Warship Wednesday, June 21, 2017: The Tsar’s everlasting musketeer
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 and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, June 21, 2017: The Tsar’s everlasting musketeer
Here we see the Uragan/Bronenosets-class monitor Strelets as she appeared in the heyday of her career in the late 19th Century in the Baltic Fleet of the Tsar’s Imperial Russian Navy. A byproduct of a strange time in Russian-U.S. history, she somehow endures today.
The Misinterpreted Russian Navy Mission in the US Civil War that may have accidentally helped the North win the conflict.
In 1863, it looked as if the mighty British Empire may intervene in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. War fever had come to London early in the conflict after the “Trent Affair” while British firms such as Enfield and Whitworth sold tremendous amounts of arms of all kinds to Confederate agents which were in turn often smuggled through the U.S. naval quarantine via British blockade-runners. Confederate raiders including the notorious CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah were constructed in English harbors. British war tourist Colonel (later General Sir) Arthur Fremantle in 1863 had just returned from three months in both the U.S. and Confederate commands fighting the war and loudly pronounced that the Confederates would certainly be victorious.
Relations between the United States and Tsarist Russia were warmer than with many other European nations at the time. Cassius Marcellus Clay, a well-known abolitionist, was ambassador to the court of Tsar Alexander II during the conflict. It was Clay’s report on the Tsar’s Emancipation of 23 million serfs in 1861 that helped pave the way for Lincolns own Emancipation Proclamation of the four million slaves the next year. American engineers and railway organizers were helpful in starting the early Russian railway system. Clay openly encouraged a military alliance and thought of Russia as a hedge between possible British intervention on the Confederate side.
On 24 September 1863, two separate Russian naval squadrons arrived in U.S. waters unannounced on both the East and West Coasts.
The Russian Atlantic fleet had sailed from the Baltic and arrived at New York under command of RADM Lesovskii with three large frigates and a trio of smaller vessels. The fleet included the new and fearsome 5,100-ton U.S.-built screw frigate Alexander Nevsky with her 51 60-pounder naval guns.
The Russian Pacific fleet that arrived on the West Coast at San Francisco was under command of RADM Popov and consisted of four small gunboats with a pair of armed merchant cruisers.
The ships were saluted and allowed entry as being on a friendly port call. The American media and political machine immediately interpreted the reason for these naval visits as clear Russian support for Lincoln.
The real reason, however, seems to be something quite different.
Poland, largely occupied by Russia, was in open revolt in the summer of 1863. The crisis that followed included the possibility that Britain and or France would intervene on the side of the insurgent Poles. The Tsar, fearing his isolated Pacific and Atlantic naval squadrons would be seized or destroyed by superior British or French units in the event of war, sent them into neutral U.S. ports to seek refuge. This fact was held from the Americans and the fleets’ Russian officers simply stated that they were in American ports for “not unfriendly purposes.”
The respective admirals of the Russian squadrons had sealed orders to place themselves at the disposal of the U.S. government in the event of a joint British or French intervention on both Russia and the United States. In the event of Russia entering war with the Anglo-French forces alone then the Russian ships were to sortie against the commercial fleets of those vessels as best as they could and then seek internment.
Several historians claim that the British government saw this mysterious visit by the Russians in U.S. waters as an open confirmation of a secret military pact between the two future superpowers. This interpretation further helped deter foreign recognition of the Confederate cause and resulted in the extinguishing of the South’s flame of hope. It can also be claimed that it stalled British intervention in the Tsar’s problems in Poland with the thought that it could result in a U.S. invasion of Canada.
When the Polish crisis abated in April 1864, the Russian fleets were recalled quietly to their respective home waters. The dozen Tsarist warships had conducted port calls and training cruises in U.S. and neighboring waters for almost seven months during the war while managing to avoid the conflict altogether. In the late fall of 1863, with rumors of Confederate raiders lurking on the West Coast, Popov reassured to the governor of California that he and his fleet would indeed protect the coast of their de facto ally if the raiders did appear.
The U.S. Navy, on the cutting edge of ironclad steam warship design, passed along plans and expertise to their Russian colleagues who had no such vessels. By 1865, the Tsar had a fleet of 10 ultra-modern 200-foot long ironclad battleships based on the monitor USS Passaic. These ships, known to the Russians as the Uragan/Bronenosetz class were a match for any European navy of the time– at least in their home waters.
In 1867, Russian Ambassador Baron Stoeckel advised US Secretary Seward that the Russian government would entertain bids for the failing colony of Alaska, which was rapidly accepted. Cassius Clay, still in Russia, helped to conduct the negations from inside the Winter Palace. The Russians even rapidly transferred control of the territory, which was seen by many to be worthless nearly a year before Congress ratified the transfer and in effect, couldn’t give it back.
This odd incident of the Russian fleets’ visit may have prevented what would have certainly been one of the planet’s first and possibly oddest of world wars. The real reasons for the Russian interlude were only uncovered and publicized nearly 50 years later in 1915 by military historian Frank Golder.
