USS Olympia

Protected Cruiser USS Olympia (1892)

US Protected Cruiser, 1890 – today

Introduction: The birth of the “new navy”

When the first Cleveland Administration took office in 1885, Navy Secretary William Collins Whitney decided to maintain the previous modernization program under the Arthur Administration, at the time it was still far from power projection, limited to commerce raiding only (in part inspired by the 1790s experience and 1812 war in particular. The defensive posture saw just two cruisers built in this decade, were the Atlanta class. These 3,000 tons two-masted, low-freeboard vessels started at John Roach Yard in 1883 were more glorified coastal gunboats than cruisers, with a clipper stern, ram bow and two 8-in/30 guns. However the same program of 1883 also authorized a more sensible, larger long range masted cruiser, which became USS Chicago. At nearly double the tonnage, she was the first of a serie of far more potent “commerce raiders”.

She was followed by USS Newark and Charleston (FY 1885), and later USS Baltimore (FY 1886) and Philadelphia (FY 1887), near sisters reaching 5,000 tonnes FL. The latter was the fourth protected cruiser (C4). This famous 1887 programm under Whitney was the most ambitious programm so far, authorizing in addition of Philadelphia and San Francisco, the ambitious construction for the first modern USN coastal battleship, USS Texas and Maine, the later becoming later an armoured cruiser.

A painting of th Olympia

But for cruisers in 1888, no change in direction, the navy wanted in complement of this coastal defensive capability, on the eastern seabourne (the Panama Canal was not dug yet), a large and fast fleet of commerce-raiding cruisers, to attack a potential enemy fleet’s supply line. Although President Grover Cleveland was defeated in 1888, Whitney managed before leaving to pass to Congress the authorization of two additional cruisers, a large and well protected 5,400 t cruiser and another of similar tonnage (unnamed).

The name for the new, large protected cruiser was to be USS Olympia, and the project was however questioned by the new new Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Tracy. His administration started to rethink US naval policy and although he agreed to let the development of the USS Olympia, this disciple of Alfred Thayer Mahan. He advocated instead for a battle fleet to engage he enemy in home waters and put an end to the commerce-raiding cruisers lineage. Instead he cancelled the second projected cruiser and ordered two classes of coastal, lighter cruisers, the Cincinatti and Montgomery class (2,000-3,000 tonnes). As a result, USS Olympia was the last of her kind.

Design of USS Olympia

Numbered C6, or “cruiser number 6” USS Olympia was the sixth protected cruiser of the US Navy. As studied in 1889 by the newly formed Board on the Design of Ships design process was quickly fixed for main armament on 8.0 in (203 mm) guns, debating on number and arrangement. The armor scheme was also was heavily debated. She different from previous vessels for many points. First off, she was given the best armour scheme of any previous cruisers, to the point of bordering the “armoured cruiser” genre.

This was achieved by reworking the layout by integrating Harvey Steel (lighter yet more resistant) 4.5 in thick in the most important locations. For comparison, USS San Francisco revendicated 2 in (51 mm) for the gun shield, as for the protective deck, and 3 in (76 mm) for the sloped armored deck and CT. This was a revolution, in between traditional cruisers made for trade warfare, and armoured cruisers. She was, by all means, the first fleet protected cruiser of the USN.


On 8 April 1890, the navy solicited bids but the number of yards available were few, and already full. The Union Iron Works located in San Francisco however answered favorably and the Navy contract specified $1,796,000 for the full construction costs until completion by 1 April 1893. It was assorted with a bonus for early completion.

During contract negotiations, Union Iron Works however realized the propulsion system which would answer the Navy specifications would just not fit in the original design. The company’s CEO asked the Navy for modifications, and was granted permission to lengthen the vessel by 10 ft (3.0 m), at no extra cost. The signing only intervened on 10 July 1890, but the keel was not laid before almost a full year, on 17 June 1891. This was explaine by the gathering of resources, management and workforce’s training plus detailed plans modifcations. It should be noted at the time that US Yards were only recently pushed into the delivery of Navy vessels of larges size, comlexity and in larger quantities, and construction time was a tad slow.

Eventually USS Olympia would be launched on 5 November 1892, Sponsored by Miss Ann B. Dickie. The biggest delaying factor has been the delivery of components and notably the brand new Harvey steel armor, promised but difficult to master at the time. Even ordnance delivery was slow, to the point that The last 1-pounder gun was only received for installation on December 1894.

Sea trials and fixes

USS Olympia was completed on 5 February 1895, but Union Iron Works conducted her first sea trials… on 3 November 1893. It showed on a 68 nmi (126 km; 78 mi) run she reached 21.26 kn (39.37 km/h; 24.47 mph). However it was discovered her keel was already fouled by sea grass, requiring dry-docking. This was the first of a serie of delays, between actual completion and commission, ot two years. On 11 December 1893 indeed, fitting-out was completed so she was sent for a long run between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, with officials on board for the USN speed trial. Heavy fog caused a four days delay but she proceeded on the 15th into the Santa Barbara Channel. At the time, this particular track was the “chosen race-track for California-built cruisers”. The press communicated dates and both banks were crowded by enthusiasts and factory workers.

She then started her four-hour run, at an average speed of 21.67 kn (40.13 km/h; 24.94 mph) with rushed up to 22.2 kn (41.1 km/h; 25.5 mph) when conditons were favourable. So this was well above contract requirement (20 knots), earning appraisal. Compared to her, USS Francisco only reached 19 knots (35 km/h; 22 mph). Back to the nsamesake city, USS, Olympia took part in eight experiments, combining steering arrangements and propellers shapes. This prolongated her full completion, as many runs followed by drydock refits went on in between (with late armament and equipment arrival and installation), but was extremely valuable for the USN. After all she was the fastest USN cruiser ever built to that point. Now, she was at last was ultimately commissioned on 5 February 1895 and stayed not only the fastest, but also largest warship on the western coast until surpassed by USS Oregon.

Detailed Design

One of the striking aspect of the hull was it was not very tall, and the deck lenght largely inferior to the hull lenght: Her bow ram was important, and she ended at the stern by a sloped curve, and refined lines. Although she was rather large with a ratio of 1:6.5. This favored agility over speed. The other ratio between underwater and overwater mass (21 ft draught for a 344 ft long cruiser was rather important), and also favored stability, in addition to the counter-keels that were fitted and compact, low superstructures. As usual of the time, no tumblehome but a larger beam at the waterline rather than at deck level, which also faborized stability.

Superstructure-wise, USS Olympia keep it at the minimum, in full contrast, for example, to French ironclads and armored cruisers of the time. The general design was relatively symmetrical with a sheer forward and aft culminating to the bow (plus a bulwark) and stern about the same height, and the superstructure in the center, also roughly symmetrical but with the two funnels, raked, and further aft, plus the small wooden-panelled command bridge at the second level over the battery roof.

The enclosed battery comprised the secondary guns, entirely roofed, with a walled topover which were installed supports for the eleven service boats, five on deck, managed by the aft and forward mast booms, and the rest on davits. The masts were single pol types, all-metal with spotting tops mounting projectors and fighting tops with light cannons forward and aft at different heights. As usual for the time, anchors were carried on deck and served by gooseneck cranes, and the bow was decorated by a lush motif surrounding the US armories.

Conway’s rendition 1898

Her overall lenght was exactly 344 ft 1 in (104.88 m) for 53 ft (16 m) in beam and 21 ft 6 in (6.55 m) in dreaft and a design displacement of 5,865 long tons (5,959 t), 6,558 long tons (6,663 t) filled and combat loaded. displacement. Her crew numbered crew 411-447 officers and ratings depending of the time and role. 447 was likely her Manila Battle crew, not counting the Marines onboard.

The Scientific American compared at the time of her completion USS Olympia to the British Eclipse-class cruisers and the Chilean Blanco Encalada (also British-built) colcuding she had “great superiority” over them overall. Nevertheles the Eclipse class, based on their colonial duties, had a long range with 550 short tons (500 t) compared to 400 short tons to Olympia. However the latter had double the horsepower, heavier armament based on a smaller tonnage by 200 short tons. So she was estimated a “better package” overall.

Hull and main design characteristics

In 1895

In 1916: Note the removed fighting tops and new artillery.


The ship is powered by a pair of vertical triple expansion engines, each supplied with steam from three coal-fired cylindrical boilers. Her engines were rated at 13,500 ihp (10,100 kW) with a top speed of 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph), though on trials she achieved 17,313 ihp (12,910 kW) and a top speed of 21.67 knots (40.13 km/h; 24.94 mph).


-Her conning tower was the best proteced part, with 5 in (13 cm) thick Harvey steel walls.
-Next came the 4 in (10 cm) thick glacis protects the engine rooms.
-She had a 2 in (5.1 cm) thick armored deck, side sloping to 4.75 in (12.1 cm) amidships, tapered down to (7.6 cm) out of the citadel.

-Main battery reached 3.5 in (8.9 cm), also in Harvey armor forward
-Main barbettes had 4.5 in-thick (11 cm) nickel-steel walls above the protective deck.
-The 5-inch guns were protected by 4 in-thick (10 cm) gun shields.


Olympia is armed with a variety of weapons. However they were obsolete when WWI started. In 1916, the turrets and guns were removed and replaced with open gun platforms with a single QF 4″/40 gun (destroyer caliber). For their new role as minelayers, they were considered OK, and the next year replaced by 5″/51-caliber guns. The same refit sw the secondary battery replaced by 5″/51s guns also.

2×2 8 in (203 mm)/35;

The primary armament comprised two twin Mark 6 gun turrets (forward and one aft of the superstructure) with mounts offering −4° depression and 13° elevation. The pairs of guns housed could fire 260 lb (120 kg) AP/HE shells at 2,100 ft (640 m)/sec. Useful range was about 8,000 m ().

10x 5 in (127 mm)/40:

The secondary battery comprised ten single, mask-protected (or in casemates) 5 in (127 mm)/40 caliber. There were five each hull flank placed to avoid flash from the main battery and firing 50 lb (23 kg) AP shells at 2,300 ft (700 m)/second. Range is unknown, probably close to 6,000 m.

Anti-Torpedo Guns

Fourteen 6-pounder (57 mm (2.24 in)) mounted in sponsons on the deck battery, and six one-pounder guns mounted on deck and fifghting tops fore and aft. These were all QF guns, replaced also in WWI, notably by 3-in guns.
For the 1898 expedition she was also given to two Gatling guns, with their dismounted wheeled chassis, and quite an arsenal of revolvers and rifles to supply a generous landing party. It is said also that the deck 1-pdr guns were dismountable also to add to the firepower, but evidence is scarce.


USS Olympia carried six 18 in (46 cm) above water torpedo tubes, far apart on either side of the citadel, beneath the bulkheads. Torpedoes of the time were likely Bliss-Levit “Short” Whitehead 18″ (45 cm) Mark 1 types (1895). They weighted 845 lbs. (383 kg), 140 in (3.556 m) long and carrying at 800 yards (730 m)/26 knots a 118 lbs. (53.5 kg) wet gun-cotton explosive Charge. Power came from an air-flask (cold running) compressed air powered, three cylinder radial Brotherhood pattern engine. it was guided by preset Rudder adjustment but were known for their poor directional stability and failed with their requirement of +/- 24 yards (22 m) at 800 yards (730 m) deviation.

