Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 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 3, 2020: Father Neptune’s Thundering Mountain
Here we see the envisioned Union Navy ironclad screw ram USS Dunderberg in a late Civil War-era lithograph. Such an impressive vessel, completed during perhaps the most significant “modern” war of the mid-19th Century, should have been the stuff of legend, yet today is virtually unknown.
A massive 350-long, 7,500-ton ram-bowed casemate ironclad– keep in mind CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack) was only 275-feet, 4,000-tons– Dunderberg sprang from the mind of New York City naval architect William H. Webb the month after aforementioned Virginia debuted off Hampton Roads.
The world’s longest wooden-hulled ship (at the time) “Dunderberg” came from the Swedish word meaning “thunder(ing) mountain,” and Webb intended to back up the moniker with as many as 18 large (11- and 15-inch) Dahlgren and Rodman guns. This armament would be carried in a pair of revolving “Timby” turrets atop the casemate battery, a structure which itself would carry the bulk of the pieces.
The whole affair was to be protected by an armor sheath that ran over a foot thick in places and weighed over 1,000 tons in and of itself. The wooden hull was doubled and equipped with pumps
Powered by six boilers that by any but pre-1860’s standard would be considered primitive, it was envisioned for the beast to make an astonishing speed of 15-knots, enabling her 50-foot solid bow ram to smash unprotected man-o-wars to splinters. Keep in mind that Webb was at the same time under contract to construct the innovative 38-gun broadside ironclad frigates Re d’Italia and Re di Portogallo for Italy, which ironically would be the object of skillful Austrian ramming in 1866 at the Battle of Lissa.
The Sailor’s Magazine, and Naval Journal, Volume 38, noted that “In every respect, the Dunderberg will be the ship of the age, and her performances will no doubt create a sensation here as well as in Europe.”
So why didn’t Farragut hoist his flag on the mighty Dunderberg as he damned the torpedos? Well, time wore on and design changes mounted, forcing the ship, which was laid down 3 October 1862, to only launch on 22 July 1865– notably more than three months after the War Between the States had already effectively ended at Appomattox Court House. Her armor was different and noticeably thinner. She never did get those turrets. She ended up slower than planned and had the handling of a buffalo while in the water.
Floating, incomplete in New York harbor, the New York Times of the day shrewdly observed, “it was expected that long since she would have participated in the splendid naval engagements that have marked the history of our navy during the rebellion; but owing to various causes, the delay in her machinery and the contemplated change by the government in her original design, the bright anticipations respecting her have not been realized.”
Meanwhile, down in Washington, the 24th United States Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, Mr. Lincoln’s fabled “Father Neptune,” noted in his diary in July 1865 that public detractors such as Republican lawmaker Henry Winter Davis had during the war attacked the Navy Department for not having a fleet of such “formidable vessels,” saying:
I had vessels for the purposes then wanted. Ships of a more expensive and formidable character, like the Dunderberg, could not be built in a day. Now, when they are likely not to be wanted, and when they are drawing near completion, the same class of persons abuse me for what I have done towards building a formidable navy.
With Lincoln marching to the great parade grounds in the sky and an unpopular Vice President-turned-President Andrew Johnson in a now-peacetime and cash-strapped Oval Office, the Navy, as well as the rest of the federal government, had to tighten their belts. Father Neptune’s intrepid fleet, the largest in the Western hemisphere and arguably the most modern in the world in 1865, was sold off, laid-up, sent to the breakers, or otherwise reduced to a shadow of its former self and would remain that way for the next 25 years.
Wells in late 1865 had to make do with two brand-new seagoing monitors, the 4,400-ton USS Dictator (2x 15-inch Dahlgren guns) and the larger 5,000-ton USS Puritan (2×20-inch Dahlgrens), which were nominally completed, to be used by the Navy for the intended purpose of breaking any future blockade from overseas adversaries such as England and had no place in the budget to purchase Dunderberg, much less pay the anticipated 600 bluejackets needed to crew her. As it was, both Dictator and Puritan were immediately placed in ordinary with the latter never even fully commissioned.
With that, Dunderberg languished in Webb’s yard for months as she remained in limbo, ordered by the Navy and partially built with public funds, but never put into service.
Eventually, the government of Emperor Napolean III sought to acquire the vessel– reportedly so that the Prussians did not– and Webb sold her to the French who placed her in service as Rochambeau. As such, she only went on her sea trials in 1867. The purchase price allowed Webb to refund the dollars advanced to him during the war by Wells to construct her, although the jury is still out on if the shipbuilder turned a profit on the vessel.
Once Rochambeau made it to Cherbourg, her Dahlgrens were landed and replaced with 14 smaller domestically made guns for commonality with the rest of the French fleet.
A poor sea boat, she was rebuilt in 1868 and was never really satisfactory, although she was, for better or worse, the most powerful ship in the Marine Impériale.
From Frederick Martin’s The Statesman’s Year-book of the era:
During the war with Germany in 1870, Rochambeau saw no service of note although her crew was landed and sent to Paris for the defense and later siege of the great city. Ultimately, the great ironclad was scrapped in 1874, less than a decade after she was launched.
Dunderberg’s plans are in the National Archives and she is remembered in a variety of period maritime art.
Displacement: 5,090 registered; 7,725 full
Length: 352 ft 4 in (p/p), 380 ft extreme
Beam: 72 ft 8 in
Draft: 21 ft 4 in
Propulsion 6 Tubular boilers + 2 donky boilers, 1 shaft, 2 horizontal back-acting steam engines, 5000shp (designed) 4000 in practice
Sail plan: Brigantine rig
Speed: 15+ knots designed, 14~ knots actual
Range: 1,200 nmi at 8 knots on 1,000 tons coal
(As designed, up to 15 inches thick)
Waterline belt: 3.5–2.8 in
Deck: 0.7 in
Casemate: 4.7 in
Conning tower: 9.8 in
4 x 15-inch Rodman in two turrets
14 x 11-inch Dahlgren guns in casemate
(In French service)
4 x 10.8-inch Mle 1864/66 guns
10 x 9.4-inch Mle 1864/66 guns
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.
With more than 50 years of scholarship, 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 its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.
I’m a member, so should you be!