Thursday, April 22, 2010

History Nerdiness Takes No Vacations, Part 1

You don’t get to call yourself a real history nerd until you’ve cut across three lanes of interstate traffic on the vague promise of history if you just take the next exit.  I’m making this an official rule.  And it’s not just because I’ve done it.  I mean, any time you get to risk life, limb, and brand-new car just for the chance to stomp around on a century-old ship, you’ve got to do it.

For the record, that’s officially a law the moment I take over the world.

Enter USS Texas, BB-35 in to the story.

Actually, no.  Let’s go back a ways.

The warship has been a prestige item for nations, probably since the moment the Oracle at Delphi informed the Athenians that only a wall of wood would remain uncaptured by Xerxes.  The wall of wood, of course, was the trireme, that greatest of ancient warships.  When all other attempts to defend Greece failed, the navy won the day at Salamis.

For the next two thousand years the prestige of the warship was mostly conferred upon a nation by numbers alone.  Outside of a few ships – such as the Venetian galleasses that nearly single-handedly won the day for the Christian armada at Lepanto and the magnificent junks of the Chinese Treasure Fleets – ships were fairly equal on either side of the battle.  Advantages were gained by superior tactics, making better use of wind and current, and the sheer weight of numbers.

By the 15th Century, however, the tide was turning.  Experiences with the so-called “Great Ships,” with higher sides and fighting platforms, had shown that galleys could be defeated handily in the right conditions.  This was, in fact, the impetus that lead to the galleass.  Ottoman galleys that overwhelmed their Christian foes through sheer weight of numbers had a much harder time taking the larger carracks during the struggle for the Mediterranean Sea.

Making the switch from galleys – which generally fought using ramming tactics where battles were decided with hand-to-hand combat on the decks – to cannon armed great ships required a change in tactics, too.  The ideal ships were long, narrow, and had their guns stacked atop each other in multiple decks, pointing out the sides.  This basically meant that the side of the ship had to be pointed at its target.  In order to achieve accurate fire with the cannons of the period and the relatively crude aiming necessitated by such a setup, the ships would also have to get close to each other.  Wind power being a slow form of propulsion this meant that the ship would be exposed to counter fire for long periods of time.

The ships had to become bigger and stronger to withstand such punishment.  This, of course, necessitated larger weapons until designers quite literally reached the maximum possible size and weight for a wooden, sail-powered ship.  The Ships of the Line, such as HMS Victory, perhaps the most famous of all, were designed to form in to a line of battle, sail parallel to their enemy, and pound away for long periods of time.  As such, the received the name “line of battle ship.”  Shortened: battleship.[1]

Either way, by the time the wooden sailing warship had reached its apex.  There was quite literally nowhere else to go.  Then came the advent of three things that combined to change everything: the steam engine, the exploding shell, and armor.

Now, taken separately, these things would probably not have done much to change ship design.  The steam engine was around for several decades before it really caught on due to the limitations of propulsion until the advent of the screw propeller.  Iron armor made ships too heavy for sail propulsion.  The exploding shell…well, that one might have changed things by itself.

The thing about wooden ships is that they’re incredibly hard to sink.  Wood is, after all, buoyant.  Post cannon naval tactics primarily involved attempting to destroy rigging, knock out the crew, and board.  Your average man o war after a pitched naval battle such as Trafalgar was a charnel house.  The decks, quite literally, ran with blood.

But the ships rarely sank.  There were only two thinks that could regularly sink wooden ships: the underside rotting out (which happened fairly often, although eventually copper sheeting was incorporated, which helped immensely) and fire.  Fire is a terrifying force on a wooden warship, since everything is kindling or fuel.  Canvas sails, tar-covered ropes, stores of gunpowder and, of course, wood were everywhere on a sailing warship.  Fires were disastrous.  And exploding shells had a fire starting potential that solid shot never possessed.  Something would have to be done.

Enter the ironclad.  The first half-dozen armored warships were a British/French collaboration (a shocking statement in and of itself).  They were slow, ungainly box-like “floating batteries” designed to stand up to the Russian land batteries in the Crimean war.  And they worked spectacularly, in spite of the fact that they were capable of only four knots and could be called “sea-going” in any way, shape, or form.  Still, the proof of concept was there.

With peace in the Crimea, France and Britain went back to doing what they did best: engaging in an arms race at sea the French had no chance of winning.  They struck first with La Gloire, a fairly traditional wooden hull design with iron plate attached to the outside.  The Brits struck back a year later with HMS Warrior, an iron-hulled design that was as elegant as La Gloire was stubby.  It was also faster, better protected, and better armed than the French ship.

