Warship Wednesday, March 31, 2021: NOLA by way of Brazil
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, March 31, 2021: NOLA by way of Brazil
Here we see the Elswick-built Chacabucu-class protected cruiser USS New Orleans (later CL-22) at Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1900s. Prominently displayed is the cruiser’s elaborate stern decoration, which looks a lot like the Brazilian national emblem, and for good reason.
As part of a general Latin American naval build-up, Brazil ordered four cruisers in 1894 from Armstrong, Whitworth & Co from a design by British naval architect Philip Watts at ₤265,000 a pop. These ships, with a 3,800-ton displacement on a 354-foot hull, were smaller than a frigate by today’s standards but in the late 19th century, with a battery of a half-dozen 6″/50 (15.2 cm) BL Marks IX guns and Harvey armor that ranged between 0.75 inches on their hull to 4.5-inches on their towers, were deemed protected cruisers.
For batting away smaller vessels, they had four 4.7-inch (120mm) Armstrongs, 14 assorted 57 mm and 37mm quick-firing pieces, and three early Nordenfelt 7mm machine guns. To prove their worth in a battle line, they had three torpedo tubes and a brace of Whitehead 18-inch fish with guncotton warheads. They would be the first ships in the Brazilian fleet to have radiotelegraphs and were thoroughly modern for their time.
However, their four Vosper Thornycroft boilers and turbines, augmented by an auxiliary sailing rig, could only just make 20 knots with everything lit on a clean hull.
The lead ship of the class, laid down as Chacabucu (Elswick Yard Number 629) for the Brazilian government in March 1895, was sold to the Chileans just six months later with her name duly switched to Ministro Zenteno after a hero of the latter country. The second vessel, Almirante Barroso (Yard No. 630), was ordered in November 1894 and commissioned on 29 April 1897. Yard Nos. 631 and 676 were to be Amazonas and Almirante Abreu.
When things got squirrelly between the U.S. and Spain in early 1898 over Cuban independence and the lost battleship USS Maine, American purchasing agents were active in Europe both to A) expand Uncle Sam’s fleet, and B) prevent the Spaniards from doing the same.
This led to an agreement to buy from Brazil the old dynamite cruiser Nictheroy, though without her guns, and the two nearly complete cruisers outfitting on the Tyne. Lt. John C. Colwell, the naval attaché in London, personally took delivery of both British-built cruisers at Gravesend, England on 18 March, just a month after the loss of Maine and still a month before the American declaration of war.
With that, Nictheroy became USS Buffalo, Amazonas very quickly became USS New Orleans –the first time the name was carried by an active warship on the Navy List– and Almirante Abreu would eventually join the fleet as USS Albany. New Orleans, ready to go, would be sailed across the Atlantic by scratch crews from the cruiser USS San Francisco while English engineers handled the machinery, recording her Brazilian name in her logbook for the crossing.
She proved a popular subject with photographers, after all, she was a brand-new cruiser that descended seemingly from Mars himself, on the eve of the nation’s first conflict with a European power since 1815.
Her Span Am War service was significant, shipping out of Norfolk three weeks after the declaration and meeting the Flying Squadron off Santiago de Cuba on 30 May. The next day, our new cruiser, along with USS Massachusetts (Coast Battleship No.2) and USS Iowa (Coast Battleship No.4) reconnoitered the harbor, exchanging heavy fire with both Spanish ships and shore batteries.
New Orleans went on to spend the rest of her war on blockade duty, shuffling between Guantanamo Bay and San Juan. On 17 July 1898, she captured the French blockade runner Olinde Rodrigues trying to sneak into the latter and sent her, under a prize crew, to Charleston, South Carolina. The steamship was owned and claimed by La Compagnie Generale Transatlantique out of Harve, which later became the subject of a lengthy court case that, in the end, left the New Orleans’s crew without prize money.
