Warship Wednesday June 1, 2016: One well-traveled sloop
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period (though our ship today is a pure sailing vessel from that era) and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday June 1, 2016: One well-traveled sloop
Here we see the Boston-class second rate sloop-of-war USS Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica, circa January–February 1840.
The fledgling U.S. Navy in the 1820s was a mix of the remaining six original frigates and a few vessels commissioned and taken up during the War of 1812. This led Congress to authorize 10 new sloops of war for economical overseas service, intended to wave the new country’s flag far and wide.
These wooden-hulled, three-masted sloops (Boston, Fairfield, Falmouth, Warren, Natchez, St. Louis, Lexington, Concord, Vandalia, and Vincennes) were commonly about 700-tons in displacement with a 127-foot overall length. Able to float in 16-feet of water, with their 18-sail plan, they could keep 11-knots over ground as long as the wind was up. They were manned by crews that could vary between 125-200 bluejackets, Marines and officers depending on tasking.
They could carry between 16-20 smoothbore guns and this could vary as needed. These were primarily “new” Model of 1816 24-pound long guns, basically an updated Revolutionary War design made by Cecil Iron Works. These could fire round, grape, chain, case or canister shot out to an impressive 1,200 yards– which was much better than the typical 300 yards capable of the same type of guns used a generation prior. Each 24-pounder could be fired once every three minutes by a trained crew of 13 men and powder monkeys but a full 18-gun battery would need 234 blue jackets to be fully crewed, which often led to shifting gun crews on the sparsely manned sloops, alternating broadside gunnades port and starboard as needed.
In addition to the 24 pounders, some of the class often substituted a number of short-barreled Columbia Iron Works 32-pounder carronades, which were murderous at short range (400 yards) in broadside, but less useful at extended artillery duels.
It should also be noted that Fairfield and Vandalia were built with an additional quartet of 68-pounder (8″) shell-firing Paixhans guns in place of a similar number of 24 or 32s.
All 10 sloops built at six naval yards along the East Coast from 1825-28 and officially rated at “18-guns” on the Naval List despite their varying armaments.
The subject of our tale, Vincennes, was the first U.S. Navy ship named for the Siege of Fort Sackville, a three-day battle in 1779 in what is now Vincennes, Indiana by about 120 militia under George Rogers Clark (brother of Meriwether Clark of Lewis and Clark fame), that took about 300 redcoats/Native allies and the stockade they relied on with very few casualties.
Built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, USS Vincennes was commissioned 27 August 1826 at New York City and, like the rest of her class, was soon sailing the high seas.
Within a few months, she was in Hawaii, then China…then kept going. From 3 September 1826 to 8 June 1830, when she made it back to New York, she became the first U.S. Navy ship to circumnavigate the globe, though it took 45 months.
The next few years she patrolled the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific once again, then in 1838 was chosen to carry the flag of one rather peculiar and very Captain Bligh-like Lieutenant Charles Wilkes who had entered the Navy as a mid in 1818 and was a close acquaintance of President Jackson through the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences.
Wilkes would lead the six-ship United States Exploring Expedition, commonly just known as the “Wilkes Expedition,” that included a wealth of scientists, taxidermists, engravers and artists with Vincennes as flag, the old 22-gun sloop USS Peacock, brig USS Porpoise (230 tons), store-ship USS Relief, and schooners USS Sea Gull (110 tons) and USS Flying Fish (96 tons) in the train.
One peculiar weapon picked up for the expedition was the .54 caliber Elgin-patent percussion cutlass pistol produced by C.B. Allen of Springfield, Massachusetts. Note these are different from the similar guns made by Morill, Mosman and Blair (notable for their round barrel) of nearby Amherst.
It is a boxlock type frame with a 5-inch octagonal barrel and a 11” Bowie type blade underneath for stabby purposes.
Less than 150 (all octagonal-barreled Allen guns) were purchased by the Navy for the expedition and several went missing with the loss of the USS Peacock in 1854– making this example that I came across in Louisville last week (above) rare indeed. It was very modern in the respect that these Elgin Cutlass pistols were the first percussion firearms adopted by the U.S. military– all prior being flintlocks.
The crews of the expedition would put their Elgins to good use.
Departing from Hampton Roads on August 18, 1838, the expedition sailed for South America, Australia, Hawaii and along the Antarctic Coast.
