Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 period 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, Sept. 12, 2018: Of Chucktown, Agana and Camiguin
Here we see the U.S. Navy’s one-of-a-kind protected cruiser USS Charleston (C-2) in San Francisco Bay, circa early 1890.
Protected cruisers, generally what would be termed in WWII as light cruisers, were a class all to their own in the late 19th Century and the U.S. Navy was just getting into the business. The first three steel cruisers for the USN– Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago— the so-called “ABC” cruisers, were all ordered in the early 1880s as the country was shaking off the slumber of the Civil War and the Navy’s “Great Repairs” period.
To see what was going on in Europe, a fourth cruiser was to be built to plans purchased from Armstrong in Britain, similar to the Armstrong-built Japanese cruiser Naniwa, which launched in 1885. Some 3,800-tons, she was to be constructed on the West Coast at Union Iron Works in San Francisco.
Just 320-feet long, she was smaller than a frigate of today but had a complicated steam plant of six fire-tube boilers and two engines that allowed a speed of some 19-knots, which was fast-ish for the 1880s. Protected (see where the designation comes from?) by 2-3 inches of steel plate armor, she carried a pair of breechloading 8″/35 guns (one aft and one forward), as well as a half-dozen 6″/30s and a dozen smaller 1-, 3-, and 6-pounder guns. She also had four above-water torpedo tubes.
Charleston further carried some Gatlings and landing guns as she could put her 30-man Marine detachment and as many as 100 of her sailors ashore to act as light infantry.
Confusingly, what was to be the first numbered cruiser USS Newark (C-1), actually was ordered after Charleston, from William Cramp and Sons, Philadelphia, in 1888. Cramp was also building the cruiser Baltimore (C-3) at the same time to plans purchased from Armstrong, to make things even more confusing. Anyway, back to our ship.
Only the second U.S. Navy ship to carry the name, the first being a short-lived galley that commissioned in 1798, Charleston commissioned 26 December 1889, CAPT G. C. Remey in command and, after working out some bugs with her engineering plant, sailed for the Far East to become the flag of the Pacific Squadron.
According to DANFS, She carried the remains of the “Merrie Monarch,” King Kalakaua of Hawaii to Honolulu after his death abroad, and between 8 May and 4 June 1891, took part in the search for the Chilean steamer Itata which had fled San Diego in violation of the American neutrality laws, enforced strictly during the Chilean Revolution.
In 1893 she was back on the East Coast as part of the International Naval Review conducted at New York City 26 April 1893 during the Columbian Exposition before heading to Latin American waters to provide gunboat diplomacy amidst the Brazilian Revolution.
Charleston seemed a popular ship and had good duty, traveling the world from Singapore to Halifax and back several times. The below images show her off Brazil, where she was part of the international force there.
By 1896, already growing increasingly obsolete and in need of an overhaul, she was placed in ordinary in San Francisco.
When war with Spain reared in 1898, she was called out of extended repair and, with the captain of the Mare Island yard, Henry Glass, assigned as her skipper.
Just two weeks later, she sailed for Honolulu where the cruiser met three steamers, City of Peking, the City of Sydney, and Australia, packed with Marines and U.S. Volunteers headed to the Philipines.
Leaving Honolulu on 4 June, Glass, a 54-year old Union Navy vet who ironically saw hard service on the steam sloop Canandaigua blockading the port of Charleston during the Civil War, opened sealed orders from SECNAV John Davis Long:
Sir: Upon the receipt of this order, which is forwarded by the steamship City of Pekin to you at Honolulu, you will proceed, with the Charleston and the City of Pekin in company, to Manila, Philippine Islands. On your way, you are hereby directed to stop at the Spanish Island of Guam. You will use such force as may be necessary to capture the port of Guam, making prisoners of the governor and other officials and any armed force that may be there. You will destroy any fortifications on said island and any Spanish naval vessels that may be there, or in the immediate vicinity. These operations at the Island of Guam should be very brief, and should not occupy more than one or two days. Should you find any coal at the Island of Guam, you will make such use of it as you consider desirable. It is left to your discretion whether or not you destroy it. From the Island of Guam, proceed to Manila and report to Rear-Admiral George Dewey, U.S.N., for duty in the squadron under his command.