Author’s profile

⚙ Specifications 1895

Dimensions 144 x 14 x 5 m ( x x feets)
Displacement 4,850 tons standard, 5,925 tons Fully Loaded
Crew 450/469 wartime
Propulsion 2 shafts Parsons turbines, 6 Yarrow boilers, 40,000 hp.
Speed 29 knots (42 km/h)
Range 2300 nm @ 27 knots.
Armament 6× 6-in/45 (152 mm), 2x 3-pdr/45 (57mm), 2x 2-Pdr/39 AA (40 mm), 4×3 21-in TTs (533mm)
Protection Belt 1.5-2.25 in, decks 1 in, Masks 25 1 in, CT 3 in)

Src/Read More



Alden, John D. (1989). American Steel Navy: Photographic History, 1883 to the Cruise of the Great White Fleet. NIP
Burr, Lawrence (17 June 2008). US Cruisers 1883–1904: The Birth of the Steel Navy. New York City: Osprey Publishing.
Cooling, Benjamin Franklin (2007). USS Olympia: Herald of Empire. Annapolis NIP
Friedman, Norman (1984). U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis NIP
Friedman, Norman (1985). U.S. Battleships: An Illustrated Design History. NIP
Gardiner R.; Chesneau R.; Kolesnik E M., 1979. Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1860–1905. Conway Maritime Press
Miller, Arthur P.; Miller, Marjorie L. (2000). Pennsylvania Battlefields and Military Landmarks. Stackpole Books.
Ford, Roger; Gibbons, Tony; Hewson, Rob; Jackson, Bob; Ross, David (2001). The Encyclopedia of Ships Amber Books
Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War I. London: Random House Group, Ltd. 2001. p. 141.
Munsey’s Magazine Volume XXVI. October 1901, to March 1902. Page 880


National Historical Landmark doc
Some footage
Olympia 1922-31 photos
Help us Bring Home the USS Olympia, Mare is. Museum
Pre WWI US Torpedoes (Navweaps)

Model kits

Detailed plans –

USS Olympia’s amazing career

During her long career which never really ended, as her last assignation was the preserved ship IX-24 from 1931, she was successively C-6 in 1890, CA-15 in 1920 and CL-15 in 1921. She had been named also “Queen of the Pacific” in reference to her role in 1898, and “The Winged O” in reference to her speed at first.

First period: Up to the Spanish American War (1895-98)

As said above, Olympia’s completion was not a breeze, with many delays making her only commissioned in 1895. Her final outfitting took place at U.S. Navy’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard at Vallejo, California. This was performed under command of her first captain, John J. Read and by April she took part in a festival in Santa Barbara, followed by landing drills in Sausalito and Santa Cruz. On 20 April, she did her first gunnery practice, during which Coxswain John Johnson died in an accident with a 5-inch gun. She made her final, official shakedown cruise from 27 July before being back to Mare Island to replace USS Baltimore as the flagship, Asiatic Squadron.

On 25 August 1895, she departed for Chinese waters via Hawaii (the crew stayed at sea on 23 October due to an outbreak of cholera). She headed for Yokohama, arriving on 9 November and on the 15th was joined by USS Baltimore to transfer official command of the Squadron. RADM F.V. McNair arrived on December 15, to take his post aboard Olympia, and for two years she multiplied training exercises and goodwill visits. On January 1898, Commodore George Dewey replaced McNair as new squadron commander.

1898 war, the “Queen of the Pacific”


When war with Spain became probable, Dewey wanted her based in Hong Kong, prepared for action. On 25 April 1898 was became official and Dewey sailed the squadron to Mirs Bay in China. The Navy Department ordered on the 27th the squadron to sail for Manila, Philippines, to neutralize a Spanish naval force that could potentially reinforce the Cuban fleet. Dewey was ordered to sink or capture all vessels and take the city. For this he carried extra small arms and machine guns, US Marines companies and drilled intensively his sailors to accurate rifle fire, to create a combined landing party. Such that was his confidence in the aftermath.

The Battle of Manila Bay was the pinnacle of USS Olympia’s carrer, her shining point and main motivation for her later preservation. On the morning of 1 May, Dewey aboard took the lead in the squadron’s forces, gathering extra strenght and making its way to the Bay, dealing with some shore batteries along the way. More information about the battle of Manila. Opposing Spanish flotilla was under orders of RADM Patricio Montojo y Pasarón. Knowing the ppor state of his ships her choosed not engage the US flotilla at sea and instead had them anchored close to shore, under the protection of the fort and coastal artillery. At 5:40 a.m., Dewey instructed Olympia’s captain, Gridley, to “fire when ready”. The latter ordered the 8-inch gun turret (Lt. Stokely Morgan) to open the shot of the Battle. He had a precise aiming: Olympia’s opposite, the Spanish flagship Reina Christina. This hot signalled the entire squadron to open fire.

Battle of Manila Bay

Bteween the poor state and age of the Spanish artillery as well as poor training due to the lack of rounds, Spanish gunners were far less accurate. After a first pass inline, causing havoc, Dewey decided, amazingly to break off the engagement and retire our of range at 7:30 a.m for his men to take a second breakfast. Meanwhile an officier reported the stores to be low in 5-inch ammunition (an erroneous report), but the break was a welcoming one, still unexpected in what was an unfinished battle. Even one-sided. When done, the squadron set sail for a second pass along Manil’as shore at 11:15 and ships afterwards entered a free fire to finish off what remained of Montojo’s forces. It was over by early afternoon, also for shore batteries. Reports came. Not only his and other ships were amazingly undamaged, but there was not a single casuality. Dewey anchored his ships off Manila and prepared a landing party, when a white flag delgation came by boat. He accepted the surrender of the city.

Admiral George Dewey returns from Manila on USS Olympia in New York Harbor, 1899

Admiral Dewey review onboard USS Olympia in 1899

News of of the victory reached the US and both her and his ship, USS Olympia became instant household names. Meawnhile, his squadron deployed expeditionary forces to mop up Spanish strongholds, well helped by local intel and Filipino rebels.

The battle of Manila

Adm_Geo_Dewey_on_OLYMPIA USS Olympia remained in the area, supporitng the Marines and land parties and returned to the Chinese coast on 20 May 1899. She departed in June for home via the Suez Canal and stopping in several ports in the Mediterranean. Upon arrival, Frances Benjamin Johnston, a prominent photograph of the time boarded the ship on 5 August to take images of Dewey and his men, which made their way in the press and beyond, presenting their daily life. USS Olympia had a short refit in Boston on 10 October, the ship being repainted and adorned with a gilded bow with wings (hence her surname) but by 9 November she was placed in reserve. Due to her age and new cruisers pressed into the Navy she was put to rest for four more years.

1898-1917: “The Winged O”

Repatriation of the Unknown Soldier at the Washington Navy Yard
Repatriation of the Unknown Soldier at the Washington Navy Yard

USS Olympia was recommissioned in January 1902, reassigned to the North Atlantic Squadron. She served for a time as flagship, Caribbean Division, patrolled the Atlantic and pushed into the Mediterranean Sea, visiting notably Istanbul. By March-April 1903 she was the centerpiece of an intervention in Honduras. On 2 April 1906, she became a training ship for midshipmen (Academy). She sailed for three summer training cruises in May– August 1907, June–September 1908, May–August 1909 and in between was in reserve in Norfolk and Annapolis in Maryland, closer to the Academy. On 6 March 1912, she was Charleston to be consigned as a barracks ship, until 1916. By late 1916, it was decided to prepare her for an eventualy US entry into the war. She was recommissionedand repainted in medium ocean grey.

WWI: Olympia in Grey


From April 1917, she became flagship of the U.S. Patrol Force on the eastern seaboard, looking for German warships fleeing US ports to get back home. The others were promptly seized. She escorted transport ships also in the North Atlantic. On 15 June however she ran aground in Long Island Sound. She could free herself but was sent for repairs at Brooklyn. During this refit, she had her armament, already modified in 1916 completely renewed and other welcome modernizations, for a total of eight months. She departed Charleston on 28 April 1918 with the expeditionary force to be landed in Murmansk, Russia, as an international peacekeeping force. She took part in the occupation of Archangel.

After the great war: Last missions

USS Olympia in 1919

The war ended and she sailed to the Mediterranean via Portsmouth to become flagship, US eastern Mediterranean squadron. Her role was showing the flag and making goodwill visits, with some policing in the Adriatic until 25 October 1919, notably off the troubled Dalmatian coast. On 1 April 1919 she dropped anchor in Spalato (Split) with the destroyers USS Israel and Lansdale. On 18 August, she was in the Black Sea, taking refugees from the Balkans and was back in the Adriatic, sending a landing party as interposition force between Italians and Yugoslavs.

She was back in Charleston on 24 November 1919 and in 1920 became CA-15. She departed NyC on 14 February 1920 for the Adriatic and ended her tour of duty on 25 May 1921, back to Charleston, and reassigned as flagship of the Atlantic Fleet’s training unit. Sje took part in joint Army-Navy experiments in July 1921 seeing the sinking of war prizes Ostfriesland and Frankfurt off the Virginia Capes, and finally became CL-15 later in 1921.

On 3 October she sailed from Philadelphia to Le Havre in France, carrying back the Unknown Soldier home, to be buried ina ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. She departed on 25 October 1921 escorted by French destroyers until mid-Atlantic, but weathered upon arrival a tropical cyclone. Coal consumption was high and, lightened, she started to roll a lot. Later she encountered the Tampa Bay hurricane mbut made it into Potomac river on 9 November, greeted and escorted along the wau by USS North Dakota and the destroyer USS Bernadou, until she entered Washington NyD. She fired her guns in salute during the casket tranfer ashore. Her last training cruise took place in the summer of 1922. But given the new disarmament treaty signed in Washington, she was to be decommissioned.


USS Olympia preserved in 1922, renamed IX-40.

On 9 December 1922, she was officially decommissioned, in Philadelphia NyD. She was not sold and broken up but placed in reserve and in fact, still was extant on 30 June 1931, pending their fate. Some in the navy, the press and general public indeed wanted her preserved for her role in the 1898 war. At last the request was granted by the Navy which was reclassified her hull IX-40, to be preserved as a relic. This was rare at the time, and quite exceptional. On 11 September 1957 she was owned by the Cruiser Olympia Association and restored to her 1898 configuration. She opened as a museum ship with her main original guns and turrets replaced with sheet metal contraptions. By January 1996 the cost of maintenance had the association merged with the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia.

She remains so up to this day. Bethered at Penn’s Landing she is not only the solesurvivor of the 1898 war and world’s only cruiser of the 1890s. She is not “fully commissioned” but still, cared for by Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps Midshipmen from Villanova University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her stern plate and bow ornaments had been landed and are now displayed in Dahlgren Hall, US Naval Academy. Her anchor is at Norwich University, to recall the graduates in Naval Service and Dewey’s own training here;

Maintenance every 20 years was not done sine 1945 and the cost estimated $10 million but plans to have her scuttles as an artificial reef were dropped, she was closed 22 November 2010, lacking funds, but reopened on 31 December albeit in reduced hours. The Navy asked the museum to “responsibly dispose” of the vessel and the city after a reunion in 2011 with the Navy, the National Park Service and Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, another nonprofit organization was created and the old cruiser went to the March 2011 Transfer Application, for Proposals.

Several organizations answered, four selected, and by 7 May 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation set up a national donation repository. The Independence Seaport Museum announced the end of the process in April 2014, not finding any organization for viable and long-term solution. Olympia is still in Philadelphia but benefited at last from a $20 million national fundraising campaign, reinforced by grants from the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, and Jennifer Pritzker’s Tawani Foundation plus the Herman S. Pollock Foundation, and many private donations. $10 million were spent already, like removing 30 tons of asbestos and other products, safety upgrades while inspections and reports were made on engineering to plann further emergency work.

By 2015 she secired another $169,850 for interim repairs of degraded hull plates, deck leaks. Her hull was cleaned and patched with ceramic epoxy while she received a new bottom paint in plance, creating an artificial drydockby using custom-made mobile surface-piercing cofferdam. In 2017 her old gangways were replaced and the signal bridge and Admiral and Captain’s skylights restored. She received new benches, mess lockers and mess tables like the originals.

In 2017, a new campaign was launched to raise $20 million for a proper drydock. She is still open to public to this day.

Drachinfel’s tour of USS Olympia

The Great Clippers (1820-1870)


Cutty Sark

For once, we left the guns to rest, and turn the bar back in time, with one of the most glorious page of sail: A long tradition that still is revered around the world, maintained by naval schools and living museums: The magnificent Tall ships and the invention of trading race: The great clippers are unleashed !

This was before steam definitively ruled the seas, when it was still dirty, noisy and unreliable, sometimes bordering to dangerous.
The oceanic nobility of the time were wooden cathedrals of sail, champions of rival trade companies that made the headlines, turned the heads and drew unapologetic cheers. The prize ? The freshest tea from India up to London’s docks…

Captains, ship-owner and architects raised as the superstars of their day, empires betting their fortune on the finest pure-breeds, with names carried with pride as an invitation to compete, fine lines, fiery temper, daring prows ready to cut the seas and break records. But clippers were also a way to revolutionize naval architecture, by searching for -empirically- the best hull shape and water lines.

