Collier's New Encyclopedia (1921)/Navy, United States

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NAVY, UNITED STATES. In the last months of 1775, the Continental Congress passed a number of acts creating a "Marine Committee" and providing for the building and manning of a fleet of 17 small vessels carrying from 10 to 32 guns each. At the head of the list of officers commissioned was Commodore Esek Hopkins, of Rhode Island. John Paul Jones was at the head of a list of 13 lieutenants and is said to have had the honor of hoisting the first American ensign over a duly commissioned American man-of-war. The man-of-war was the "Alfred," and the ensign was the so-called "Pine-tree" flag, bearing the device of a pine-tree with a rattlesnake coiled at its roots, and the motto: "Don't Tread on Me."

The services of the little fleet thus called into existence were creditable and very helpful to the cause of the colonies. A number of supply ships were captured carrying cargoes destined for the British armies at New York and Philadelphia; and in several engagements with armed ships of the Royal Navy the American vessels held their own, and in at least two cases had distinctly the advantage.

Three of the largest of the vessels extended their cruises to British waters and operated with such success against the enemy's commerce that the rate of marine insurance was enormously increased and great pressure was brought to bear upon the government by shipping interests to put an end to the war even at a cost of granting independence to the colonies.

The most brilliant exploit of the naval war was the capture on Sept. 23, 1779, of the British frigate "Serapis" by the "Bon Homme Richard," commanded by John Paul Jones, now a commodore. The "Serapis" was a well-appointed frigate, manned by experienced British seamen. The "Bon Homme Richard" was a dilapidated merchant vessel, hastily fitted out as a man-of-war and manned by a motley crew hurriedly gathered together, strange to the ship and to each other. The ships met in the late afternoon and the engagement which ensued lasted throughout the night; the ships being lashed together for the last three hours of the time. The guns of the "Serapis" tore great holes through the rotten sides of the "Richard," so that the moonlight shone through from side to side of the lower decks. But the indomitable spirit of the commander was communicated to the crew and they fought on, with their ship burning and all but sinking under them, until a hand-grenade, dropped from the yardarm of the "Richard," and exploding in a pile of ammunition in the hold of the "Serapis," created such a panic among the crew that, without waiting for orders, they hauled down their colors and surrendered to the sinking and burning ship that they had already practically destroyed.

With the end of the Revolution came the end of the navy for the time being. During Washington's first administration, prompted by the intolerable outrages of the Barbary States (Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli), Congress authorized the building of six frigates, for which an unexpected use was found in 1798, when what amounted to a war with France was forced by the high-handed edicts issued by Napoleon for the purpose of preventing commerce by neutrals, and especially by America, with the European enemies of France. A number of engagements took place, in all of which the Americans were successful, the most important capture made being that of the French frigate "l'Insurgante" by the "Constellation," commanded by Commodore Truxton.

In 1798 a law was passed by Congress creating a navy department, and Benjamin Stoddard, of Georgetown, D. C., was made Secretary of the Navy, with a seat in the Cabinet. Previous to this time the navy had been under the administration of the Secretary of War.

In 1801, the outrages of the Barbary States having been renewed, the navy was called upon to put an end to them and succeeded after four years of alternate fighting and diplomacy. The names of Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur are associated with especially gallant enterprises during this war. Apart from its results in putting an end to the depredations of the piratical governments, which for years had levied tribute on all commerce through the Straits of Gibraltar, the war served as a training school for the young American navy, the value of which was to be made apparent at a later date.

During the administration of Jefferson, the navy received scant attention. It was even proposed to do away completely with frigates and cruisers and to rely entirely upon gunboats; looking to these—and to the navy—for harbor defense only. Fortunately this policy was only partially given effect, and the war with England which began in 1812 found still a few frigates in commission and commanded by officers who had seen service during the four years of operations against the Barbary States. At this time the British navy was counted as supreme upon the sea. The stories of Trafalgar and the Nile were fresh in the memory of the world and especially in the memory of England and English seamen. And no one dreamed that the little navy of the United States had anything but defeat to anticipate in encounters with ships officered and manned by men trained in the school of Nelson and Hood.

The tradition of British invincibility was quickly shattered. Within the first few months of the war four encounters took place between American and British ships, in every one of which the Americans were victorious. War was declared by Congress on June 18, 1812. On Aug. 19th, the "Constitution" (American) captured the "Guerriere"; on Oct. 25th, the "United States" captured the "Macedonian"; on Oct. 17th, the "Wasp" captured the "Frolic"; and on Dec. 29th, the "Constitution" captured the "Java."

