Steam, Sails, and Parrotts – 8-inch Parrott Rifles on Old Steam Ships

The ironclads were not the only ships mounting the 8-inch Parrotts.  Several of the conventional steamships in the U.S. Navy carried the big rifles to sea.  The Navy placed the big Parrotts on some of its largest steam frigates, several of the fast cruisers, and some of its blockading gunboats.

The USS Susquehanna, technically a sloop but often cited as a steam frigate, originally carried three 10-inch shellguns and six 8-inch smoothbore guns.  After early war service on the Carolina coast and briefly at Hampton Roads, the Susquehanna spent a year operating with the Gulf Blockading Squadron.  Responding to wartime requirements, she received two 8-inch Parrotts, mounted fore and aft, along with twelve 9-inch Dahlgrens during a mid-war refit during May 1863-July 1864.  On December 24, 1864, the Susquehanna joined other ships in the first assault on Fort Fisher, North Carolina.   By January 15, 1865 when the combined arms force mounted the second assault on the fort, the Susquehanna had exchanged the 8-inch Parrotts for 6.4-inch Parrotts (one of which burst in the action).

USS Wabash in 1863

USS Colorado, USS Wabash, and USS Minnesota, “sisters” of the USS Merrimack (which became the ironclad CSS Virginia) and USS Roanoke (converted to ironclad monitor), used 8-inch Parrotts during the war.  Designed to mount up to 60 guns, the ships of the class began the war with two 10-inch Dahlgren deck guns and a broadside comprised of twenty-eight 9-inch and fourteen 8-inch smoothbores.

After the Battle of Hampton Roads, the three ships not converted to ironclads replaced the 10-inch guns with one 11-inch Dahlgren and one 8-inch Parrott.  The class remained active through the war.  The Colorado saw service in the Gulf and Mississippi River, while the Minnesota and Wabash operated in the Atlantic.   All three ships participated in the bombardments of Fort Fisher.  During the December 1864 action, the 8-inch Parrott on board the Colorado cracked after firing a Schenkl round.  Gunners detected the damage early enough to prevent casualties, but added to Admiral David Porter’s dissatisfaction with the rifled guns.

USS Niagara after Rebuild

A contemporary of the Merrimack-class, but to a smaller design, the large sloop USS Niagara started the war with twelve 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores.  In June 1862 the Navy started a major refit on the Niagara, providing her a rather excessive broadside – twelve 8-inch Parrotts on the spar deck and twenty 11-inch Dahlgrens on the lower gun deck.  The Navy intended for this rebuild to enable the Niagara to engage enemy ships-of-the-line on the high seas.  She could fire 2,385 pounds  of projectiles with each broadside!  But this was too much weight for the ship.  By June 1864, only the Parrotts remained.  The Niagara saw active service in European waters, including a failed intercept of the CSS Stonewall.

Drawing of the USS Monongahela showing forward Parrott

The large ocean-going cruisers  USS Sacramento, USS Canandaigua, USS Shenandoah, USS Lackawanna, USS Ticonderoga, and USS Monongahela all carried a single large Parrott on a forward pivot mount, complementing two 11-inch Dahlgrens.  (Although the Sacramento gave her mixed battery up for three 6.4-inch Parrotts by the spring of 1865.)  Designed for speed on the high seas, these ships operated most often against blockade runners.  However the Monongahela spent some time operating in the lower Mississippi River.  At war’s end, the Navy removed the Parrotts preferring lighter rifled guns, and later converted breechloaders.

Drawing of the USS Ottawa

At the lower end of the ship scales, the Navy preferred the 6.4-inch Parrott were rifled guns when needed for the gunboats commissioned in the war.  However, some of the “90-day” Unadilla-class received 8-inch Parrotts.   The USS Ottawa and USS Wissahickon replaced their original 11-inch Dahlgrens with 8-inch Parrotts.

USS Kansas possibly after 8-inch Rifle was replaced

Improvements on the Unadilla, the Kansas-class gunboats were faster and heavier armed ships built to run down blockade runners.  Of the class, USS Kansas, USS Nipsic, and USS Pequot sported 8-inch Parrotts.   The Kansas and Nipsic replaced their 8-inch rifles during the course of the war.  One photo of the Nipsic exists showing an 8-inch Parrott on the forward pivot.  The Pequot fired 115 rounds from its 8-inch Parrott during the first bombardment of Fort Fisher in December 1864.  The Kansas, by that time armed with a 6.4-inch Parrott, suffered a burst gun during the same action, after firing 150 rounds.

8-inch Parrott on the USS Nipsic

The ships which used the 8-inch Parrotts had varied operational experiences.  However a number of the vessels, both ironclad and conventional, participated in the bombardments of Fort Fisher near the end of the war.  The action was a low point for the Parrott guns.  In his report of the action, Admiral David Porter wrote (Naval OR, Series I, Volume 11, pages 256-9):

The bursting of the guns (six in all) much disconcerted the crews of the vessels where the accidents happened, and gave one and all great distrust of the Parrott 100-pounders, and (as subsequent events proved) they were unfit for service, and calculated to kill more of our men than those of the enemy….

We had killed and wounded about 45 persons by the bursting of the Parrott guns.

I beg leave to suggest that no more be introduced into the service.  There is only one kind of firing at close quarters that is effective, and that is from the IX, X, and XI inch guns; they can not be equaled.

With this in mind there is little wonder the big Parrott rifles did not see as wide service in the Navy as in the Army.


Sources consulted:

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.  Series I, Volume 11.  Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1900.  (Reports of operations at Fort Fisher.)

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.  Series II, Volume 1.  Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1921.  (Particulars, including armament, of the ships.)

Canney, Donald L.  The Old Steam Navy:  Volume One – Frigates, Sloops, and Gunboats, 1815-1885.  Annapolis, MD:  Naval Institute Press, 1990.

Olmstead, Edwin, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker. The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon. Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997.

Silverstone, Paul H. Warships of the Civil War Navies.  Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.

Tucker, Spencer.  Arming the Fleet:  U.S. Navy Ordnance in the Muzzle-Loading Era.  Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1989.