They influenced naval construction to this day, also allowing frigates to be faster and mixed vessels to reach good speeds while under sail, often a viable alternative to mediocre or dangerous early steam powerplants. From 1869 and the opening of the Suez canal, clippers demand fell whereas the first composite vessels appeared, soon to be replaced by 1880s iron-hulled ships.

American clipper

And when this ended, it went on with human cargo, immigrants to the US and South America or Australia. Here, from 1820 to 1870 follows the harrowing legends of half-century sailing at its very best, with the British, American and Australian clippers that made history. Follow us in that adventure !

History of clippers

The term itself was controversial. “Clipper” could either be likened to “to clip”, cut, cross quickly, or get close to an marine slang term for the “pinnacle” of its field, a thoroughbred of the seas as it was also associated with race horses. It was influenced by Dryden, the English poet that first used it to describe the swift flight of a falcon in the 17th century.

Origins (1770)

Still, Clippers had common characteristics, including a generous sailing area, elongated hull with fine shapes at both ends. In short, and at the very moment when the steamers might dethrone them, the Clippers represented an effective alternative, albeit subject to the vagaries of the weather, but much more efficient, increasing delivery speed as more important as the payload capacity.

The sailing clippers were therefore justified for carrying goods with high added value, and the buyers were ready to pay premiums and colossal fees to the first stocks arrived. Hence the highly competitive nature of these “trading regattas”. The British and the Americans held the highest position during those years from 1820 to 1860. The other Europeans followed, and the big four-master or five-master square or schooners iron ships succeeded them until the 1930s.

Alan Villiers describe the opinion of most sailors as being “sharp-lined, built for speed (…) tall-sparred and carrying the utmost spread of canvas”. Added to very fine lines that went against carrying capacity, the ships had skysails and moonrakers on the masts plus studding sails on booms and extra manpower. The true first clippers has been the topsail schooners developed in the Chesapeake Bay right before the American Revolution, which took a prominent part in the war of 1812. Their early inspirations has been French luggers operating in the Caribbean. After this war, American clippers started to link with China and India, bearing some resemblance to the small and sharp-bowed British “opium clippers” in the 1830s. “Baltimore clippers” continued to be built, this time for American companies willing to engage in the China opium trade until 1849 when it was no longer profitable.

The early clippers (1830)

The first post-Baltimore ship, also considered as the first proper “clipper” was an enlarge model called Ann McKim, built in 1833 at Kennard & Williamson shipyard, displacing 494 tons OM, with a sharply raked stem, counter stern and square rig. She is frequently assimilated as the “first clipper” but appeared at a time ships were still bulky and was its own breed, but her influence can’t be denied.

Ann McKim
Ann McKim
Ann McKim, the first proper modern clipper for most authors, model and hull lines.

Not to be undone, old Europe made a clipper, through Scottish yard Alexander Hall and Sons, innovating with a new kind of prow, soon to be called “Aberdeen clipper bow”. This first “Aberdeen clipper” was the Scottish Maid (1839). She displaced 150 tons OM only, but built to compete against steamers on the lucrative Aberdeen-London trade. Since the distance was short she did not need to be taller. Her hull was the work of passionate designers, the Hall brothers, which tested multiple hulls shape in a water tank. 1836 tonnage regulations were also taken in account. In effect, Extra length above this level was tax-free, which motivated greatly the construction of more Clippers. These first European clippers were indeed those trading between the British Isles.

The 1840s saw the gradual appearance of much larger clippers, tailored to carry from the far east tea, opium, spices and other precious goods. Larger, they were to went through notoriously difficult cape of good hope without too much harm and then race through the Indian ocean. In the USA the first of these was the Akbar (1839), 650 tons OM, followed by the Houqua (1844), 581 tons OM, for tea. Opium clippers were generally smaller, such as the Ariel (1842) 100 tons OM.

Extreme clippers (1845)

The New Yorker 1845 Rainbow, 757 tons OM is now seen widely as the first “extreme clipper”: Large hull with very fine lines, lost of sail area. The Rainbow was really sacrificing cargo capacity for speed. More on the detail below.

William-j. Popham painting, clipper rainbow

Extreme Clippers would flourish between 1845 and 1855, before changes of regulations and more reliable steamers among others made them less profitable. Already there were concerned in 1850 these ships were too uncompromising and costly, therefore Medford, in Massachusetts, launched what is often compared as the first “medium clipper”, the Antelope of Boston (1851). It was a compromise, combining large stowage capacity with yet still good sailing qualities. They certainly made more profit on payload on less expensive goods which freshness was not an issue. This new breed ultimately replaced extreme clippers. Companies still kept some more for the prestige and as a flagship than to make profit as per se. By 1856, none was built anymore. Their shine lasted for just ten years but they will certainly raised the clipper as a genre, as far as possible by using sailing power. No ship that fast and with that tonnage was ever built afterwards.

The golden age of clippers (1850-60)

Medium Clippers were still impressive by their own right nevertheless. One yard in particular will rose to international fame: Canadian-born designer and builder Donald McKay. The Flying Cloud made headlines by linking New York to San Francisco in 89 days 8 hours, through the dreaded cape horn. Not only she became famous by being the fastest of all clippers, but for her race with the Hornet in 1853, and by being commanded by a female skipper, Eleanor Creesy. The Flying cloud will also link with Australia and took part in the timber trade in the far east. McKay would built almost a hundred clippers from 1840 to 1875.

British Revenge
China Clipper

From 1859 a brand new British clipper appeared, in total contrast with the American ships. From 1859 were still extreme clippers, with a sleek, graceful appearance and lower sheer and freeboard, as bulwarks and narrower. They were the supreme athletes of the seas, and nothing was too fine to win the ultimate race of the time: On the China tea trade route. The first of these was aptly named the Falcon, that year of 1859. The last of these great China clippers (a name taken back for a famous seaboat of the 1930s) appeared in 1870 ad a year prior, the Suez canal was open. Only 25 to 30 of these clippers were launched at a rate of around four each year worldwide. The 1860s vessels, first generations, were of course all wooden but iron construction slowly but surely was making its way, heavier, but making the ships much stronger. In fact as the world’s leading industrial power, UK already built a flew ships in iron prior to 1859. Like frigates they were called “composites”. By 1863 the first composite tea clipper had iron spars inside its wooden hull plus copper sheathing for anti-fouling.

One of the last of these late 1860s Tea/Opium composite clippers was the Dumbarton-built Cutty Sark. The fall of this activity was gradual. First, the Emperor of China forbid importation of European goods and imposed payment in silver for tea. This was circumvented by the East India Company which produced and introduced Opium on the Chinese Market, with tremendous effect in the population, hence the Imperial ban and subsequent two opium wars. Apart Opium and tea, gradually passenger transport was thought just as profitable as wealthier gents opted for adventure and exoticism by embarking at any price on these majestic tall ships.

Flying cloud
The Flying cloud, with studding sails and handkerchiefs up – Painting by Jack Spurling

One such vessel converted to passengers and mail was the City of Adelaide, designed by William Pile of Sunderland (1864). But fast clippers carrying precious goods rarely exceeded 20 years of service. They were either worn out of progress made them obsolete. Apart some exploits like the Challenger carrying almost her own construction price with her tightly packed tea and precious silks load, Clippers were least and least profitable. The Australian City of Adelaide is the second and only surviving Clipper.

Californian Clippers
The most prestigious and prolific Clipper builders and operators were the West Coast Yards. The great incentive was the 1848 gold rush. Americans but even Europeans flocked to California to try their luck. Rather than crossing a still untamed wild west by land, they preferred the faster route by sea, via the Cape Horn. Impoverished New Yorkers or Easterners in general despite the ticket high price, bet their own existence on this trip west. Californian clippers were therefore built to rally San Francisco to New York in record times, in four month, and gradually down to 90 days as the Clippers became better and better.

Of course the speed was showcased as an argument as tickets prices flamed up in some cases. In all, until 1855, some 144 clippers were built on the West coast. The champion became the Flying cloud, holding a record with 89 days. But in the 1860s extreme clippers left their place to medium clippers. McKay’s thoroughbred had a length-to-beam ratio of 6/1, which was much narrower than the usual 5/1. The Cloud measured 73 meter on the waterline, she was one of the largest. But the record holder of the largest clipper ever built went to the Great Republic, a 1853 McKay prestige vessel, displacing 4500 GRT for 400 ft (122 m) over all length.

Captains usually cheated by not allowing to reduced sail, even in heavy weather. They only reduced it when crossing the Cape Horn. However these ships on average rarely made more than 6-8 knots on the long run. Despite of this, Clippers, after disembarking passengers in San Francisco often went south, taking the eastern route to Asia and loading previous loads in Shanghai and other port, then sailing to Europe via the Good Hope Cape, and then back to the USA with more migrants. In two or three trips, the ship more than made up for the expenses of its construction and maintenance.

Outstanding and unmatched performances for trade ships

Clipper route

Due to their prolific sailing area, the great tea Clippers of the 1860s were the pinnacle of the genre, the fastest sailing trade ships ever built, up to over 16 knots (30 km/h) when the winds were favourable an the sea calm enough. 1900s iron-built windjammers sometimes approached those speeds, but only modern yachts beat them in terms of pure speed. By judging statistics of port-to-port liaisons, American clippers seemed at the top of this game and rule supreme. Donald McKay’s Sovereign of the Seas reached the unheard of, and record-holding speed of 22 knots (41 kph) on her way to Australia.

Even the best competitors of the the Great Tea Race of 1866 never approached that speed. Ten US-built Clippers raised to the hall of fame in terms of sustained speed over long distances. The Champion of the Seas for example once managed an astounding 465-nautical-mile (861 km) run in a single day (which held up until 1984). It was not uncommon for US-built Clippers to cover more than 700 km daily, on entire weeks. This of course was also linked to the skills of seasoned, brave and aggressive captains, showing outstanding feats of seamanship, flair and probably also luck. Clippers were also very safe, fortunately for their precious load. Their unmatched speed prevented them to be caught up and captured by pirates. Nothing was as fast, even oversailed cutters.

Back to the tea race, this year saw three clippers from rival companies competing: The Ariel, Teaping and Serica. The first to win earned an extra bonus of one pound per ton of precious cargo, the other down to 10 shilling. The 1863 Teaping was a 985 GRT composite clipper, and avid competitor of the tea races and in general this far east route until 1871, when the trade vanished. The Thermopylae and Cutty Sark were also other famous duellists, making the headlines. In 1866 the Taeping won by only 12 minutes over the Ariel, and only because the captain chose the more risky trip south. He took the risk, like many captains after him, to catch and hold as long as possible the dreaded Roaring Forties. This was the autobahn of the seas.

The Rainbow at sea
The Rainbow at sea. Difficult seas made ships rocking and rolling, decreasing dramatically the top speed they could achieve. By knowing the local peculiarities of winds and reading weather, Captains were often able to take the optimal courses.

The fall of clippers (1870)

In the end, as the tea trade was no longer profitable, 1870s Clippers were used to carry passengers, migrants to the USA or between coasts and to Australia, notably for the wool trade. For long sea voyages, they were free of any space taken by coal of machines and thus carried more goods for the same size. A few routes were profitable, notably Boston to San Francisco, and to Australia, motivating Australia to built a few clipper in turn. The other traditional European shipbuilders also produced some fine clippers, notably in France and the Netherlands.

The Panic of 1857 started the downslide for Clippers. The disruption of the Secession war for international trade also, and gradual restrictions of trade in China, plus the rapidly moving nature of markets trades. In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal made their fast trip round Africa useless and steamers, slower but more regular, were just better at making profit on the new route to the far east. A new breed appeared, the steam clippers, which fired their boilers and lowered their removable screw propeller each time the wind died. The weight and size of the steam engines and associated coal made these ships slightly bulkier and with less capacity, but this was compensated by their regularity on the long run.
Some were also reconverted as had hoc frigates, like those of the American Civil War (mounting cannon, carronades, used for piracy, privateering, smuggling, or as blockade runners).

free trade clipper
‘Free Trade’ – One of the 2300+ advertising sailing cards were produced, highly praised by collectioners today.