The prestige of the navy resulting from this unbroken series of victories was somewhat lessened by the loss of the "Chesapeake," Captain Lawrence, in an engagement with the British frigate "Shannon," but was carried to a higher point than ever by the great and very important victories won by the squadrons of Commodore Perry on Lake Erie, and of Captain McDonough on Lake Champlain, which put an end to all danger of invasion from Canada; and by later victories on the ocean, which, although accompanied by a few defeats, continued, upon the whole, the early successes of Hull and Decatur and Bainbridge.

From the close of the war with England in 1815 to the beginning of that with Mexico in 1846, the work of the navy, while less dramatic than in time of actual war, was not less important. And the area covered by its operations was probably larger than at any other period in its history, extending from Java and Sumatra on the W. to Palestine on the E., and including explorations in both the Arctic and the Antarctic oceans. A brief résumé of the operations during this period and that between the Mexican War and the Civil War will give a better idea than could be otherwise obtained, of the widely varied activities which fall to the lot of the navy in what are sometimes called "the piping times of peace."

In 1815, following immediately upon the close of the war with England, Commodore Decatur led a formidable squadron to the Mediterranean, where the Barbary States were again committing depredations against American commerce. The expedition was eminently successful and no further trouble was experienced from that quarter.

From 1821 to 1825 a considerable force was engaged in the suppression of piracy in the West Indies. At the same time, and for many years thereafter, a small squadron was maintained on the W. coast of Africa, engaged in the suppression of the slave-trade. In 1818, an expedition to the Pacific took possession in the name of the United States of the territory about the Columbia river, now included in the States of Washington and Oregon.

From 1838 to 1842 a squadron of five ships under Commodore Wilkes was engaged in explorations in the South Seas, one of the many important results of which was the discovery of the Antarctic continent, the existence of which had been suspected but not before known with certainty.

In 1848, an expedition commanded by Lieutenant William F. Lynch, was dispatched to Palestine and spent many months in studying the topography of the regions about the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, and in exploring the River Jordan. The boats required for this work, among the first metallic boats ever built, were landed on the Syrian coast and transported across the desert to Tiberias on trucks drawn by camels. In 1850 and 1853, expeditions to the Arctic were made by ships manned by officers and men of the navy, in a search for the English explorer Sir John Franklin, who had disappeared into the Arctic regions several years before.

In 1853, Captain Matthew C. Perry commanded an expedition to Japan, until then a "Hermit Nation," which, thanks to the judicious combination by Perry of diplomacy and a show of force, resulted in throwing open the ports of Japan to intercourse with the world and started that nation on the road which, in less than half a century, was to bring it to a position of equality with the nations of the western world.

At the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, Commodore Sloat, commanding the naval forces in the Pacific, compelled the surrender of the Mexican forces on the coast of what is now California and hoisted the United States flag over the whole of that territory. On the E. coast, a close blockade of Mexican ports was maintained; and when it was decided to make Vera Cruz a base for General Scott's advance on Mexico City, the fleet under Commodore M. C. Ferry reduced the forts commanding the approaches to Vera Cruz and took possession of the harbor.

The Civil War (1861) found the navy small in numbers as regards both ships and personnel, but efficient in discipline and spirit. It was rapidly expanded, and within a few months established a blockade of the southern coasts under which the ports from the Capes of the Chesapeake to the mouth of the Rio Grande were held in a grip which never relaxed until, at the end of four years of this pressure, combined with that of the Northern armies on the land side, the Confederacy was half-starved, half-crushed, into submission. The victories of Farragut at Mobile and New Orleans may be classed among the most brilliant achievements of naval history and easily take rank with Trafalgar and the Nile.

The engagement between the "Monitor" and "Merrimac" forecast the development of modem armor-clad navies; and the sinking of the Union frigate "Hoosatonic" by a Confederate submarine was the first practical achievement in the development of submarine warfare.

From 1865 to 1882 the navy was neglected and forgotten. But by some miracle of morale, it maintained its spirit and its discipline to such a degree that when, in 1882, a small appropriation was made for the building of four ships of modern construction and armament, the officers of the navy were prepared to furnish designs for ships and guns and to take up all the problems involved, at a point fully as advanced as that of constructing and ordnance engineers abroad. These, the first ships of what is called the modern navy, were the "Chicago," "Boston," "Atlanta," and "Dolphin"—cruisers of only moderate size and power, but essentially modern in that ships and guns alike were of up-to-date construction and built throughout of steel.

In 1888 and 1889 two armored ships were built, the "Texas" and the "Maine," and these were followed in 1890-1892 by three battleships, the "Massachusetts," "Indiana," and "Oregon." Other ships followed, of various types, among them several battleships; and by 1898 the United States was easily fifth among the naval powers of the world.