Then in Fiji, Wilkes got in a scrap with locals over food bartering that left his nephew, a midshipman, dead as well as 40 Fijians.
In all the fleet would fight Pacific islanders on no less than three occasions: at the above-mentioned Battle of Malolo (where a naval party burned two villages to the ground in reprisal of the younger Wilkes’ death), Drummon’s Island (against 700 Gilbertese warriors) and Upolu in the Samoan chain.
Science can be messy sometimes.
After trekking up the Pacific Northwest, Wilkes expedition went back down to New Zealand and across the Indian Ocean back to the Atlantic, becoming the last all-sail naval mission to circumnavigate the globe (and Vincennes second evolution!) when they arrived in New York on 10 June 1842.
The trip took just under four years but produced the first map of the Oregon Territory, a wealth of exhibits and papers still maintained by the Smithsonian and something like 26 volumes of scientific reports.
However, at least 30 sailors were killed and two vessels lost: Sea Gull (at sea, April 1839 with all hands) and the Flying Fish (sold at Singapore as unfit to travel forward).
Vincennes after the expedition was reassigned to the Home Squadron but it was just a tease as she was soon again off to the Far East, accompanying the much larger ship-of-the-line USS Columbus (74-guns) for Commodore Biddle’s first American contact with the Empire of Japan. They arrived, anchored off Uraga for nine days in June 1846, and sailed off after the Japanese refused to talk.
When Vincennes came back to New York the next year, it was her third circumnavigation.
For the next decade, Vincennes remained a darling of long range oceanography explorations, hosting CDR Cadwalader Ringgold’s survey of the China Sea, the North Pacific, and the Bering Strait and a subsequent investigation of the Bonin, Kurile and Ryuku chains by Lt. John Rodgers (where she got in her fourth circumnavigation) before spending three years with the African Squadron on the slavery patrols.
During this time, with the Navy severely underfunded and staffed, her crew rarely broke 80 able-bodied sailors and Marines of all ranks. In such scenarios, only 4-5 guns could be fully manned should the sloop be engaged in naval combat.
Although long in the teeth by the time of the Civil War (most of her sisters were already stricken), and officially in ordinary, Vincennes was dusted off and assumed station between Santa Rosa Island, Florida and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, chiefly in the Mississippi Sound and off Fort Massachusetts and Fort Pickens. There she spent the entire war on patrol and reconnaissance duty.
She captured no less than four Confederate vessels and the blockade running British bark Empress. However, this service was just delaying the inevitable. She was laid up in ordinary at the Boston Navy Yard on 28 August 1865, just four months after Appomattox, and sold to the breakers two years later.
She traveled much further than most of her class, and outlasted many:
- Natchez was scrapped at the New York Navy Yard in 1840 after just 13 years’ service.
- Concord ran aground and was abandoned in 1842.
- Fairfield was decommissioned 3 February 1845 and broken up by 1852.
- Boston was wrecked on Eleuthera Island, Bahamas, during a squall on 15 November 1846.
- Lexington was decommissioned on 26 February 1855 and sold before the Civil War.
- Warren and Falmouth were both decommissioned 24 May 1859 and sold in Panama.
- Vandalia was decommissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 4 February 1863 and used as a receiving ship until 1872.
- St. Louis outlasted them all, decommissioned on 12 May 1865 and used as a receiving ship until 1907.
Vincennes’s name went on to be used by three cruisers in the 20th Century: the New Orleans-class heavy cruiser (CA-44) commissioned in 1937 and lost in the Battle of Savo Island in 1942; the Cleveland-class light cruiser (CL-64) commissioned in 1944 and sunk as target in 1969; and the Tico-class (CG-49) commissioned in 1985 and scrapped in 2011.
There is a four-sided monument to all of the USS Vincennes in Vincennes, Indiana’s Patrick Henry Square (though it calls our sloop a 24-gun vessel, which she never was)
Displacement: 700 long tons (710 t)
Length: 127 ft. (39 m)
Beam: 33 ft. 9 in (10.29 m)
Draft: 16 ft. (4.9 m)
Speed: 11 kn (13 mph; 20 km/h)
Armament: 18 × 24 pdr (11 kg) smoothbore guns, fancy smallarms
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International
They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find http://www.warship.org/membership.htm
The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.
Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.
PRINT still has it place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.
I’m a member, so should you be!