On This Day in History: Beginning of the New Steel Navy

Seventeen years after the Civil War ended, the U.S. Navy still looked very much like the fleet that had been built to blockade the Southern ports and chase down Confederate commerce raiders. The Navy in 1882 consisted of fourteen ironclads (mostly Civil War-era monitors) and a few wooden sailing vessels. The most powerfully armed among them mounted nothing larger than a five-inch smoothbore gun. One popular journalist of the era commented that the country had no more need for its weak navy “than a peaceable giant would have for a stuffed club or a tin sword.”

This lack of modernization was partly a byproduct of an ongoing debate about what the postbellum Navy’s role should be and what types of ships, if any, should be built. Many Americans who had lived through the Civil War wanted nothing more to do with military conflict, and some felt that strong coastal fortifications would be enough to protect America’s coasts without getting entangled in foreign affairs.

Beginning in 1881, Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt convened a naval advisory board to try to address the lamentable state of the Navy. The fifteen members of the board felt that the Navy should begin a new construction program, but they disagreed over whether the new ships should be sail or steam-driven, what kind of armament they should carry, and whether their hulls should be made of iron or steel.

Print by Frederick Cozzens depicting Atlanta, Chicago, Yorktown, and Boston
Gift of Mr. Edward A. Sherman III
Though they never reached full consensus, the board recommended that Congress set aside $29 million for the construction of sixty-eight new vessels. The House Naval Affairs Committee rejected this proposal as too costly. In any event, the assassination of President James Garfield put all plans on hold, and incoming President Chester A. Arthur replaced Hunt with his own pick for Secretary of the Navy, William E. Chandler. Chandler was also a proponent of modernization and successfully lobbied Congress to move forward with a drastically scaled back construction program.

Model of protected cruiser ChicagoScale: 1/8" = 1'
On loan from Curator of Ship Models, Naval Sea Systems Command
On August 5, 1882, Congress authorized the construction of two steel warships without appropriating any funds for them, insisting that the money come from somewhere else within the existing budget. This tepid response marked the beginning of an era that naval historians refer to as the New Navy. It would be one more year before another appropriations bill passed that set aside money for new construction, and this time for four ships: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin, known as the ABCD ships. Though construction was delayed by numerous setbacks, these first four ships of the new era announced to the rest of the world that the United States was intent on becoming a modern naval power.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, a two-time former President of the Naval War College and author of several important works on naval strategy, commanded Chicago from 1893-1895. During that period he sailed to Europe to make official visits as part of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. Mahan was widely respected among the European elite for his seminal work, The Influence of Seapower upon History, 1660-1783, and received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge while visiting the United Kingdom. His writing formed the basis for much of the early curriculum at the Naval War College where students set about trying to formulate the tactics and strategies that the ABCD ships and their successors would be called upon to implement.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum


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