Almost at once, a boatload of Spanish authorities came out to apologize for having no gunpowder with which to return the supposed salute. They were astounded to learn that a state of war existed and that the American ships had come to take the island.
According to the July 5, 1898 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, the men apologized to Captain Glass for not returning his “salute” – the thirteen shots fired – and told him if they could just borrow a little gunpowder, they would return to shore and respectfully reciprocate. They were even nice enough to ask after the crew’s health and to try and engage in friendly conversation.
How sad it must have been when Captain Glass informed them of Spain’s defeat at Manila, his intention of taking Guam, and that when they had boarded the ship they had become prisoners of war.
Glass, in turn, learned that the island was not greatly fortified and the Spanish military presence was merely 54 Spanish soldiers and 54 Chamorros (indigenous peoples of Guam) armed with Mausers and Remingtons Rolling Block 45-90s. The four cannons peering out from the port were nearly unusable, and besides, they didn’t have gunpowder.
The next day the surrender was received by a landing party sent ashore from Charleston. With the Spanish governor and the island’s garrison of 54 as prisoners in one of the transports, Charleston then sailed to join Admiral Dewey’s fleet in Manila Bay.”
When the American and Spanish negotiators finally signed the Treaty of Paris on 10 December, one of its provisions gave possession and control of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico to the United States. Likewise, CDR (later RADM) Edward D. Taussig of the gunboat USS Bennington took formal possession of Wake Island for the United States with the raising of the flag and a 21-gun salute on January 17, 1899. The only witnesses aside from her crew were seabirds. The ship arrived at Guam at the end of the month and on 1 February the US colors were raised by Taussig at the Government House there. Taussig reportedly found the abandoned Spanish positions, masonry works constructed c.1800 and armed with four or five black powder guns, in poor shape.
Back to Charleston, post-Guam.
Arriving at Manila on 30 June 1898, she was too late to take part in Dewey’s epic naval skirmish that left the Spanish fleet at the bottom of the harbor but did take place in the naval blockade that followed and provided naval gunfire support against first the retiring Spanish Army and then the local insurgents.
Ending a short naval career, she proved another first for the Navy when she became the first steel-hulled ship lost by the service after she grounded on an uncharted reef near Camiguin Island, north of Luzon on 2 November.
Wrecked beyond salvage, she was abandoned by her crew, who made camp on a nearby island, later moving on to Camiguin while the ship’s sailing launch was sent for help. Keeping over 300 safe and together for two weeks on a desolate atoll is the stuff of blockbuster movies today but has escaped the attention of Hollywood. Either way, on 12 November, the gunboat USS Helena (PG-9) arrived to rescue the shipwrecked survivors.
She is remembered in maritime art.
The remains of the ship were apparently plundered first by locals and then by groups of better equipped “treasure hunters” armed with explosives in the 1990s and little is thought to endure. The illegal salvors were looking for everything from coins stored aboard following the occupation of Manila to souvenirs bought by her crew in China.
The wreck did not end the career of Glass, who was sent back to the states to take command of the naval training station at San Francisco. By 1901 he was CIC, Pacific Squadron, and served until he was placed on the retired list in 1906 as Commandant, Pacific Naval District, leaving the service as a RADM. He died in 1908, aged 84.
Naval Base Guam has a plaque commemorating him and the Glass Breakwater in Apra Harbor is named in his honor.
The Charleston‘s name was reissued in 1905 to another cruiser (C-22) which served through the Great War, and by the Erie-class gunboat (PG-51) for WWII service. Since then, it has been carried by an amphibious cargo ship (LKA-113) and issued to PCS-Charleston (LCS-18) which is expected to commission later this year. The Navy took delivery of her in Mobile last week.
As for reefs in the Philippines, they are still claiming warships.
Displacement 3,730 tons,
Length: 320′ (oa)
Draft: 21′ 9″ (Max)
Machinery: 7,500 IHP; 2 Horizontal, Compound engines, 2 screws
Speed: 19 Knots
Armor, 3″ Shields, 3″ Deck, 2″ Conning Tower.
2 x 8″/35 Mark III
6 x 6″/30
4 x 6pdr
2 x 3pdr
2 x 1pdr
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