Clippers were not completely extinct after 1870s though. Composite steam clippers, arguably much slower but carrying more due to their stronger ans larger hull, proved more profitable. Soon, the rule of windjammers, three four and even five barque and schooners replaced he wooden wonders of the 1860s. In 1914, the numbers of sailing ships was still very impressive. U-Boat warfare soon condemned the tall ships trade which emerged depleted from the war. The last of these great ships slowly vanished in the interwar, such as the Preussen. Perhaps the last war action by a clipper was from the memorable Seeadler (1888), which proved that old school sailing privateers could be just as effective. As of today only one great classic clipper of the golden age survived: The Cutty Sark. Unfortunately despite such a rich history, no American clipper has survived.

Composite construction of clippers
Composite construction of clippers

Other countries

Australian Clippers

Lightning 1854
The record-beater Australian clipper Lightning of 1854

The 1851 gold rush in Australia motivated the construction of clippers. They were built in the USA, notably at the Californian McKay yards and many others, paid and exploited by British and Australian companies. They used the western winds, from Europe to the east, via the cape of good hope, reached Australia and came back loaded with Asian goods through the pacific south and the same winds via the cape Horn to Europe. The first was the composite clipper Marco Polo (1853), of 1622 GRT made in Canada. The same year, the British yard Robert Scott & Co delivered in 1853 at Greenock the Lord of the Isles, entirely in iron. She made London-Shanghai in 98 days, showing it was possible for an iron clipper to do just as good as wooden ones. She won the tea race of 1856. With a 7/1 ratio she often rolled badly in heavy weather so much so sailors nicknamed her the diving bell.

The most famous Australian clipper of that era was the James Baines (1850). Californian-built made Liverpool-Melbourne on a regular basis and her first crossing in 63 days. The Baines was launched on 25 July 1853 from the East Boston shipyard of Donald McKay yard, for the Black Ball Line (James Baines & Co.) of Liverpool. She reached the record-breaking speed of 21 knots in 1856 and under Captain C. McConnell made Boston-Liverpool in 12 days, 6 hours.

clipper sail plan
Learn your sails ! – 1850s Extreme Clippers’s rigging plan.

But soon she was beaten back by the Lightning, made by the same yard for the same company. Carrying wool to UK, she made the trip in 63 days and less hours, the world record. Her sail area was greater, with a mainmast reaching 50 m above the deck, 29 m wide for her largest sail, and 49 m wide with the addition of studding sails. She also made a record 24 hours run at 18.2 knots on average, over 432 nautical miles topping at 21 knots in several occasions. On the Australian line, thanks to the roaring 40, Australian Clippers had no competitors, especially packet boats and heavier medium mixed clippers. They stat active in the 1880s even after the opening of the Suez canal, which only shortened their trip for 900 miles, whereas the 4600 miles between Europe and Australia used western winds to best effect. Australian clippers therefore were the last in use anywhere in world, up to the 1890s. Of course, composite or iron-built clippers became the norm.

French Clippers

Called “Havrais” (Form the Havre, main French sailing trade port), or “Cap-Hornier” (in reference to Cape Horn), the French Clipper era preceded the tall ship traders, generally built in iron and then steel up to 1914. France has one of the finest clippers that roamed the seas, although their story is seldom known in the Anglo-Saxon world, to the point the very term “French clipper” equates a big interrogation point. We will try there to correct that issue.

Development of French Clippers was slower and later, mostly due to the lack of prospect for such trades. Only by seizing the colonial Empire of Indochina in the 1880s the French could deploy their own long range trading networks, taking advantage of classic Clippers. But by that time they were already composites and many had steam engines. North African colonies on the other hand did not required anything else than steamers, from 1830.

1870-90s: The French iron tall ships era.
France, then far behind its partners in terms merchant tonnage (9th rank), implemented a resolute policy for promoting sail, by offering bonuses to yards, as their total absence of coal consumption made them interesting for carrying particular goods. Companies (called in French “armements”) such as Bordes, in Nantes, which launched in 30 years some 230 iron tall ships, specialized in carrying coal and cereals from the United States and nitrates from Chile. Of course the war of 1914 would cripple this fleet. Such sailing vessels were easy pickings, easy to spot and slow enough to be catch by a submarine and destroyed by gunfire. Nowadays France has a single of these medium iron clipper preserved for us to see, the 1890s nitrate carrier called the Belem, a familiar sight in tall ships events around the globe.

The Belem (1896), by Simon Koppes (cc)

Brazilian Clippers

(To Come…)

Dutch Clippers

An example:
The Kosmopoliet I, launched on 29 November, 1854 by Cornelis Gips and Sons (Dordrecht) for Gebr. Blussé of Dordrecht. She has been inspired by a medium-clipper model of 1852 showcased at an exhibition in Amsterdam by the Dutch lieutenant-commander M.H. Jansen. She carried both cargo and passengers, fully rigged with royals and skysails on three masts. On the line Netherlands-Java she made the trip in 89 days and later in 76, 74 and 77 days, whereas the normal trip would be 100 days and more.
(More to Come…)

Read More/Src

Videos Docs

Why conserve the Cutty Sark? – Richard Doughty

‘Cutty Sark & The Great Clippers’ / Nautical Engineering Documentary

American Clippers

Baltimore Clippers (1812)

pride of baltimore
Author’s illustration of the Pride of Baltimore, a replica of an east coast privateer, blockade runner clipper. All the following profiles are also from the author.

These fast coasters mainly built at Baltimore from the 1770s were designed for trade around the thirteen colonies and the Caribbean Islands. They played their part in the independence, scouting for the insurgents, and were very fast thanks to their “V”-shaped cross-section below the waterline, strongly raked stem and masts. They could have been originated not from the east coast but from the Bermuda sloop, made for open ocean. The fact they were very fast and made for speed whereas used for trade with the full knowledge that time was money made them the first clippers.

During the 1812 war, Baltimore clippers rose to fame. There was yet a very young USN (13 october 1775), and alongside the famous “super frigates” of the USS Constitution class, Baltimore and other ports could offer privateers using Clippers. They were given letters of marque but traded, used as blockade runners, and many were captured by the British.

In addition many new such vessels were developed specifically for war: They were larger and faster yet heavily armed. Such ships were the Chasseur, Prince de Neufchatel and General Armstrong. Like battlecruisers they were designed to catch up any ships or skirmish with larger ones. Prince duelled with the much larger HMS Endymion, while Chasseur captured more vessels than the entire USN. The Royal Navy appreciated these clippers and used them after the war to chase off slave ships.

Chasseur vs St lawrence

Rainbow (1845): The first “extreme clipper”

The Rainbow was in its time the fastest sailboat. It was built in New York on the plans of J.W. Griffith and officially held for a 750-ton barrel. She had most of the characteristics of clippers of his time, including concave or hollowed lines forward, a clear innovation at that time, now mainstream in ship construction.

The Rainbow with her magnificent and immense sailing area earned indeed the title of “first extreme clipper” awarded to the first real ship of this type, and the fastest, but it disappeared without a trace in 1848. The famous “America’s Cup” appeared just when this trade competition between England and the USA was at its highest. Both for long were the only cup participants, prolonging a long tradition.

Flying Cloud (1851): The fastest American clipper

flying cloud lines
The Flying Cloud was a tall ship and clipper, rigged as a three-masted barque in service from 1851 to 1874 under the US and British flags. She was known for her role in the gold rush and colonization of Australia, and transporting migrant to California via Cape Horn or to America from Europe.

One of the most famous clippers she was known first for her exceptional speed between New York and San Francisco, nailing one record at 89 days and 21 hours in 1851, and 1854 in 89 days 13 hours. The record stands until… 1989. She was Built at the McKay yard, East Boston, for Enoch Train (Train & Co) for $50,000, and repurchased, still on the slipway for $90,000 by Henry Walton Grinnell (Grinnell, Minturn & Co). One of the very first clippers designed by Donald McKay she was inspired by John Willis Griffiths designs and borrowed a lot from his previous Stage Hound, yet better streamlined overall.

Overall lenght: 235 US feet (71.6 m), 12.7 m (41.8 US feet) wide, 6.55 m (21.6 US feet) draft (2.5 m below beam). Displ. 1782 tons, 60 m (196 ft) mainmast tall over deck, figurehead showing a white and gold angel. Launched on April 15, 1851, she inspired a poem by Henry Longfellow.

Her first career (Capt. John Perkins Creesy and his wife, navigator Eleanor Creesy) was carrying candidates for the gold rush, on June 2, 1851 plus perishable foodstuffs, from New York to August 31, 1851 in San Francisco, in 89 days 21 hours despite storms and Cape Horn crossing, the doldrums, some damage along the way and an unruly crew. On July 31, she reached 18 knots and Eleanor Creesy calculated and average of 15 knots on 374 miles/24 hours.
In 1853 she made another run in 105 days and later broke its own record on New York-San Francisco. From 1862, she sailed for James Baines & Co. with the Black Ball Line and by April 1871, resold to Harry Smith Edwards, South Shields. From Liverpool, she transported migrants to Australia. She was lost on June 19, 1874, loaded with cast iron, running aground, breaking in two off Saint-Jean (New Brunswick). Her cargo was sold and salvaged in 1874 but the wreck was burned.

Challenger (1851)

Clipper Challenge

The Challenge is without a doubt the most beautiful and the fastest, the biggest clipper ever built in the USA. It was built at G.H. Webb yards in New York City in an effort to dethrone the mythical Flying Cloud, which was no small feat. The latter was considered unbeatable, and his record was already five years when the Challenge went to sea.

His owner, N.L. and G. Griswold, had him baptized during the greatest launching ceremony ever seen in New York. Huge, moving 2006 empty barrels, 70 meters long, its very solid hull had iron struts and was 51 cm wide at the waterline, the challenge was also the first to have three decks.

The apple of his great mast was 70 meters high, and the shape of his hull was the thinnest ever seen. Its black hull was embellished with a fine golden band, and ended with an eagle with spread wings, also gilded. Its interior fittings were extremely refined for a merchant ship, a “freighter” with current standards, with two accommodations for officers, another large room and an antechamber, 6 luxurious cabins in rosewood, panelled with carvings oak raised fine gilding.

The Challenge was designed for trade between California and China. It could also carry wealthy passengers. There was great hope in him and for his first crossing, it was entrusted to a celebrity of the time, Captain Robert H. Waterman, known to be the fastest on this road.

Her first trip would take him from New York to San Francisco, through Cape Horn, and Waterman was promised a $ 10,000 bonus if she could complete the course in 90 days. She made it in 108. For if the ship was sublime, her crew, force-picked up in the port, consisted mainly of false sailors and unreliable rabble attracted mainly by California gold. Thus, off Rio there was a mutiny, and the second was killed.

Officers promptly re-established order by harsh discipline and the journey continued in a heavy atmosphere. At Cape Horn, three sailors fell from the mizzen yard and died, and later, dysentery carried off 4 others. But on her first trip to China, Captain Land replaced Waterman, considered too tough, together with a better crew.

Challenge broke the record for a return trip in 34 days, but captain Land died on board. Pitts replaced him and made further trips. Rallying with Great Britain’s Wamphoa Tea, he set a new record in 105 days. The British admired the ship so much during her stay in UK her hull lines were carefully drawn for the admiralty.

In 1861 the proud ship was worn out. She was sold in Bombay as Golden City, and travelled between India and Hong Kong, then she sailed in 1866 for Wilson and Co. of Britain between Bombay and Java. At the Cape of Good Hope, a rogue wave swept over the back and carried off all her officers. She often ended her travels with part of her rig absent, as well as her crew.

The beautiful clipper was perhaps too finely made, fragile with a high rigging making her unstable and thus dangerous. She ended her career by hitting the reefs of Ouessant, Britanny, and sank despite the help of a French gunboat in 1876.

