- Historic Sites
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
With the return of peace, Congress determined that the Navy needed a fleet of ships of the line to defend the country in any future war with Great Britain. It could not hope to match the Royal Navy ship for ship, of course, but any reasonable fleet in being would vastly complicate British strategic planning in the event of war. Moreover, skillfully handled and with the homeground advantage, such a fleet might well at least temporarily break any British blockade.
So Congress, on April 29, 1816, “authorized to cause to be built, nine ships to rate not less than 74 guns each.” All nine were eventually laid down, in shipyards from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Norfolk, Virginia, and four of them were completed in a timely manner by the end of 1820. None of these ships ever saw action, of course, for the world had entered an extended era of peace.
As the risk of a naval war diminished nearly to the vanishing point in the years after the War of 1812, and as the Industrial Revolution ended the age of sail, the five remaining ships in the program lost all military justification but not, of course, their pork-barrel potential to provide construction jobs. Indeed, their history is so laden with pork, it positively oinks.
Although work on them slowed to a crawl (it was usually heavily concentrated in the few weeks preceding elections), none was ever actually canceled. The USS Virginia , laid down in Boston in 1822, was left unfinished after 1839, its construction having cost the taxpayers $197,400. (To put that figure in perspective, the Navy’s budget in 1839 was only slightly over five million.)
The USS Alabama was the only ship of the five not to be started in an election year, work beginning in 1817 in Portsmouth. She lay on the stocks for forty-six years, however, before being finally launched in 1863, one year after the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack had demonstrated beyond a doubt that the days of fighting sail were over. (The Alabama , understandably enough under the circumstances, was launched as the USS New Hampshire .)
The fattest ham in the Navy pork barrel was the Pennsylvania . She took fifteen costly years to build, never fought, and hardly even sailed.
The New York , started in Norfolk in 1818, was burned, still unlaunched, by retreating Federal forces in 1861. And the Vermont , laid down in Boston in 1818, was launched only in 1848. No sooner did she at last have water under her keel than she was mothballed until 1862. At least she was the only one of the five to see action after a fashion, serving in the blockading squadron off Port Royal, South Carolina, during the Civil War.
But the fattest, juiciest, most nourishing ham in this whole barrel was the USS Pennsylvania . When Congress specified only that these ships be “not less than 74 guns,” the Board of Naval Commissioners, the policy-setting arm of the Navy, saw a political opening of irresistible potential. It ordered up a leviathan.
The Pennsylvania had gunports for no fewer than 136 guns, 36 more than the Victory herself had carried into the Battle of Trafalgar. At 3,366 tons she was the largest wooden warship ever built in the United States, by far, and by some measures the largest ever built anywhere. Laid down in 1822, she monopolized the resources of the Philadelphia Naval Yard for the next fifteen years, like a cuckoo hatchling in a wren’s nest. Fully armed, the Pennsylvania would have needed a crew of at least 1,100 men to fight her. Yet in the year she was begun, the personnel of the entire Navy was only 3,774.
And she never fought. In fact, she hardly ever sailed. Finally completed in 1837, she proceeded down the Delaware River, stopped briefly in New Castle, Delaware, to pick up gun carriages, and then sailed on to the Norfolk Naval Yard in Virginia. Her skeleton crew was immediately transferred to other vessels, and she never again spread an inch of the thirty-three thousand square yards of canvas she was designed to carry. She was burned to the waterline in 1861 during the ignominious Federal retreat from Norfolk.
Even in her one week’s sail down the Atlantic seaboard, her officers found her “cumbersome, leewardly, and crank.” This is hardly surprising given her size and the fact that she was, in a very real sense, a movable pyramid and not a warship at all.
But if the first Pennsylvania was, at best, an embarrassment to democratic government, her twentieth-century namesake redeemed the honor of the name. Commissioned in 1916, the later, third USS Pennsylvania saw no action for twenty-five years until she survived the disaster at Pearl Harbor. In the next three and a half years, however, her great guns hurled fully fifty-five hundred tons of shells at the enemy, more than any other battleship in the history of naval warfare.