the restrictions on military training imposed by the treaty that had ended the First World War. These in effect forbade the building of new mechanically-powered warships. In order to train her naval cadets and the marine division of the Hitler Youth, Germany built three sailing ships: the Gorch Fock, Horst Wessel and Albert Leo Schlageter.

At the end of the Second World War, these ships were seized as reparation for the cost of the war:

  • The Gorch Fock was renamed the Tovarishch and used as a training ship by the Soviet Union, and later served under the Ukrainian flag, until 1990. Today she has regained her original name and is a museum ship in Stralsund, Germany.

  • The Horst Wessel was claimed by the United States and became the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle. She is still conducting training cruises every summer, manned by the cadets from the Academy. She replaced the Danmark, a Danish training ship that had been in American waters at the outbreak of the war. She had been used by the Coast Guard throughout the war and was returned to Denmark after peace had been finalised. She is also still involved in sail training.

  • The Albert Leo Schlageter was adopted by the Portuguese Navy in 1961 and is sailing as the training ship Sagres III today.

The Germans also built the Mircea in Hamburg for the Romanian navy. Except for a short time that this ship was in the possession of the Soviet Union, she has remained an active training ship in the Romanian navy.

Other navies, including Colombia and Chile, have built or restored large sailing ships for training. Other private ships are available to individuals, such as the Star of India, sailing from San Diego, California, USA. Many students studying oceanography spend a semester at sea under sail.

There are also several large sailing vessels that still offer passenger cruises, as well as crewed or 'bare boat' charters available in all of the most popular cruising areas of the world.

The Legacy of Sail

Although the age of sail has long passed, there is still much that can be learned from the old skills required to navigate using the wind alone.

Sailing the oceans is not without its perils, as evidenced by the loss of the Pride of Baltimore on 14 May, 1986 with four of her crew, and more recently the replica HMS Bounty on 29 October, 2012 with two of her crew. The captains of both ships were among those lost at sea.

There is a thrill in watching a graceful ship manoeuvre under sail, whether viewed from shore or from her own deck. Several tall ship parades are conducted each year at ports around the world.

1Roughly translated 'Word of the people'.2The weight of the cannon ball, not the gun itself.3A galliot is derived from the term galley to describe a small ship.4Some may argue that HMS Rattler was the first screw ship launched, but she was not commissioned until after the Princeton had entered service.5Known at the time as the 'Great Rebellion'.6At the time of her building, Warrior had more fire-power than even the largest ship of the line afloat, but due to the number and arrangement of her powerful guns she was officially designated as a frigate.7Led by William Randolph Hurst.

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