Chariot of Fame (1853)

chariot of fame
The Chariot of Fame was a three-masted, square-rigged “medium clipper” type ship, built at East Boston in Massachusetts, by famous shipbuilder Donald McKay, for Enoch Train & Co., Boston’s White Diamond packet line (Boston-Liverpool). She was launched in April 1853. She srarted as a packet vessel before being chartered by the Australian branch of the White Star Line (Australian packets) running to Australia from England 1854-1855 then by In 1862, she was sold on london, made new voyages to Australia-New Zealand and left Queenstown on 7 October 1863 for Auckland 8 January 1864 with 520 British colonial troops to deal with the Maori insurrection. She made another run to Lyttelton on 29 January 1863 with 430 Government immigrants, 30 passengers. The Chariot of Fame was reported “abandoned at sea” in January 1876 while between the Chincha Islands and Cork. Ref. Disp. 1693 tonnes, Dimensions 220 feet × 43 feet × 27 feet 6 inches.

British Clippers

Thermopylae (1850)


The Thermopylae is certainly less known than the Cutty Sark, but she was nevertheless one of the key legends of the Clippers’ time; It’s actually her who holds the record for the fastest tea clipper in the world, winning the Golden Rooster, breaking all established records, and motivating the owner of the rival company arming the Cutty Sark to build another clipper. These two ships made headlines because their ferocious regattas were popular.

Cutty Sark (1850)

(To come…)

Ariel (1865)

Ariel, better clipper of the Tea route.

Ariel was one of the first British composite clippers to be the only A-Clipper. She was built to serve the London-Foochow route to China at a time when the tea trade gave rise to ferocious regattas. She was commissioned by Shaw, Lowther, Maxton & Co from London to Robert Steele & Greenock’s yards. Her hull was composite, with steel framing and a teak deck. Her sails was innovative with the addition of an extra square stages, up to five levels.

She measured 197.4 feet between perpendiculars (hull only), and approximately 60.16 meters long overall by 10.33 meters wide for 853 net tons in the register, carrying more than 1060 gross. 100 tons of steel ballast were added to the hull, to perfect her stability and to compensate for her higher mast height (meaning taking more wind).

In October 1865, she was launched for her first major crossing to China (Gravesend-Hong Kong) and returned, under the command of Captain Keay, in 79 days and 21 hours pilot to pilot, or 83 anchorage, which was already a nice feat. and the following year, in 1866, he participated in the great tea race with other famous shearers, Tapping, Fiery Cross and Taitsing. She was famous for his very short loss to Taeping, who arrived 20 minutes before her on London’s waterfront.

…To be continued

Union Navy 1861-65

American Civil War THE UNION NAVY (“OLD NAVY”)

The goal of this chapter is not to portray every single ship featured during the American Civil War (1861-1865), on the union side – it would be useless and time consuming. But rather we will try here to show the main classes and most important ship, of military or historical value, and the events they were involved in.

Hampton Roads
The Battle of Hampton Roads between the Monitor and the Merrimack, the first clash of ironclads in history.

The Union fleet through the territorial distribution of the states at war, and compared to the Confederacy, had the bulk of the industrial power of the continent, as well as major ports and arsenals of the East Coast. On paper, naval superiority of the Union was just overwhelming. A blocus, to deprive any exports from the Confederacy was a safe option, and indeed proved to be not a war winning strategy, but a crucial element to help achieve the Union’s goal.

So let’s see its composition: The U.S. Navy was born from a few ships built just after the American revolution, and still revered, like the famous frigates of the constitution class. During the second british-american war of 1812, this “fleet” was no match for the mighty Royal navy. Nevertheless, Fulton gave the congress a modern ship which was launched too late to be seen in action: The Demologos (see below).

Articles done and upcoming

Sailing Ships
USS Pennsyvania (120 guns) (1837)
USS Columbus (92 guns) (1819)
Delaware class (90 guns) (1820)
USS Vermont (90 guns) (1848, never completed)

Potomac class (11-54 guns) (1822-55)
USS Congress (50 guns) (1841)
USS Constellation (24 guns) (1855)
USS Cumberland (90 guns) (razee 1856)
USS Independence (54 guns) (razee 1836)
USS Macedonian (22 guns) (razee 1852)
USS United States (44 guns) (1798)
USS Constitution (38 guns) (1797)
16 Sailing sloops (extant 1860)
3 Sailing brigs (extant 1860)

monitors & armored ships
USS Galena (1862)
Passaic class
USS Roanoke
USS Onondaga
Miantonomoh class
USS Dictator
USS Puritan
Canonicus class
Kalamazoo class
Milwaukee class
Casco class

wooden screw Frigates
USS Franklin (1854)
Merrimack class (1855)
USS Niagara (1855)

Wampanoag class (1864)
USS Chattanooga (1864)
USS Idaho (1864)

Wooden screw Corvettes
USS San Jacinto (1850)
USS Brooklyn (1858)
USS Hartford (1858)
USS Lancaster (1858)
USS Richmond (1860)
USS Pensacola (1859)

wooden screw sloops
USS Alleghany (rebuilt 1851)
USS Princeton (1851)
USS Mohican (1859)
USS Iroquois (1859)
USS Wyoming (1859)
USS Dacotah (1859)
USS Narragansett (1859)
USS Seminole (1859)
USS Pawnee (1859)
USS Pocahontas (rebuilt 1859)
Ossipee class (1862)
USS Sacramento (1862)
Ticonderoga class (1862)

Kansas class (1862)
Octorara class (1862)
Sassacus class (1862)
Mohongo class (1863)

Side wheel vessels
Stevens Battery (1845)
USS Mississippi (1842)
USS Susquehanna (1850)
USS Powhatan (1850)
USS Saranac (1848)
USS Fulton (1837)
USS Michigan (1843)
USS Water Witch (1845)
USS Saginaw (1849)
USS Pulaski (purchased 1859)

Demologos USS Demologos: This revolutionary ship was a steam-only, heavily protected gunboat. Only an unconventional warfare could be used against the might of the empire. So the congress let some privateers free hands against british shipping, using fast Baltimore schooners, with good successes, atlhough it was a Goliath against David fight. The war was won at land, eventually. But the lessons were learned by those who, in the confederacy, fifty years later, built the confederate fleet.
Between 1820 and 1861, hundred of gun armed steamships were built, and at the starting of the war, the bulk of the fleet was in Union hands, largely constituted of steam frigates and corvettes, and some ships of the line.

USS Constellation
USS Constellation – Inner harbor Baltimore. These early 1797-1799 frigates became legendary.

Sailing vessels :

Ships of the line :

The most powerful ship of the fleet was the four-decker, first rate ship of the line USS Pennsylvania (1837), with 120 guns. USS Columbus followed (launched 1819) with 92 guns, then USS Delaware (1820) of 90 guns, and also New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio, all of the same class (the 90 guns or third rate was the common ship of the line at this time). Other three-deckers were ordered but never completed, New Orleans, New York, Vermont and Virginia.

uss delaware
Model of the USS Delaware

Frigates and corvettes :

Amongst the numerous ships in service in 1860 the most famous were undoubtedly the USS Constitution and United States, dating from 1797 and 1798. These veterans of the 1812 war against the British carried the Stars and Stripes form the Mediterranean to China, and the Constitution ended as a legendary icon, so dear to the hearts of Americans than the Victory of the British, and naturally preserved in sea going conditions.

USS Brandywine
USS Brandywine 1831


Most frigates built from 1820 were of a standard that could be almost dubbed as a “class”: The “50 guns, 1726 tons.” There were 6 in which the first one, USS Potomac, was launched in 1822 and the last, USS Santee, was being completed in 1861. There was also the USS Congress (50 guns) and the corvette USS Constellation (24). Three others were deprived of their masts, transformed into pontoons to serve as headquarters of the fleet: The USS Independence, and Cumberland and Macedonian, both of which are corvettes.

USS Columbus Master Sailmaker Plan
USS Columbus Master Sailmaker Plan

uss congress
USS Congress 1841

uss Cumberland
USS Cumberland

Eventually, the fleet also included the corvettes USS Cyane, Dale, Decatur, Germantown, and 12 other units, as well as bricks USS Bainbridge, Dolphin and Perry. They were fast, but lightly armed, more suited for dispatches and scouting or attacking British trade, than to be thrown in a classic naval battle. Most of them were used to blockade the confederacy ports and trade lines.

uss dale
USS Dale 1839

Wartime shipbuilding (1861-65):

Officers on the bridge of USS Castkill

Ironclads and monitors :

The retooling of the Union Navy in specific units really began in 1862 with the USS Monitor, the first revolutionary steam ironclad. It gave rise to a family of riverine typically American ships, which northerners and southerners made great use on the Mississippi River and the James River, up to massive confrontations, real river battles of wooden ironclads.

The famous challenger of the USS Monitor, the CSS Virginia (Merrimack), was also a metal armoured ship, but not as revolutionary with its classical border, fixed artillery.
The only sailing ironclad built for the U.S. Navy at Cramp navy yard between 1861 and 1862 was the USS New Ironsides, comparable to European standards. The later USS Dunderberg was larger and better armed, the result of the experience of war, but came too late to participate in the conflict, and was sold to France two years later.

uss dunderberg
USS Dunderberg in construction at the end of the war. She integrated many lessons of the civil war at sea (cc)

But the real revolution was the commissioning of a very critical ship concept, inherited from radical idea of the swedish engineer Ericsson, but nonetheless strongly supported by Lincoln himself: The Monitor. It was designed to counter the threat of Confederate ironclad Merrimack, at this point without rival in the union fleet, and a powerful threat by itself. The monitor differed in their choices much more innovative approach, including a turret, an idea taken and perfected by the English Coles, and seen as bright future of guns handling.

The USS Monitor, operational in 1862, was followed by those of the Passaic class (1862-1863), 9 units strong. The tenth, USS Camanche, was completed too late to participate in naval operations. The following class, Monadnock, entered service too late to participate in the conflict, except the first in the series.

Launch of USS Dictator – Press illustration (cc)

Two large sea-going monitors were also built in 1863 and 1864, the USS Roanoke and Dictator. The Puritan, in the same class as that was never completed. Close to the Passaic, of the 9 Canonicus class, 5 became operational in 1864.

The construction of large Kalamazoo, or Monadnock class monitors, which began in 1863, was never completed. Eventually, four cheaper monitors of the Milwaukee class enterd current service in 1864, as well as nine other monitors of a cheap, prefabricated mass production of the Casco Class.

At the end, the sheer industrial capacities of the north prevailed. A a concept of a heavy-guns relatively small and riverine ship, the monitor lasted until 1914 in US navy service. The Royal navy built some sea-going modern equivalents to deal with specific objectives of the western, coastal front like the german defences in belgium, from the north sea. Two of them, modernised, were still in service in 1945.

battle of memphis
The riverine first battle of Memphis on the Tennessee, June 6, 1862, which was seen first hand by the inhabitants, fought be even forces od rams and protected paddle-wheelers and won by the Union

In fact, the “old navy” as it was called later, in 1890, was the product of the aging, if not completely obsolete collections of ships left of the Secession war. After the secession war, there was no need for a powerful fleet, and it was slowly reduced or forgotten by successive presidents, to the point that in 1885, the situation was a disaster.

Compared to, for example, the spanish fleet, at least on the paper, the US Navy was almost non-existent, a dull force. A new start was given in 1890, in order to adjust the fleet to the level of wealthiness and industrial resources of USA. Then, the “old navy” has ceased to exist, and in 1918, the US navy was rocketed to the second world rank, very close behind its arch rival, the Royal navy…

uss harriet lane
Paddle corvette USS Harriet Lane (1857). This ship became CSS Harriet Lane after being captured by the Confederates in 1863 during the Battle of Galveston and used for trade, until recaptured by the Union in 1865.

Nomenclature of Union Ships

As seen before, the union dwarfed easily the confederacy in terms of naval and industrial might. Union ships were mostly used to blockade the southern harbours and trade lines, notably to forbid all exports of cotton, many ships beeing given also the task to intercept cotton-loaded steamers and chasing condeferate corsairs along the war.

