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Great Ships of the Steel Navy

The ABCD Ships

The rebirth of the United States Navy began with the 1883 authorization of the ABCD ships — USS Atlanta, USS Boston, USS Chicago, and USS Dolphin. The first three were protected cruisers. They featured hulls made of steel, but without full armor protection. Instead, coal bunkers were expected to provide some protection to vital interior machinery. These ships also featured a mix of propulsion systems, able to travel under sail power, or steam. The Dolphin was a smaller vessel intended to rapidly carry messages in the age before wireless communication. This watercolor painting depicts several of the ABCD ships at sea, under sail.

USS Texas

The first American battleship was the USS Texas, a 2nd class battleship. She was authorized in 1886, but not completed until 1895, rendering her somewhat obsolete. Her main armament featured a mix of 12 inch and 6 inch guns. Her two main 12 inch gun turrets were mounted along the side of the ship, staggered forward and aft.

USS Olympia

Perhaps the most famous ship of the New Steel Navy was the protected cruiser USS Olympia. Commissioned in 1895, she was a significant upgrade over the cruisers of the ABCD ships. She served as the flagship of Commodore Dewey's squadron in the Battle of Manila Bay. She was modernized several times, and participated in convoy duty during World War I. In 1921, the Olympia had the honor of transporting the Unknown Soldier home from France. In 1922, the Olympia was decommissioned, and languished for many years. She was opened to the public in the 1950's, and remains the oldest steel warship afloat in the world. In 2010, the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, caretaker of the Olympia, informed the Navy that they no longer have the funds to properly care for the ship. The ship is in dire need of repairs, and her future is uncertain.

USS Maine

Much like the Texas, the Maine was a 2nd class battleship featuring staggered, side-mounted main guns. She was commissioned in 1895, and originally classified as an armored cruiser. In 1898, the Maine was dispatched to Havana to protect American interests in the midst of Cuban unrest over Spanish rule. On February 15, she exploded, resulting in the death of about 260 of her crew. American newspapers immediately blamed Spanish treachery, and “Remember the Maine” became the rallying cry for the Spanish-American War. Later investigations concluded that the tragedy was most likely an accident caused by a fire on board the ship. To read a report from a 1975 investigation into the explosion click here. A painting of the wrecked ship can be seen here.

USS Vesuvius

The dynamite cruiser Vesuvius was a short-lived experiment in weapons technology. She was commissioned in 1890, and featured three fixed gun tubes, through which projectiles were launched with compressed air. Since the guns could not be moved, the entire ship had to be aligned directly towards the target. These almost noiseless guns were used to bombard shore targets during the Spanish-American War. Ultimately, the technology demonstrated by the Vesuvius was deemed a failure, and was abandoned.

USS Oregon

The battleship Oregon was one of the most successful and celebrated ships of the New Steel Navy. Commissioned in 1896, she was part of a class of battleships that also included the USS Indiana and USS Massachusetts. At the time of her commissioning, her speed, protection, and firepower made her one of the finest ships in the world. Stationed on the West Coast at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, she was ordered to make a historic dash around South America to reinforce the American squadron operating in the Caribbean. She steamed 14,000 miles around Cape Horn in 66 days, a voyage that was exuberantly celebrated in the media, and with songs and poems. When the Battle of Santiago finally erupted on July 3rd, the Oregon performed with distinction, leading the American fleet to an overwhelming victory over its Spanish adversary. She participated in the international expedition to Siberia in 1918, and was decommissioned in 1924. She was designated a historic monument, but was partially scrapped during World War II, briefly used as a barge, and finally scrapped for good in 1956. Only her mast remains, as a monument in Portland, OR. Click here for more images of the Oregon.

USS Kearsarge

The battleship USS Kearsarge was another failed experiment in gunnery. Commissioned in 1900, she and her sister ship USS Kentucky featured a superposed turret system. On top of her two main 13 inch turrets were mounted two 8 inch turrets. It was nearly impossible to keep both sets of turrets properly aligned, and the concussion from the 13 inch guns made aiming the 8 inch guns above frustratingly difficult. The Kearsarge was later converted into a giant floating crane ship, and was scrapped in 1955. This photo shows the Kearsarge brightly lit on a visit to England in 1903. For a good view of the superposed turrets, click here.

USS Connecticut

The battleship USS Connecticut, commissioned in 1906, was among the last of the great ships of the New Steel Navy. Her class of battleships featured a total of six ships. Connecticut served as the flagship of the Great White Fleet during the 1907-1909 cruise around the world. With advances in naval technology happening with stunning speed, Connecticut was obsolete almost as soon as she was launched.

USS Michigan

USS Michigan represented a new era in battleship design. While she was not the first ship of her class to be authorized (this was USS South Carolina) she was the first to be commissioned, in January 1910. She was a dreadnought, with advanced engine technology, and adhered to the “all big gun” concept. This meant that her eight main single caliber 12 inch guns were all housed in center-line turrets, unlike the mixed and matched weaponry of earlier ships. The basic design concepts of the dreadnought would remain in place for the remaining decades of the battleship era.

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