Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Steam Screw Frigates

When it comes to the Civil War Navies (really, any Navy), no doubt one of the main “stars of the show” are the ships. Over the past year, we of the CWN150 have enjoyed introducing you to some of the ships of the US Navy in the Civil War, including the “Timberclads” (posts by Craig on 22 Sept 2010 and Caleb on 16 June 2011), the “90-day gunboats” (post by Gordon on 12 July 2011), and the “fighting ferryboats” (post by yours truly on 14 Oct 2010). In time, we will also present overviews of the ships of the Confederate Navy.

The largest class of warships in the US Navy in the war were the “Merrimack” class steam screw frigates. These warships were propelled by a combination of sail (square-rigged) and steam power and were the first US Navy ships to be driven by a “screw” (a propeller on a shaft projecting through the stern). They displaced 3,000+ to 4,000+ tons and ranged in length from 256’10.5” to 264’8.5”. The US Congress authorized construction of these in 1954. All were completed and commissioned before the war began. In keeping with the ship building philosophy of the US Navy (as with the Constitution-class of sailing frigates), these ships were to be larger and heavier-armed than similar ships in their class and be fast enough to outrun anything larger. The USS Merrimack, Wabash, Roanoke, and Colorado were
all named for US rivers; the Minnesota was named for the territory at the time (not yet a state). All were armed with 24 to 28 IX inch Dahlgren smoothbore shell guns on the main gun deck. These were supplemented with 8-inch shell guns in broadside and a 10-inch gun (typically mounted forward) on the spar deck.

At the time they were built, these were among the most formidable warships in the world, although they were somewhat slow (generally not able to exceed 8 knots under steam), and their deep draft proved to be a considerable handicap in the shallow inshore waters and bays of the southeastern US and Gulf coasts during the war. The Wabash saw service in the South Atlantic blockading squadron, serving as DuPont’s and Dahlgren’s flagship. The Merrimack was burned at the start of the war in the Washington Navy Yard and as we know, was resurrected as the ironclad CSS Virginia. The Minnesota was the flagship of Flag Officer Stringham in the Atlantic blockading squadron, and remained Goldsborough’s flagship when he took command of the North Atlantic blockading squadron. Both Minnesota and Roanoke were present at Hampton Roads during that first clash of the ironclads; the Minnesota was driven aground by the Virginia, which would have returned the next day to destroy her if not for the defense by USS Monitor.
The Roanoke was present offshore of Hampton Roads that day and could not enter the harbor because of her draft, although even if she did, she couldn’t have done anything to help her sister ship against the Virginia. The USS Colorado began her war service in the Gulf blockading squadron, serving off the Mississippi River and Mobile Bay; she ended the war in the North Atlantic squadron and was a participant in the assault on Fort Fisher.

A sixth ship in this class was the USS Niagra (named after Fort Niagra, captured from the British by American forces in the War of 1812). Designed by George Steers, he envisioned a warship with the lines and speed of a clipper ship and an armament comparable to the other frigates in her class. To accomplish this, he had to make her immense, displacing in excess of 5,000 tons and over 300’ in length. Despite her size, she did turn out to be a very fast ship, making 10-11 knots under steam and up to16 knots when under sail power. Initially she was armed only with weapons on her spar deck; XI inch Dahlgren guns on pivots. In the middle of the war she was refitted with twenty XI inch Dahlgrens in broadside on her main gun deck, along with the spar deck armament, but the weight of this gunnery made her main deck gunports dangerously low along the waterline and the main deck broadside guns were removed. She was a participant in two historic events prior to the war: helping to lay the first transatlantic cable and transporting the first Japanese delegation to the US back home to Japan. In the Civil War, she saw service in both Atlantic and Gulf squadrons and in the latter half of the war was deployed overseas keeping tabs on Confederate warships being constructed in European shipyards.


Canney, Donald L. Lincoln’s Navy. The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861-65. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1998.

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships:

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