US Navy Protected Cruisers 1883-1918, Brian Lane Herder

US Navy Protected Cruisers 1883-1918, Brian Lane Herder

New Vanguard 320

The US protected cruisers were a surprisingly significant group of warships, playing a key part in the Spanish-American War, and in particular at the battle of Manila Bay, and thus in the expansion of US imperialism in the western Pacific, as well as having a major impact on US industry, helping US firms to catch up with their European rivals.

We start with a useful explanation of what a Protected Cruiser actually was – decendents of Armstrong’s Esmeralda, a cruiser buit at Elswick in Newcastle for Chile in the 1870s with a revolutionary new design, where the heavy armoured belt used in armoured cruisers of the period was eliminated and armour was limited to a thinner turtleback shaped steel deck mounted low in the ship and sloping down on either side, so that the central part was above the waterline while the edges were below it. This protected the machinery space from the sort of low angled hits that were most likely at the time, and freed up weight, making Emeralda unusually fast and heavily armed for a ship of only 2,950 tons.

The Design and Construction chapter looks at the political background to the construction of the first three of these cruisers, Atlanta, Boston and Chicago, three of the four first steel warships ordered for the US Navy and the foundation of what became known as the Steel Navy or New Navy. This was a key moment, as it marked the revival of the US Navy after a period of massive decline that followed the end of the US Civil War. We also look at the engines, weapons and armour produced for these ships, each of which required US industry to catch up with its more advanced European rivals.

We then move onto three chapters looking at the main types of protected cruisers built for the US Navy in this period. We start with those same first three cruisers, which were a mix of the obsolete and state of the art, with outdated engines, sailing rigs, but also electrical power and the modern layout of the protected cruiser. These ships were also affected by the change in power in 1884, when Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat President for 24 years, and his new government almost immediately attempted to take over construction of these ships from the Republican Roach, who had been given the contract in the previous year.

Progress was quick, and these first three ships were followed by a much improved second generation in 1889-91. These were the first to get Cruiser hull numbers, as Cruiser No.1 to Cruiser No.5. They were still fairly experimental – the first was built to a US design, the second and third to different Armstrong designs, and the last two to a modified version of the first and third designs. As was often the case when new types of warships were entering service, the earlier ships had yet to enter service when the later ones were ordered, so it was often hard to tell which ideas worked and which didn’t.

The third set of cruisers were designed to be much faster than the earlier ones, and were intended to be fast commerce raiders. The first, USS Olympia (C-6) was a succesful design that remained in service for some time. However the two Columbia class ships were built with even more speed in mind, and by the time they entered service the US Navy had abandoned the idea of commerce raiding in favour of building a modern battle fleet. They were certainly very fast for the time with the Columbia setting a speed record of 25.31kts over a 7.74 nautical mile course, then crossing the Atlantic in a record time of 6 days, 23 hours, 49 minutes in 1895. However they turned out to be far less fuel efficient than expected with an endurance one quarter of their designed endurance!

These three chapters are a fascinating look at a group of ships produced when naval architecture was in flux, with steel construction replacing ironclads and timber, ever more powerful and reliable steam engines slowly replacing sail even on long range cruisers and new and more powerful weapons being developed.

We then move on to look at their operational history, starting with a look at the Squadron of Evolution, which saw all of the ABCD cruisers work together, to train the new ships to work together. Next comes a look at their role in the Spanish-American War, which saw all but the Atlanta and Chicago (then in the middle of overhauls) take part in the conflict. Several of them took part in the battle of Manilla Bay, lead by the Olympia. This appears to be a rare example of a battle where both commanders were determined not to risk nearby civilian life, with the Spanish commander positioning his ships out of range of his own coastal guns because any fighting in that area would have inevitably resulted in American shells hitting Manila (but also close enough to shore to make sure his men could swim to safety, acknowledging how badly he was outclassed..). The resulting battle was the high point for the US protected cruiser, and saw them win a crushing victory against the Spanish squadron.

After that the protected cruisers slowly faded away, but most were still intact when the US entered the First World War. This gave several of them a new use, with some being used on convoy escort missions, and others as patrol ships. They all left front line service in the 1920s, although some survived into the Second World War as auxiliaries. We finish with a comparison of the battleship New Jersey and protected cruiser Olympia, which are now moored close to each other on the Delaware River (mainly because the author visited both on the same day). This actually gives some interesting insights, with the Olympia being more open and comfortable on the upper decks, with limited internal subdivision and thus larger open spaces than the much larger battleship, but far more cramped below decks in the machinery spaces.

Design and Construction
The ABC Cruisers 1886-89
Second Generation Cruisers 1889-91
Fast Cruisers 1894-95
Operation History

Author: Brian Lane Herder
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 48
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2023

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