Until the end, the union built an amazing force of riverine gunboats, ironclads, and wheeled or screw patrol boats (like the “90 days schooners”), not to mention the revolutionary Monitor and its successors.


uss pennsylvania
USS Pennsylvania was one of the classic tall ships of the line still in commission for the Union navy in 1860. This impressive man-o-war in the European tradition was launched in 1837 to meet equivalent units of the Royal Navy with which a conflict was still highly potent after 1812 war. She was the largest ship of the line ever commissioned on the American continent, at 3,105 tons, 120 guns, three full deck and an open one, surpassing all other other ships around 90 guns, two-deckers.
Displacement & dimension : 3,105 t ; 72 x 17,20 x 10.30 m
Propulsion: Sail only – 10-12 knots.
Wooden armor: 20-30 inches oak, teck
Armament: 120 guns from 25 to 50 pdr.
Crew: 850


She was sent to fought the CSS Virginia off Hampton Roads in March 1863, during what became the first naval battle of ironclads. The Hampton road battle was one heavily commented by the press, as beeing the chief naval duel between the two enemies in all the war. Despite the heavier armament of the Merrimack, the small and cramped monitor just turned around, remaining harmless.

CSS Viriginia at the same time, sustained no hits, the projectiles, fired at point-blank range, simply bounced off upon its metallic sloped flanks. Despite the success of the concept, the monitor was cramped, very bad seaboat, slow, and the turret could not fire too long as the detonation sound inside quickly rendered the guncrew deaf, and the smoke was just unbearable. The battle ended as a draw. However, the Monitor was never defeated. It simply capsized in port during a storm, the night of New Year 1863.

First in a long line, the revolutionary ship of John Ericsson was nicknamed “the cheese box on a raft.” The latter has had a hard time convincing the traditionalists Chiefs of Staff of the fleet of the merits of his riverine ironclad, the first with a unique Coles turret and two guns to bear. Built on the classic basis of the Mississippi packet boats, was ready in 1862, and commissioned after successful trials.
Displacement and dimensions : 987 t ; 52,42 x 12,64 x 3.20 m
Propulsion : Steam only, 2 Martin Boiler, 320 hp, 1 Ericsson screw – 6 knots.
Armour : 6 inches Iron riveted steel plates on oak framework
Armament : two 11 inches Dalghren RMLs guns.
Crew : 49


The USS Camanche was carried in parts by USS Aquila, which sank in 1863. Refloated and assembled, she entered too late in commission (May 1865) that it was transported in pieces by the USS Aquila, which sank in 1863. Transportation salvaged, reassembled, so it was put into operation later.

The USS Patapsco hit a mine in January 1865. The USS Wheekhaven sank due to an accidental filling of the purges in 1863. The survivors will be briefly reactivated as coastal monitors during the Spanish-American War of 1898.

This were ten improved “monitors”; lenghtened, widened, but with the same draught, and bearing one light and one heavyer guns, the first beeing used to help to targeting the first. The Passaic was the lead of file, they were launched between November 1862 and February 1863. They were heavily used for coastal and riverine operations until the end of the war.
Weight & dimensions : 1875 t ; 60,96 x 14 x 3.20 m
Propulsion : Steam only – 1 Ericsson screw, 4 Martin Boilers, 6 knots.
Armour : max 6 inches of iron plates on oak framework
Armament : Two Dalghren RMLs 15 and 8 inches guns.
Crew : 75


The ship was the first attempt to make a seagoing monitor. But it was overgunned. In fact the sheer topweight of the guns and turrets alike, combined with a too narrow, light hull, was a practical disaster, although the high freeboard was well suited for the moderate gale of the north atlantic.

The USS Roanoke was a great seagoing monitor, converted from the frigate of the same name, and bearing no less than three turrets. But the weight of the towers made it fairly unstable and therefore it was not used in operation, but remained at anchor as a coastal battery during her entire was commission and well after. It was hulked and and demolished in 1883.
Weight & dimensions : 4395 t ; 80,77 x 16,15 x 6,70 m
Propulsion : Steam only – 1 Penn trunk screw, 4 Martin Boilers, 6 knots.
Armour : Max 12 inches of iron plates on oak framework
Armament : Two 15 in, two 12 in, two 8 in Dalghren RMLs
Crew : 85


This seagoing monitor was built by Delamater Iron Works, New York, NY and commissioned in november, 11, 1864. She arrived too late to make a difference during the conflict, although her capacity to serve offshore gave her a distinct advantage for the years to come.

However, she has unrelentless machinery problems and was subsequently put out of commission for years, at League Island yard. In 1871 she was re-engineered and served with the north atlantic fleet at New York, before beeing decommissioned in 1883 and scrapped ten years later.

The largest monitor ever put into commission during the war, first named USS Protector, was a seagoing monster of nearly 5000 tons of wood and iron. As suggested by Ericsson, she was to be named Dictator, as a feared “republic sea monarch” of the united states. As designed, she has to carry two giant smoothbore 20 inches guns (510 mm), but the war urged a more standard gunnery, and stability was a concern.
Weight & dimensions : 4438 t ; 95 x 15 x 6,25 m
Propulsion : Steam only – 1 Penn trunk screw, 4 Martin Boilers, 10 knots.
Armour : Max 15 inches of iron plates on oak framework
Armament : Two 15 in Dalghren smoothbore RMLs
Crew : 174


“Miantonomoh” was actually the name of the Narrangansett chief and son of the famous grand Sachem, Canonicus, also honored by another Monitor. These twin-screw ships were built at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, New York, launched in 1863-64 and commissioned in 1865 for the North Atlantic squadron.

Seagoing and fast, as evidenced by the Miantonomoh cruise across the Atlantic in 1866, they were however decommissioned in 1874 after nine short years of service, but soon after beeing broken up, their scrap material was used to construct other monitors that were named after them, part of the Amphitrite class (1890).

The last monitors to be built during the war, the Miantonomoh class (from indian tribal names), were also the most costier ever. The Monadnock was in fact the only one to be commissioned soon enough to see then end of the war. The others were accepted into service between May and October 1865. The class of twin turrets, twin screws ships had four units, the Miantonomoh the Tonawanda, the Agamenticus and Monadnock.
Weight & dimensions : 3450 t ; 78,80 x 16 x 3,40 m
Propulsion : Steam only – 2 Ericsson screws, 4 Martin Boilers, 1400 hp, 10 knots.
Armour : Max 11 inches of iron plates on oak framework
Armament : Four 15 in Dalghren smoothbore RMLs (2×2)
Crew : 150


Built by SM Pook in june 1864, she was commissioned in november of the very same year. The Spuyten Duyvil (under the original name of USS Stromboli) had a partially armoured wooden hull, from 3in (decks) to 5in (sides), and 9in later on. On 25 november, she began to test its charges delivery system succesfully. She was put on action on the James River, blowing up obstruction ships under heavy enemy fire. However she never succeed to sunk any confederate ship, and after the war, used for various experiments until 1880.

This unusual ship was an experimental semi-submersible spar torpedo vessel. It was designd by William Hood, the chief engineer of the USN. It was an amazing ship with a nearly ten tons semi automatic watertight torpedo charge delivery system, with 12 charges in stores.
Weight & dimensions : 207 t ; 25,66 x 6,30 x 2,26 m
Propulsion : Steam only – 1 Ericsson screw, 1 Boiler, approx. 200 hp, 8 knots.
Armour : Max 9 inches of iron plates on wooden framework
Armament : 12 torpedo charges
Crew : 22


Launched in 1858 at Boston, she was the flasghip of the east indian squadron from 1858 to 1861 and came to Philadelphia in december when the war broke up. Then she was posted, under command of admiral Farragut between Ship Island and Mobile, trying to clean up the Mississippi mouth of Confederate ships.

Along with Porter’s mortar schooners she succesfully cut the chains protected the entrance of the mouth and silenced many southerner guns positions during the night of april, 16, 1862. She dodged and fought back successfully CSS Manassas and bombed the unfinished CSS Louisiana.

Later she ended the confederate batteries, and threaten to surrender Baton Rouge and Natchez, and in june 1863 she was one of the ship shelling the city of Vicksburg. She distinguished herself in august 1864 at the battle of Mobile Bay and 12 sailor of her crew earned the Congress Medal of Honor for exceptional gallantry.

After the war she undertook a long career in the pacific and was ultimately unlisted in 1926. She was to be undertaken for refitting and be shown as musem ship, but left instead in Norfolk to rot until 1956 when what left of her sank and had to be dismantled.

The USS Hartford was one of the six screw corvettes of war of the Union Navy in 1861, and became the most famous. This 24 gun ships earned fame during the battle of Mobile bay, New Orleans battle and Vicksburg siege…
Weight & dimensions : 2250 t ; 69 x 13 x 5,23 m
Propulsion : 1 lifting screw, 9,5 knots and 13.5 under sail.
Armour : Extra planking on Wooden framework
Armament : 20x9in Dalghren SB guns, 2x20pdr Parrots Rifles, 2x12pdr.
Crew : 302


There were two classes of barque-rigged sloops, Sacramento and Ticonderoga commissioned in early 1963. The Sacramento class (Sacramento, Monongahela, Canandaigua, Shenandoah, laid down in 1861 and completed from august 1862 to june 1863) and Ticonderoga class (Ticonderoga and Lackawanna, completed in january and march 1863).

The first were essentially a lnghtened version of the ossipee, while the latter were lenghtened versions of the Sacramento (and 420 tons heavyer). All were barque-rigged, one-funneled with same arrangement, but considerable variation in gunnery.

Most of them fought at Mobile bay, all survived the war, Sacramento beeing wrecked on uncharted reefs o the indian coast in 1867 and the others sold in 1884-1887, although Monongahela, which attempted to pass Port Hudson, was converted to a sailing supply, training and storage in 1883, surviving until 1908 were she was burnt at Guantanamo bay.

The USS Ticonderoga was a wooden screw sloop of war, along with USS Lackawanna were similar to a six ships class (Sacramento class), most of them fightning at Mobile bay.
Weight & dimensions : 2526 t ; 71,43 x 11,63 x 4,95 m
Propulsion : 1 lifting screw, 10,5 knots.
Armour : Extra planking on Wooden framework
Armament : 1×4.2in Parrott RML, 12x9in SB, 2x7in Parrots Rifles.
Crew : 270


The USS Housatonic was launched in november 1861 at Boston naval yard. She was part of the four Ossipee class wooden screw sloops, also with USS Adirondack (wrecked on the little Bahama bank), Ossipee and Juniata. Ossipee fought at Mobile bay. Both Ossipee and Juniata served until 1891, beeing modernised and rearmed in 1887.

USS Housatonic was sunk by a spar torpedo manned by the crew of the HL HUNLEY, a confederate submarine. It was the very first submarine victory in history.

The USS Housatonic was a wooden screw sloop, part of the Ossipee class of four ships. Housatonic was the very first ship ever to be sunk by a submarine, the HL Hunley in august 1862.
Weight & dimensions : 1934 t; 62,48 x 11,58 x 5,02 m
Propulsion : 1 screw, 10 knots.
Armour : Extra planking on Wooden framework
Armament : 1×6.4in Parrott RML, 3×4,2in Parrott RML, 1x11in SB, 2x32pdr SB.
Crew : 214

USS New Ironsides (1862)

The first USN sea-going ironclad was launched in may 1862 at Philadelphia. She fought at Hampton roads, successfully repelled confederates attacks, in the North and South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, bombarded forts and confederates positions taking many hits without fatalities.

She was torpedoed twice, the first time in april 1863, and later with CSS David i, december. After rebuilding, she took part in many other engagements but never encountered a real opponent. She took fire in 1866 while on moorings at Philadelphia and was lost.

The USS New ironsides was the first seagoing ironclad of the US Navy, designed to deal with Virginia and other confederate ironclads. She was torpedeoed by CSS David in december 1863 and entirely rebuilt (picture).
Weight & dimensions : 4120-4190 t; 70,10 x 17,5 x 4,8 m
Propulsion : 1 screw, 1800 hp, 7 knots.
Armour : Wooden hull-iron plating from 1in to 4,5in
Armament : 14x11in Dalghren RML, 2×150 pdr Parrott rifles, 2×60 pdr Dalghren rifles.
Crew : 449

Confederate Navy 1861-65


CSS naval flags and ensigns 1861-65

The confederate fleet was actually more the amount of ships that were seized in the Confederate ports and captured or requisitioned vessels than a coherent pre-existing fleet. The Confederates tried to cope with the huge industrial and technical resources of the Union, massive private arsenals, engineers and manpower, while trying revolutionary concepts as the Hunley or the David in one hand, and by auxiliary cruisers, corsairs, and blocus enforcers on the other.