But let’s get back to the monitors
These modified Passaic-type ships were low in the water, single turret “cheesebox on a raft” style armored ships that could be fearsome in coastal waters. Their wrought-iron armor, stacked in 1-inch plates, varied between a single plate on deck to 10 inches on the turret, which was filled with a pair of 9-inch smoothbore guns with 100 shells each. The steam-powered turret took 35 seconds to make a full rotation.
A pair of boilers vented through a single stack pushed a 460ihp engine to about 8-knots when wide open, though in actuality they rarely broke 6.
As they had a very low freeboard indeed (just 18 inches above the waterline when fully loaded) the ships were intended for the defense of the Gulf of Finland and St. Petersburg, with memories of the Anglo-French fleet ruling the Baltic during the Crimean War still a recent memory.
Ten vessels were built, all with colorful names: Uragan “Hurricane,” Tifon “Typhon,” Strelets “Sagittarius,” Edinorog “Unicorn,” Bronenosets “Armadillo,” Latnik “Cuirassier,” Koldun “Sorcerer,” Perun (the Slavic god of lightning and thunder), Veshchun “Snake Charmer,” and Lava.
The hero of our story, Strelets, while named for a zodiac symbol for Sagittarius, was the Tsarist terminology for the early corps of musketeers established in the 16th century and retained until Peter the Great decided they were getting too big for their collective britches after a series of palace coups by the Moscow-based units.
Laid down at the Galernyi Island Shipyard, Saint Petersburg on 1 December 1863, just weeks after her plans had been obtained in the U.S., she was commissioned 15 June 1865, built at a cost of 1.1 million rubles alongside sister Edinorog. The pair were the last of the 10 completed.
Their eight remaining sisters were completed in a series of four other yards, with all joining the fleet by the summer of 1865.
By 1868, the 9-inch smoothbores were replaced by 15-inch Dahlgren-style guns built to U.S. plans at the Aleksandrovsk gun factory, for which just 50 shells could be carried in her magazine.
However, these guns were soon obsolete and were in turn replaced by Krupp-designed, Obukhov-made M1867 229/14 breechloaders. One of these guns was the subject of an explosion near the breech in 1876 that claimed the lives of five.
This led to another armament replacement in 1878 with 229/19 M1877 rifles augmented by a pair of 45-mm rapid-fire guns on an increasingly cluttered deck to which 5-barreled 37/17 Hotchkiss revolving cannon were also later added.
Rapidly obsolete in the twilight of the 19th Century, on 1 February 1892 Strelets and the rest of her class were deemed “coastal defense ships” and by 1900 all 10 sisters were withdrawn from service and disarmed.
While many were soon scrapped, Strelets was reclassified as a floating workshop at Kronstadt on 22 February 1901 and was retained by the fleet until Christmas Eve 1955.
As such, she witnessed the Baltic Fleet sail away to destruction in the Russo-Japanese War in (1904-05), supported operations against the Germans (1914-1917) in the Great War, witnessed the Red Fleet rise in the Revolution, withstood the British in the Russian Civil War, survived the storming of Kronstadt by the Reds in 1921, lent her shops to the Red Banner Fleet against the Finns (1939-40) then the Germans again (1941-45)– in all spending over 90 years on the rolls in one form or another.
After leaving naval service she was retained in a variety of roles in and around Leningrad/St. Petersburg and in 2015 was found in floating condition, her internals still showing off those classic Civil War lines.
She has since been recovered by a group terming itself “The Foundation for Historic Boats” who, together with the Russian Central Military History Museum, are attempting to restore her to a more monitor-like condition. She could very well be the oldest monitor remaining afloat.
For more information in that, click here.
Displacement: 1,500–1,600 long tons (1,524–1,626 t)
Length: 201 ft. (61.3 m)
Beam: 46 ft. (14.0 m)
Draft: 10.16–10.84 ft. (3.1–3.3 m)
460hp 2-cylinder direct-acting steam engine, 1 shaft, 1 4-lop. screw
2 rectangular Morton boilers, 1 stack
Speed: 6 knots (11 km/h; 6.9 mph)
Range: 1,440 nmi (2,670 km; 1,660 mi) at 6 knots (11 km/h; 6.9 mph) with 100 tons coal
Complement: 1865: 96 (8); 1877: 110 (10); 1900, assigned support personnel
1865: 2 × 9 in (229 mm) smoothbore guns
1868: 2 × 15 in (381 mm) smoothbore Rodman guns
1873: 2 × 9 in (229 mm) rifled guns, 2x45mm guns
1890: 2 × 9 in (229 mm) rifled guns, 2x 47/40, 2x 5-barreled 37/17 Hotchkiss revolving cannon
Armor: wrought Izhora iron
Hull: 5 in (127 mm)
Gun turret: 11 in (279 mm)
Funnel base: 6 in (152 mm)
Conning tower: 8 in (203 mm)
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