Immediately after the conclusion of hostilities, she took part in the Peace Jubilee in New York, visited her namesake “hometown” in the Crescent City, then sailed for the Philippines via the Suez, arriving just before Christmas 1899, where she would remain on station for four years.
Laid up from 1905 to 1909, she recommissioned in 1910 with a new suite of American-pattern guns and headed to the Far East once again, with a gleaming new scheme worthy of TR’s Great White Fleet.
By 1914, she was back in North American waters, spending time– along with most of the other surface assets of the fleet– in Mexican waters, patrolling that country’s Pacific coast in a haze gray scheme. This was a mission she would continue for three years, alternating with trips back up to Puget Sound where she would serve as a training vessel for the Washington State Naval Militia.
When the U.S. entered the Great War, she was transferred to the Atlantic, arriving at Hampton Roads on 27 August 1917. From there, she escorted a convoy carrying Doughboys and materiel to Europe. However, with plenty of ships on tap in the British Isles, the funky third-class cruiser received orders once more for the Pacific, reaching Yokohama from Honolulu on 13 March 1918.
It was about this time that the Western Allies decided to intervene in the affairs of civil war-torn Russia, landing troops in Vladivostok in the Pacific as well as Archangel and Murmansk in the White/Barents Seas.
New Orleans would remain off and on as a station ship in Vladivostok until 17 August 1922, as the city’s population had quadrupled from 90,000 to more than 400,000 as refugees from the anti-Bolshevik White Russian forces and the Czechoslovak Legion, the latter formed from Austro-Hungarian Army POWs in Siberia, swelled the port, seeking to escape the oncoming Reds. Sheltered under the guns of American, British, French, and Japanese ships, the city remained the last large holdout from Moscow’s control, only being secured by the Red Army in October 1922 with the withdrawal of the hated “Interventionists.”
Her last mission completed, and her tonnage held against the fleet in future naval treaties, New Orleans returned to Mare Island on 23 September, after calls en route at Yokohama and Honolulu, and was decommissioned on 16 November 1922. Stricken from the Navy List on 13 November 1929, she was sold for scrapping on 4 February 1930 to D. C. Seagraves of San Francisco, California.
As for her sisters, Chacabucu/Ministro Zenteno remained in Chilean service until 1930 and was scrapped while about the same time the Brazilian Barroso was disarmed and turned into a floating barracks, ultimately being written off sometime later, date unknown.
Albany missed the Span Am War, being commissioned in the River Tyne, England, on 29 May 1900. Sailing for the Far East from there where she would serve, alternating cruises back to Europe, until 1913 she only went to the U.S. for the first time for her mid-life refit. Recommissioned in 1914, Albany served off Mexico, gave convoy duty in WWI, and ended up with sister New Orleans briefly in Russia. With the post-war drawdown, she was placed out of commission on 10 October 1922 at Mare Island and sold for scrap in 1930.
Our cruiser is remembered in period maritime art.
Her plans are in the National Archives.
A single 4.7-inch Elswick Armstrong gun from each of these English-made Brazilian cruisers in U.S. service is installed at the Kane County, Illinois Soldier and Sailor Monument at the former courthouse in Geneva, Illinois.
SECNAV has done a good job of keeping a “NO Boat” or “NOLA boat” on the Naval List for roughly 103 of the past 122 years.
The second completed USS New Orleans would also be a cruiser, CA-32, leader of her seven-hull class of 10,000-ton “Treaty Cruisers” built in the early-to-mid 1930s. The class would give very hard service in WWII, with three sunk at the horrific Battle of Savo Island. However, USS New Orleans (CA-32) was luckier, earning a remarkable 17 battlestars, going on to be laid up in 1947 and stricken/scrapped in 1959.
The third USS New Orleans was an Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ship, LPH-11, commissioned in 1968. After a 30-year career, she was decommissioned and later disposed of in a SINKEX in 2020.
The fourth New Orleans is a Pascagoula-built San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, LPD-18, that has been in the fleet since 2007.
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