CSS Atlanta on the James river

The most famous of these is undoubtedly the CSS Shenandoah. Mastership of the Mussissippi during the war urged a number of riverine ironclads to be built on the basis of converted civilian vessels, corvette and frigates, but with a conventional battery side: Only the Union owned Coles turrets patents. The enduring embargo prevented the South to purchase it, athough many warship were ordered from British, French, or German arsenals.

The Confederate fleet:

CSS Stonewall
CSS Stonewall (1865)

Ironclads :

The Confederate leaders affirmed their determination to counter the classic, massive northern fleet through the purchase abroad of ironclads. Knowing this, Union government strongly pressured and threatened the European states to agree. Also, only the CSS Stonewall was built and finished in Bordeaux in January 1863 in semi-secrecy, under the cover name of another country. She was to be operational by the end of the war, but at her first cruise, encountered two union units on the Spanish coast and offered them a duel, that they rejected. (Read more about css Stonewall).

During the whole duration of the war, the confederacy was not able to afford a suitable engineering industry and in result were not capable to built a sophisticated ship equivalent to the USS Monitor. This does not prevent them to build several powerful riverine ironclads : First, the CSS Virginia, formerly Merrimack, which was made immortal by his duel with the Monitor near Hampton road, resulting in a draw. However, the CSS Tennessee CSS Atlanta, Charleston, Frederickburg, Arkansas, Richmond, Raleigh, North Carolina, Chicora, Neuse, Palmetto State, Savannah, Ablemarle, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa and CSS Nashville were also converted ships which served as such, some with only a massive wooden protection and a thin layer of iron.

Commerce Raiders :

The confederacy armed some captured or seized trading clippers to undermine the union trade lines, and also to enforce the blockade. There were in service under the southern colors as the CSS Sumter, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Shenandoah ot Talahassee. There were also a number of specialized blockade runners, as CSS Hope. All were manned by determined crews and effectively disrupted the Union trade lines, resulting in a general chase over the Pacific and the atlantic as well…

The Shenandoah herself, formerly the famous clipper Sea King, was one of the most successful of these ships, sinking 38 whalers, resulting in a substantial economical loss for the Union (whale oil was one of the most valuable trade export good at this time by far). But the prize was owned by CSS Alabama, sinking or capturing 65 ships.

CSS Shenandoah
CSS Shenandoah

Special vessels :

These were the truly revolutionary CSS David, a semi-submersible carrying an explosive charge at the end of a long spar, and the CSS HL Hunley, the first real submersible, moved by human power. Both deserved some limited success. The CSS Manassas was another former civilian ship, converted into a kind of ironclad gunboat ram, able to deflect projectiles on her turtleback hull as well as being partially submersible. She was one of the most stunning ship in service during the war, although she overall performed poorly.

alabama by manet
Battle of CSS Alabama off Cherbourg by the famous painter Manet

Confederate naval strategy

Confederate Fleet
Confederate Fleet in New Orleans, 1862

Three major tasks were the protection of Confederate harbors, coastlines (from invasion) and attacking Union shipping worldwide, drawing them awau from the blockade. Besides this, there was no way such a tiny Navy, historically born from nothing and pitted against the whole of United States Navy. In this unequal struggle, the Confederates could not compete in terms of quantities and of quality.

But it was possible to disrupt the scheme through technological innovation, with ironclads, submersibles and semi-submersibles, spar torpedo boats and mines. This particular weak to strong relation would later inspire most budget-restrained coastal fleets and third rank navies surrounded by powerful neighbours in Europe. It was a naval extrapolation at sea of the “guerilla war”, as no major, decisive naval battles could be possible, at least until the great clashes on the James River.

Limited Confederate assets

By February 1861, the Confederate States Navy could only muster 30 vessels. And of this total only 14 were really seaworthy. Opposing them, the Union Navy had 90 vessels, including sailing frigates and three-deckers. In addition, the lack of industrial facilities and resources limited the numbers of ships that can be converted, let alone built. However, the dedication of its personal to the cause eventually raised this total to 101 ships, while the Union Navy grew to over 500.

But problems were real: The Confederates could not manufacture, boilers, and engines, nor roll iron sufficiently thick for plating. Wood however was present in quantity, and was used as a buffer, with only and armored surface. Due to the Northern blockade over imports of metal, New Orleans shipbuilders had to bring iron and machinery from Virginia by rail, using a poor system barely fitted for the task. Imports were not stopped, but limted to the high cost of transportation.

In fact it was established the South needed some 50,000 tons of rail annualy, just to serve adequately the army in the same way the North did, let alone carrying bulky materials. The naval transportation option of the same, from Europe, was also dropped and small-volume, high value commodities were preferred on blockade-runners.

Fortunately in April, 20, the Union was forced to flee the Gosport Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Virginia, failing to set fire to the immense reserved that were stockpiled there. This fell as a gift from heaven for the young navy, with a solid supply on which a small fleet can grow operationally. Not only the Confederacy obtained a stock of heavy cannon, gunpowder, shot and shells, but also precious drydocks, the only ones south, able to accomodate repairs, conversions and construction of ships. The only other naval facility was Pensacola in Florida.

Also, the only significant warship the Confederacy laid her hands upon was the scuttled and left partially burnt frigate Merrimack, soon converted into the first riverine ironclad of the war, known as CSS Virginia. Many would follow under the supervision of Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory.

uss merrimack under sails
uss merrimack diagram
The 1855 Frigate USS Merrimack, burnt and sunk to prevent capture. She was very significant warship in the tradition started in 1797, wooden-hull with copper-plating for her underbelly, a steam engine for 12 knots and 40 guns on two decks. She was one of six vessels named after rivers.

The case of the Virginia: First Ironclad

The idea of converting the ship as an ironclad was at first dictated by practical considerations. The ship was burnt entirely but for the lower part of the hull, and after being salvaged, the boilers and engines could be repaired and made operational. Deprived of all her superstructure, it would have made little sense to rebuilt her as a fully rigged vessel, which was long and complicated. Instead, engineers of the Confederate Navy led by Lt. John Mercer Brooke turned to already six years old events that happened in Crimea.

In 1855 indeed, at the same time these American Frigates were made, French armored floating batteries duelled with Russian forts and won. It proved the superiority of hardened iron armor over earthwork, and for the first time, the threat caused by coastal fortifications to ships evaporated, while the roles were reversed.

In 1859, only four years after, the Gloire was launched. This first sea going ironclad provoked a sismic wave in admiralties and soon the Royal Navy replied with the first all-iron sea-going ironclads. A new race was on, after the conversion of many ships of the line to steam. This was a craze that will only bounce once later in time, with the Dreadnought. But the revolutions in artillery, with new rifled, breech-loaded, long range models mounted on traverse frames, and turrets were just lurking in the corner.

For now, the most recent innovation has been the Paixhans shells. This combination of explosive shells, breech-loaded guns, steam engines propulsion only and a wooden casemate with sloped sides covered with iron plates made perfect sense to the Confederacy, and logically were the solutions chosen against the largely traditional wooden fleet the Union had. To compensate for the lack of armor plates, the South improvized with the slanting wooden structure covered with 4-inch-thick iron casements forged from railroad tracks (which further reduced the railroad maintenance capabilities).

In other cases, railroad tracks were used directly, alternated in encased ‘H’ patterns. The system created the first “modular armor”, for which it was easy to replace a damaged track, without reforging anything. That was the same system used for millenias by scale-armor, as the tracks were mutually supportive as well and they moved freely when hit, reducing the impact by redistributing forces laterally like a metal ripple. It was so effective the Union also copied the system.

All in all, the Confederate ironclad would have been like a wolf dropped into a sheeps den. And indeed whe the Virginia was sent to meet the James River Squadron. Ships after ships were pounded and sank, and the blockade nearly broke off until the Monitor showed up and engaged the Virginia, but the match ended as a draw. But the deponstration was enough to motivate the Confederacy to launch other conversions, not always as successful and some short-lived. Of course, the Union could not be left on this race and multiplied its own line of “monitors” from the lead ship, with a revolving turret instead of broadsides, and many riverine ironclads (like USS Cairo).

The race for ironclads: Two approaches

Aside these conversions, from May 1861, the Confederate Congress appropriated $2 million in order to purchase ironclads from overseas. The idea was the purchased ships can sail with American sailors passed through inside blockade runners and commissioned the ships at sea, and then forcing they way in through the blockade. Back in Europe, this first duel of ironclads showed steam-only armoured warhips were a way forward, and masts began to disappear in a gradual process.

In 1880, full rigging was no longer required and the only ships staying in a mixed configuration were gunboats. The other consequence of the duel was that 11-in guns seemed incapable of piercing armor, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox soon asked to test 15-in, and soon 18 and even 21-in guns. This choice was compounded by the decision in December 1861 of Secretary Welles to order 21 monitors, all armed with 15-in guns, waiting for the 21-in turrets.

Submarine warfare and mines

To an average street person, the term of “submarine warfare” applied to the American Civilian war seems far-fetched. But in recorded history, after 1812 and Bushnell’s unsuccesful attempts, using submersibles in wartie, with success, appeared first in the American civil war. To bring an explosive charge on a ship’s flank (called a spar torpedo) seemed well complemented by a ship able to survive a broadside. It was to be slow, and protected in some way. Instead of building an armored ship for the task, southern engineers advocated simple ideas based on two ays to make a projectile bounce off: Using turtleback hulls and having the ship submerged in a way water itself protected it.

Conrad Wise Chapman - Painting of the David at Charleston Dock, 25 October 1863
Conrad Wise Chapman – Painting of the David at Charleston Dock, 25 October 1863.

Indeed as it was shown in many experiences, including one with high velocity bullets, the density of water was such that terminal velocity was reduced to zero in a matter of a fraction of a second over a distance ranging from 40 cm to one meter of penetration. A “soft” armour, but a way to break the projectile velocity. It was even more true with large and bulky marine shells fired a low velocity. Turleback semi-submerged spar-torpedo vessels were just a perfect combination of “soft protection”, avoiding iron-plating a ship, which was expensive, and allowed to built more of these early “torpedo-boats”.

From the theory, many confederate “secret weapons” emerged from a single vessel: The David. Shaped with a cigar, or an eatly torpedo, this wooden and metal vessel had ballast tanks in order to be submerged, but just enough for the top to be kept over the waves, and ensuring ventilation and funnel exhaust and left only a small pilothouse emerging. Indeed, steam-powered, the David was even painted in dark blue for concealment and used by night to bring down chances of being spotted. A 100 pounds explosive charge with percussion was carried in the end of a long spar, maintained straight by a cable. These had success in Charleston harbor, the CSS david or one of its twenty clones succesfully damaged the USS New Ironsides, sent back to repairs for a year. This was a tremendous success, given the fact this was the only real sea-going ironclad the Union possessed.


(Work in progress)

Confederate ships nomenclature

CSS Virginia

css virginia
CSS Merrimack was the first (and last) all-metal protected casemate ironclad built by the Confederacy, to counter the naval supremacy of the North, but without the industrial resources able to replicate Coles turrets which the south was also deprived because of the embargo.
The CSS Virginia battled for the first time her opponent, the USS Monitor during the famous Battle of Hampton Roads in 1964, who remained undecided after half an hour’s point blank cannonade.

After that she tried unsuccesfully to breach the blockade, making dozens of attempts before then war ended, she never fought the monitor again and has to scuttle itself while blowing here magazine, to prevent her from falling into enemy hands when the union took Norfolk, on may, 11, 1862.

The Merrimack concentrated all available skills to cover a framed casemate with iron plates, turning one of the six a frigates authorized by the congress and built there (USS Virginia) to an almost unsinkable ship. Against the Monitor, her only duel ended as a draw.

Weight & dimensions: 3100 t ; 83,81 x 11,73 x 6,70 m
Propulsion: Steam only – 1 Penn Trunk screw, 4 Martin boilers, 440 hp, 6 knots.
Armour: sides 4,7 inches on oak, iron, oak sandwich
Armament: 2x 7in Brooke RMLs, 2x 6,5 in, 6x 8,5in mortars, 2x 3in Howitzers.
Crew: 85

CSS Alabama (1862)

This famous ship was the most successful of all Confederacy commerce raiders. She took no less than 69 union ships as prizes, and sank the Union gunboat USS Hatteras off Texas. She roamed the north and south Atlantic, west and east indies, South Africa, and its career ended in June 1864 when she was refitted and replenished at Cherbourg, France. USS Kearsage, precisely hunting for the commerce raider, arrived and stand by at the entrance of the harbour, offering combat.