Although Warrior and her sister ship, HMS Black Prince, were the most powerful warships in the world and light-years ahead of anything else, they were still remarkably conventional.  They retained the rigging of the older sail-powered warships and maintained weaponry designed to fire in broadside.  It was a different maritime arms race that would provide the next set of advancements.

The American Civil War was, in many respects, the first “modern” war.  Among its many firsts are included the first combat between ironclad warships.  I speak, of course, of the famous duel between the Monitor and the Merrimack.[4]

The Union plan during the Civil War was to choke off the South.  It was a roundly mocked plan at first, as the Union Navy was nowhere close to powerful enough to actually blockade the entire South.  But as relatively week as the Union Navy was, the Confederate Navy was nonexistent.  Their only chance to stop the blockade was by being creative.  And creating a floating citadel was a good first step.

The Union countered with the brainchild of a Swedish ship designer named John Ericsson.  The Monitor was known as a “cheesebox on a raft,” as it was basically a turret sticking up off of a flat deck.  The ship was tiny and heavily outgunned by the Confederate ram.

But, as the story goes, CSS Virginia sortied out at Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862 and destroyed the wooden warships Cumberland and Congress.  On the ninth she returned to destroy the grounded Minnesota and any other blockaders who happened to be there.  Virginia instead found the Monitor.  The two ships battled inconclusively, until Monitor withdrew in to shallow water and Virginia was forced to retire before the tide dropped.

Although neither ship could claim victory on March 9th, they were both able to claim victory over the Age of Sail.  Moreover, the Monitor proved that a small number of guns that could be targeted in any direction were vastly desirable in contrast with a much heavier broadside.  The age of the turreted, armored steam ships had officially arrived.

There would be many, many modifications and experiments over the next several decades.  Some innovations were good and some were laughable.  The relentless tinkering eventually settled on a particular weaponry configuration that incorporated a powerful main battery, a secondary battery, and, with the later versions, an intermediate battery.

The main battery was intended to destroy the powerful armor of competing battleships and generally consisted of 12 inch guns.  Ships eventually came to possess two double turrets, one at the front and one at the back.  These were slow firing and not particularly accurate and the battleships now had to contend with torpedo boats, which were small and quick.  Enter the secondary battery, consisting of smaller but much faster guns that could take out unarmored targets fairly easily.  Eventually some ships began incorporating an intermediate battery with decent stopping power and rate of fire.

Eventually, however, naval designers realized that there was a better way of doing things, especially given advancements in gun quality and optics.  It was, again, the British who lead the way and created a warship which made everything that came before it obsolete.  It’s a name that’s so resonant that it gave its name to every battleship that came after and relegated the ships that came before to the category of “pre-.”

That ship’s name was HMS Dreadnought.

And it is from here that I will be able to finally visit the USS Texas.  But that’s a story for another day.


[1]This is far from the only commonly-used term developed during the Age of Sail.  The British Navy separated its ships in to “rates,” with the final system containing six, with the First Rate being the largest, while the Fifth and Sixth Rates were frigates.[2]  The term “through and through” comes from cannonballs that went through the near side of a ship, then passed out the other.[3]

[2]Oddly enough, while “first rate” means “the best” and second or third is often an insult, this not actually how it all ended up working with the ships that gave us those terms.  First Rates were so expensive to commission and so unwieldy that they were generally laid up “in ordinary” until needed.  Second Rates were similarly difficult to maneuver and only marginally less expensive than First Rates.  No navy outside of England even had an equivalent ship, as they simply weren’t worth the distinction.  The overall best ship of the age was actually the 74-gun version of the Third Rate.  It had far better handling characteristics than the Firsts or Seconds, and was better able to bring its guns to bear, which meant it could hold off a larger ship and overwhelm a smaller.

[3]Again, we consider something done “through and through” to be something done thoroughly.  It’s an ideal to achieve.  A cannonball that went through and through was actually a relatively wasted shot.  The ideal was to get it to go through, then rattle around on the gun decks of the other ship for a while.

[4]Properly, CSS VirginiaMerrimack was the name of the American screw frigate on which the Virginia was built.  The ship was stuck in dock at the Norfolk naval yard when Virginia seceded from the Union and the crew set her ablaze.  The fire didn’t do enough, as the ship’s hull and machinery weren’t sufficiently damaged and the Confederates were able to use them as the foundation of the Virginia.


GailVortex said...

But that’s a story for another day.

Hopefully a day relatively soon!

Geds said...

Saturday or Monday. Kinda depends...

Michael Mock said...

Okay, that was completely cool. I was (mostly) aware of the sequence of changes, but I'd never seen them assembled into a coherent overview like this.

DagoodS said...

Absolutely smashing good post. Kept me enthralled throughout AND made me go off and so some research on the topic.

Blogdom at its best, right here.