US Cruisers 1883–1904
This study is the latest nautical title within Osprey’s rejuvenated New Vanguard series. The title appears to cover an esoteric subject matter, namely, the development of the US Navy’s pre-dreadnought cruiser fleet during the late Victorian period. Many readers will be surprised that the US Navy, which operated a modest fleet during this period, should afford a single volume focussed upon its cruiser compliment. Many would justifiably argue that our mighty Royal Navy, the Tsarist Navy, or the emerging Imperial Japanese fleet would be more worthy reading matter. However, there is logic behind this release.
Whilst the US Navy emerged from its Civil War with the world’s most technologically advanced fleet, this supremacy would be short-lived. During the 1870s, the US fleet was allowed to deteriorate to a coastal defence force, incapable neither of mounting a high seas threat, nor extending US foreign policy. This period of decline coincided with US expansion within its own borders. Once its continental boundaries had been reached, the US started to look overseas to meet its own colonial agenda. In order to achieve this agenda and to challenge its colonial rivals the US Navy would require both rapid expansion and modernisation. Initially, the US lacked the technology and the ship building capability to challenge the major European super-powers. Rather than try to match the battleship programmes being undertaken in Europe, something it would not have the serious capability to do until the late Edwardian period, the US Navy undertook a programme of cruiser building utilising existing technologies. This allowed the Navy to rebuild its fleet rapidly (cruisers are smaller ships in tonnage and firepower) and to experiment with new technologies – most notably in terms of boiler design, armour belts and armament.
Whilst the US Navy would continue to play catch up with the mighty European fleets throughout this period (its fleet never matched those of Great Britain, Tsarist Russia or Japan), the development of its cruiser squadrons would force the nation into a new industrial era and also allow it to pursue its colonial ambitions. This was primarily manifest in the Spanish-American War (1898) but also in the seizure of Hawaii, misadventures in China and the development, by force, of the Panama Canal. The US Navy would end the Victorian period and signal its arrival as an aspirant maritime power with the famed cruise of the Great White Fleet, which circumnavigated the globe in 1907. A new world super-power had arrived.
This short study, written by Lawrence Burr – a well known author on late Victorian navel subjects, gets straight to the point. There is a brief contextual overview of the post-Civil War US Navy and the shipbuilding doldrums it found itself floundering within before the author continues with the important task of itemising the emerging new cruiser fleet. The study does this by providing an annual breakdown of ships and classes authorised for construction. The progression from early warships still powered by combined steam and sail, through improved steam-only powered cruisers, culminating in the fully armoured cruisers is clearly set out in both text and early photographs. The photographs of the combined steam and sail leviathans are aesthetically the most interesting to our modern eyes. The large USS Chicago appears particularly impressive with its twin stacks and triple masts. The multi-funnelled transitional and fully armoured cruisers appear more familiar, exhibiting many similarities to the more famous Royal Navy and Tsarist cruisers of the period.
It is noteworthy that all of the major technological and design innovations incorporated within these ships were imported from either Great Britain or France. Indeed some of the early cruiser designs, such as the USS Charleston and Baltimore, were built using plans bought directly from Armstrong’s shipyard. It is little strange that the study does not mention one of the US Navy’s early attempts at indigenous innovation, namely the light cruiser USS Vesuvius, armed with usual dynamite guns, which were pneumatically powered. Given that ship’s disappointing career perhaps it isn’t so curious an omission.
Following on from the list of ships, the study recounts the surprisingly numerous actions that the US Navy’s cruisers found themselves embroiled in during this period. The Spanish-American War (1898) forms the proud centrepiece, with the embryonic Steel Navy being blooded for the first time. The study tempers the ‘success’ of the Battle of Manila Bay (1 May 1898) by explaining that the Admiral Dewey’s cruiser squadron expended nearly 6,000 shells to achieve 142 hits on the moored ships of the Spanish Navy. At the subsequent Battle of Santiago (3 July 1898) the American fleet would fire nearly 10,000 shells to achieve 122 hits upon the manoeuvring Spanish Fleet. Tellingly, although modern in appearance, the US Navy still lagged far behind Great Britain in terms of range finders and fire-control technology. In addition to the technology gap the text reveals a distinct lack of home grown seamanship and gunnery skill – the late Victorian US Navy was largely crewed by ordinary seamen originating from Northern Europe.
Perhaps the most impressive element of this study is its intimate association with a surviving late Victorian pre-dreadnought cruiser; the USS Olympia. With her twin stacks and fore ‘n aft circular 8 in. gun turrets, she is the epitome of the pre-dreadnought warship. The Olympia is a National Historic Monument and rests at Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia. She is without doubt a maritime jewel. The study provides the reader with a detailed history of the Olympia (she wasn’t decommissioned until 1922). This is supported by some wonderful photographs of her interior and exterior (include the lovely cover portrait). A three-dimensional cutaway model (CAD generated) is useful for modellers – the only thing missing is a rigging diagram.
I confess that I have a soft spot for pre-dreadnought warships. Consequently, I was always going to enjoy this book. The photographs, diagrams and especially the detailed information on the USS Olympia more than make up for the faint jingoism that taints the text. This book will sell well; the US Navy and pre-dreadnoughts are a popular combination. This is a book aimed straight at the modeller - there are more balanced texts on the history. Curiously, there are only a handful of model kits (all in resin) of pre-dreadnought US cruisers available for sale. Thankfully, the USS Olympia is one of those – this book is an essential purchase for those lucky enough to own that kit.
My thanks to Osprey for providing the review sample.
For full information on all Osprey Publishing titles, please see their website: Osprey Publishing
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