Alabama then ready engaged an epic duel, the two ships exchanging some 250 shells before one struck Alabama below the waterline, consequently sank her. It is estimated that during her two years of cruising she costed to the union more than 6,000 000 dollars of estimated total value of lost shipping.

Originally known as Laird “Hull 290” at Liverpool John Laird & sons Yard in Great Britain, she was completed as the Barque steamer Enrica, with a lifting screw to serve as a steam clipper. She taken over by the confederate government and completed as a commerce raider, left Britain in July 1862 and then roamed the seas until 1864.

Weight & dimensions : 1050 t ; 67,05 x 9,65 x 4,26 m
Propulsion : Steam only – 1 lifting screw, 4 Martin Boilers, 800 hp, 11 knots.
Armour : None
Armament : One 6,4in Blackely RML, one 8prd SB, six 32pdr SB.
Crew : 145

CSS Manassas (1861)

Commissioned in September, 12, this armoured ram was designed with a very low profile, capable of deflecting any shell at any angle. The only protruding structures were the chimney and the forward protective shield over its only gun, a 64pdr Dalghren BL (later reduced to 32).

But its main weapon was a sturdy ram. The ship was nearly twice as heavy as the original ship despite her low silhouette, and ramming speed was relatively slow. But she successfully rammed USS Richmond at the battle of the head of passes, and then later, on her way to New orleans, rammed USS Mississippi and Brooklyn.

Neither was sunk, but their hull suffered heavy damage. After that on 24 april, 1862, she was charged by Mississippi, but while dodging this attempt, ran aground and was subsequently pounded furiously Mississippi and definitely disabled. However, the crew managed to escape.

This “hellish machine” as it was dubbed by Union intelligence, was the former icebreaker and towboat Enoch Train, built in 1855 at Medford, Mass. It was converted in 1860 by privateer Capt. John A. Stevenson at Algiers, Louisiana, with a surprising, radical, yet very effective design, featuring an ironclad turtleback.

Weight & dimensions : 385-387 t ; 44 x 10 x 5,2 m
Propulsion : Steam only – 1 screw, 2 Boilers, 180 hp, 8 knots.
Armour : Full iron plating, 25-30 mm, 2 inches aw
Armament : One 64pdr Dalghren BL, ram.
Crew : 36

CSS Shenandoah (1864)

This ship left britain on october, 8, 1864, and was officially commissioned the 19 of the very same month. So her career was short but very active : She took no less than 38 ships, mostly whalers (whale oil was highly priced at this time, weakening the union revenue at some degree), and most surprising, almost two third after the war ended… She surrendered to Britain while coaling, on november, 6, 1865, after a relentless one-year campaign.

CSS Shenandoah was one of the top list, most chased Confederate commerce raider in the world. This indian transport, laid up at Stephen in 1864 (UK) and named Sea King, was purchased as a commerce raider by the confederate government, with added firepower. She has a composite hull and lifting screw, one compound engine, but was as well rigged as a clipper.

Weight & dimensions : 1140-1160 t ; 70,11 x 9,75 x 6,25 m
Propulsion : Steam and sail – 1 screw, 2 Boilers, 190 hp, 9 knots.
Armour : Only extra wooden layers on broadside deck
Armament : Two 32pdr Withworth RML, two 12in, four 8in.
Crew : 36

CSS Sumter (1862)

CSS Sumter (named after fort sumter seizure), formely the Habana of the Mc Connell line of New Orleans, was built at Philadelphia in 1859 as a barque-rigged steamer, purchased in april 1861 and modified as a commerce raider, commissioned in june 1861. She has a breef career were she took 18 prizes, before laying up and beeing sold at Gibraltar. She then became the British blockade runner Gibraltar.

Weight & dimensions : 437t ; 56,07 x 9,14 x 3,66 m
Propulsion : 1 screw, 2 Boilers, 100 hp, 10 knots, coal for 8 days.
Armour : Extra wooden layers on broadside deck
Armament : One 8in SB, four 32pdr SB.
Crew : 51

CSS Florida (1861)

Originally the british built SS. Oreto she was bought by the confederate owned Fawcett, Preston and co. of Liverpool and converted while on the stocks as a heavily armed confederate raider. She was equipped with four Blakely guns in broadside position on the rear and front of the hull, and two other, more massive 7 inches on the axis between the masts and funnels.

This configuration gave them a broadside of four guns. The 32 pdr smoothbore cannon was a chasing one. Her career was complicated. She departed from UK in march 1962 then joined Nassau (Bahamas) for coaling and headed and refitting, being commissioned as CSS Florida in august. Lieutenant John N. Maffitt then took command but the crew was then badly stricken by disease (yellow fever). However she joined Cuba, but as the situation worsened, Maffitt himself being in bad shape, managed to pass the union blockade and eventually reached the guns of Fort Morgan at Mobile to be welcomed as a hero.

Under the command of her daring captain, the prince of privateers, she roamed the southern and northern coast of America. She fled to Brest in august, 1863 for refit, and then headed for Bahia. He crew was half ashore when taken by surprise by a daring night attack lead by Commander Collins of USS Wachusetts. But as Brazil was neutral, a trial followed and CSS Florida, then sailing to Hampton roads, sank (probably intentional) in November, 28, 1864. During her long career she took 37 prizes, and her sailing tenders themselves 23 more, totalling 60.

CSS Florida was well recognisable with her twin tall funnels, and raked masts. Originally known as Oreto, built at W C Miller in 1861 of Liverpool, seized by the Confederacy, relaunched in 1862 and armed with six massive Blakely rifled guns. She became one of the most hunted confederate ship ever.

Weight & dimensions : 480t ; 58 x 8,28 x 4 m
Propulsion : 1 lifting screw, 2 Boilers, 90 hp, 9,5 knots, coal for 10 days.
Armour : Extra wooden layers on broadside deck
Armament : Two 7in and four 6,4in RML, one 32pdr SB.
Crew : 146

CSS Atlanta (1861)

The ship was scheduled for departing in Scotland with cotton but events prevented it, and instead she was converted entirely by june, 1861 into a formidable ironclad, serving under both sides during the war. It was operated on the savannah river and first displayed in action against Unions blockaders.

However, obstructions blocking the channel prevented any action at hampton roads or in open seas. On june, 15 of july under the command of capt. William A. Webb, accompanied by two CS steamers, the Isondiga and Resolute, she tryed to blow up the monitor USS Weekhaven, but because of her deep hull, ran aground instead and fired at point blank range by Weekhaven and USS Nahant, and with most of her crew and guns disabled, was forced to surrender.

Then Atlanta began a second life under the stars and stripes, beeing re-commissioned after some modifications, in february 1864. She fought on the James River to support Grant\’s operations and defended fort Powhatan under CS attack. Finally, USS Atlanta was decommissioned in june 1865 and sold on auctions to Haiti, but capsized and sunk while en route at Cape Hatteras in december 1869.

This was the former merchantman Fingal, built at Glasgow, Scotland, launched in may 1861, which began her career as a blockade runner, rallying the Bermuda islands, then heading in Savannah, with a full load of rifles, guns and ammunitions.

Weight & dimensions : 1022t ; 62,2 x 12,5 x 4,8 m
Propulsion : 1 screw, 1 Boiler, 220 hp, 10 knots, coal for 10 days.
Armour : Casemate : 102 mm -hull : 51 mm
Armament : Two 7in and six 6,4in Brooke RML, spar torpedo.
Crew : 145

CSS HL Hunley (1863)

This was an early precursor of modern submarines, despite the fact it was human-propelled, it introduced many features which became standard later. It was also a vicious, unforgiving machine which killed three crews, including its own creator, but successfully led the last attack, conducted by Lt. Georges S. Dixon under command of gen. PT Beauregard in charge of Charleston defense.

In feb. 18, 1864, HL HUNLEY (formerly the Fishboat) joined the less defended second-line blocus ships and attached its spar torpedo to the bottom hull of the wooden-built Sloop of war USS Housatonic, bringing it to the bottom with almost all crew. Probably the concussion resulting from the blast created some breeches inside the hull of the submarine, which was flooded and lost with all hands, then rediscovered in 1955, and now a museum.

This extraordinary machine was conceived by Horace Lawson Hunley, which seen as early as 1861 that Confederates were ill-prepared to withstand any union blockade. He designed at Mobile with John Mc.Clintock a steel, cigar-shaped, human propelled device which was capable of being submerged and delivering a mine.

Weight & dimensions : 6,8 to 8t ; 12,04 x 1,17 x 1,80 m
Propulsion : 1 screw, manual crank for seven, speed 4 knots.
Armour : None – 10 mm steel
Armament : One wired spar torpedo.
Crew : 8

CSS Chicora (1862)

The CSS CHICORA was a purpose-built ironclad which costed around 300000 $, part of a confederate state appropriation.

The Chicora It was started in march and launched at Charleston in june 1862, by James M. Eason on John L. Porter plans, and commissioned in november, Eason beeing praised for its promptitude, taken in hands by commander John R. Tucker.

It was a fairly wide and thickly armored ship despite the fact her armament was only four rifled Parrot guns at the beginning. Soon after the start of its operations, she was equipped with two more guns and a spar-torpedo.

In January, together with CSS Palmetto States, she raided the blockading force at the entrance of Charleston, forcing to surrender USS Mercedita, and badly damaged USS Keyston State, as well as engaging other ships, which them to retire.

In april, she was attacked by an ironclads squadron commanded by rear admiral Francis Du Pont, and was damaged. She took refuge inside Charleston docks. After that, she tok part in many operation until beeing scuttled in 1865.

Weight & dimensions : 830 to 880t ; 46 x 11 x 4,3 m
Propulsion : 1 screw, 2-stroke steam engine, 2 boilers, speed 5 knots.
Armour : 4in (127 mm) steel backed by 22in oak planking.
Armament : spar torpedo, 6 32pdr rifled guns.
Crew : 150

CSS David (1861)

The CSS DAVID was born of a private venture, ordered by T. Stoney of Charleston. It was designed as a semi-submerged spart torpedo vessel, aiming to destroy enemy blockading ships by moonless nights, with a smokeless propellant.

The David (a self-speaking reference to david vs goliath in the old Testament – reflecting the very nature of the unequal fight of the confederate navy) made several sorties, the first one beeing led against the USS New Ironsides, which was slightly damaged. In several occasions, the explosive failed to detonate or the attacked ships evaded it. From the fall of 1963 to the capture of Charleston, the David attacked many ships, but failed to sink a single one. She was probably captured in february 1865 when Charleston fall.

Weight & dimensions : 8 to 10 tons ; 15 x 1,8 x 1,5 m
Propulsion : 1 screw, 2-stroke steam engine, 1 boiler, speed 6 knots.
Armour : none – iron plating.
Armament : spar torpedo, 60 to 70 pounds of explosives.
Crew : 4

CSS Savannah (1863)

The Savannah was one of the first ironclad beeing built from scratch at H.F.Willink from Savannah, launched in january 1843 and put in service in june 1963. Her Armour was a mix of twin 2 inches iron plating backed by 21 inches of timber, on a 35 degree slopes.

Speed was six knots and the crew comprised 160 men and a Marines company, manning the ship and its four guns, two pivot Brooke guns posted fore and aft firing from three portholes, and two broadside shifted guns.

After a long carreer defending Savannah harbour as a flagship, she was burned by its own crew to prevent capture when Savannah falled, not before expended all its ammunition against USN batteries and infantry positions while defending the city under siege in december 1864.

The CSS Savannah, of the Richmond class, was designed by eng. John L. Porter to the request of the Confederate Navy department in order to standardize equipments, and provides guardships for harbours and coastal duties.

Weight & dimensions : Around 600 tons ; 46 x 10 x 3,8 m
Propulsion : 1 screw, 2-stroke steam engine, 1 boiler, speed 6 knots.
Armour : 2x2in iron plating on 21in timber.
Armament : two pivot 7in and two 6.4in Brooke RML.
Crew : 180