On Feb. 15, 1898, the "Maine" was blown up in Havana harbor through causes which have never been explained; and out of this incident, coupled with a long train of circumstances connected with conditions of Spanish rule in Cuba, war was declared between the United States and Spain on April 25, 1898. The war was brief and decisive. On May 1st, within a month after the beginning of hostilities, Commodore Dewey steamed into Manila Bay at the head of a squadron of cruisers and gunboats, and in a few hours destroyed the Spanish squadron which he found at anchor off Cavite. Two months later, July 4th, Admiral Sampson, in command of a fleet of battleships and cruisers off Santiago de Cuba destroyed a Spanish squadron of armored cruisers which, under command of Admiral Cervera, attempted to escape from the harbor. In both of these engagements the American forces were greatly superior to those of their opponents, and victory was a matter of course; but the swift and sweeping nature of the victory in each case, and the practically complete annihilation of the enemy, showed evidence of a superiority in "morale" far exceeding the superiority in material power. At Lake Erie, Lake Champlain, and Mobile Bay, as at Manila and Santiago, every ship of the enemy was either captured or destroyed.

The prestige won at Manila and Santiago carried the navy forward from 1898 to 1917 without the period of depression which had followed all earlier wars. The building of battleships continued, and other ships—cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and auxiliaries—were added in considerable numbers.

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the World War, at a moment when the prospects of the Allies were at the lowest ebb, owing to German victories on land and still more to the ever-increasing efficiency of the submarine warfare at sea. The naval force which the United States threw into the balance—counting only ships of modern design available for foreign service—consisted of 12 dreadnought battleships, some 25 destroyers, and 10 submarines. Back of this force and available for the defense of the Atlantic coast, were a large number of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines of old, nearly obsolete, design, all of which were utilized to the fullest extent, Congress and the Navy Department, awakened at last to the fact that the United States was not immune from war, making haste to supply the deficiencies in the naval establishment that should have been supplied many years before. In little more than a month after the declaration of war, a small flotilla of destroyers went abroad and at once took up the task of convoying supply ships and transports through the zone of submarine activity. Other destroyers were sent as rapidly as they could be made ready.

A new type of small, fast, handy craft known as "submarine chasers" was developed and began operations in waters near the coasts of England, France, and Italy. Two divisions of battleships joined the British Grand Fleet. A great number of transports and supply ships were bought, commandeered, and built, manned and officered, by the rapidly expanding personnel of the navy, and enlisted in the work of carrying troops and supplies to European ports under the escort and protection of destroyers and cruisers of the United States navy. The Germans boasted that not a single American soldier would ever live to set foot on European soil, but under the protection of the navy, and under its direction, two million men were transported without the loss of a man. This was the great achievement of the war, in which the army and navy co-operated so perfectly that in little more than a year after the United States entered the war three hundred thousand men were landed in Europe monthly. It may be too much to say that America won the war. But without the American army, the war would have been lost. And the American navy "put the army across."

The United States, which, up to about 1890, was almost negligible as a naval power, and as recently as 1914 was contending with Germany for third place among the naval powers of the world, is now little, if at all, inferior to Great Britain, which, until the beginning of the World War, was the leading naval power of the world by a margin so wide that neither Germany nor any other nation thought of disputing its primacy. The development which has carried the United States to the position it now occupies has come about very largely since April, 1917. When the World War began, in 1914, the United States navy was somewhat superior to that of Germany in the number and power of its battleships, but distinctly inferior in every other respect. It included no battle cruisers or scout cruisers, and the cruisers that it did include were out of date. The destroyers were few and small, and the submarines were in the experimental stage. In 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918, Congress authorized the construction of battleships, battle cruisers, scout cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, all to be of maximum size and power, and a considerable number of auxiliaries, including fuel ships, ammunition ships, repair ships, and hospital ships, all of which types are little less important for an efficient navy than the fighting ships themselves.

The following are the vessels included in the building program authorized in appropriations of the years named. They constitute in themselves a navy more powerful than any that existed in 1914:

Name Date
Main Battery
Idaho 1914 32,000 600 21 12 14-inch guns
Mississippi 1914 32,000 600 21 12 14 inch guns
California 1915 32,000 600 21 12 14 inch guns
Tennessee 1915 32,000 600 21 12 14 inch guns
Colorado 1916 32,000 600 21 12 14 inch guns
Maryland 1916 32,000 600 21 12 14 inch guns
Washington 1916 32,000 600 21 12 14 inch guns
Indiana 1917 43,200 660 23 12 16-inch guns
Montana 1917 43,200 660 23 12 16 inch guns
South Dakota 1917 43,200 660 23 12 16 inch guns
Iowa 1918 43,200 660 23 12 16 inch guns
Massachusetts 1918 43,200 660 23 12 16 inch guns
North Carolina 1918 43,200 660 23 12 16 inch guns

Name Date
Main Battery
Constellation 1916 43,500 850 33¼ 8 16-inch guns
Lexington 1916 43,500 850 33¼ 8 16 inch guns
Ranger 1916 43,500 850 33¼ 8 16 inch guns
Saratoga 1916 43,500 850 33¼ 8 16 inch guns
Constitution 1917 43,500 850 33¼ 8 16 inch guns
United States 1918 43,500 850 33¼ 8 16 inch guns


Name Date
Main Battery

Name not yet assigned.
1916 7,100 550 35  8 6-inch guns 
1916  ” ”
1916  ” ”
1916  ” ”
1917  ” ”
1917  ” ”
1917  ” ”
1918  ” ”
1918  ” ”
1918  ” ”


320 of these authorized since 1914, with the following characteristics:

Torpedoes Guns

 1,200 to 1,300  314 35*
 12 tubes
 24 torpedoes 
 4 4-inch 

*Estimated speed. Actual speed on trial has in some cases exceeded 40 knots.


120 of these. Details confidential.


Fuel ships, supply ships, repair ships, hospital ships, ammunition ships, mine-layers, mine-sweepers, tenders to destroyers and submarines. Total, 23.

Including the preceding list of new vessels and all of the earlier types that are entitled to be counted as available fighting ships for the decade 1920-1930, the total strength of the United States navy will be in 1923:

Battleships 29
Battle cruisers  6
Scout cruisers 10
Light cruisers  0
Destroyers 350 
Submarines 140 
Auxiliaries 30

The fighting ships of the above list are more heavily armed than corresponding ships of any other navy in the world, following a precedent which goes back to the very earliest days of American naval design, in which the leading aim has always been to secure a superiority in gun-fire as compared with any possible enemy, and this even at the sacrifice, if necessary, of defensive power. The principle involved is that expressed in the maxim, “The best defense is a vigorous offense.” The victories of the “Constitution” and other American frigates in 1812 were attributed by the British to the fact that the American vessels were more heavily armed than the British ships of corresponding class. This was urged almost as a reproach, whereas it was, in fact, an evidence of far-sightedness for which as much praise should be given as for the gallantry and skill with which the ships and guns were handled.

The commissioned officers of the navy are classified as follows:

Officers of the “Line.”
Officers of the Medical Corps.
Officers of the Supply Corps.
Officers of the Construction Corps.
Officers of the Civil Engineer Corps.
Professors of Mathematics.

Officers of the Line command ships, squadrons, and fleets.

The duties of the other groups are sufficiently indicated by their titles. The numbers of the various groups as prescribed by law are as follows:

Grades Line  Medical 
 Chaplains   Professors 

*Rear Admirals  69  6  4  2  2
Captains 239 47 26 22  6 13  5
Commanders 410 91 52 37 15 1 4
Lieutenant-Commanders 777 78 100  19 14 2 3
Lieutenants 1,764   696  251  159  54 2 1
Lieutenants Junior Grade  891 202  43 56  10 
Ensigns  1,230    98

*A rear-admiral, while actually serving as chief of naval operations, or as commander-in-chief of a fleet, has the temporary rank of admiral; and while serving as second in command or a fleet, the temporary rank of vice-admiral.

In addition to the above, there are approximately 2,000 midshipmen under training for officers at the Naval Academy.

Subordinate to the grades of the above list, but holding commissions, are the grades of chief boatswain, chief gunner, chief machinist, chief carpenter, chief sailmaker, and chief pay clerk.

Warrant officers are officers of the navy occupying a plane intermediate between the commissioned officers and the enlisted men. As a rule they have been promoted from the ranks of enlisted men and they are eligible for advancement to the grades of chief boatswain, chief gunner, etc., and thereafter to ensign, and so on upward through all the commissioned grades to that of rear-admiral. The warrant grades are: Boatswain, gunner, machinist, carpenter, sailmaker, and pay clerk.

The enlisted personnel authorized by the law of 1919 consists of 143,396 men of all grades. The democratic character of the United States navy is illustrated by the fact that any one of these men may hope to attain the highest rank in the service.

Collier's 1921 Navy Department, United States - “Tennessee” at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.jpg
Photo by Ewing Galloway

Collier's 1921 Navy, United States - Control Room of the “Tennessee”.jpg

Collier's 1921 Navy, United States - Hydraulic Cylinders for Rudders of the “Tennessee”.jpg

Collier's 1921 Navy, United States - Battleship “North Carolina” Class.jpg

Collier's 1921 Navy, United States - Fleet Submarine.jpg