Dahlgren asks for better blockaders – “More vessels of the Nipsic class”

On this day (December 30) in 1863, Rear-Admiral Dahlgren sent a request to the Secretary of the Navy, with the objective to improve the blockade against southern ports:

Sir: A few more vessels of the Nipsic class would give great efficiency to the blockade here, in exchange for some other vessels which could be of service elsewhere.

Short and to the point.  Dahlgren liked the USS Nipsic.  But why?

At the start of the Civil War, the US Navy faced an awkward situation.  While in possession of some advanced steam frigates and sloops, these were designed to operate on the high seas.  These ships were in some respects the logical steam-powered descendants of the original “six frigates” navy.  But the Civil War required for ships able to operate in the shallow waterways along the coast, yet were fast and handy in the sea-lanes.  The quick response was the “90-day gunboats,” or officially the Unadilla-class.  And these gunboats served well.  By the time of Dahlgren’s inquiry, seven of those were in service with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron:

  • USS Chippewa at Port Royal, South Carolina.
  • USS Huron patrolling Doby Sound, Georgia.
  • USS Marblehead working the Stono River, South Carolina.
  • USS Ottawa stationed at the mouth of St. John’s River, Florida.
  • USS Seneca at Port Royal, but soon departing for Georgetown, South Carolina.
  • USS Unadilla off Tybee Island, Georgia.
  • USS Wissahickson stationed in Wassaw Sound, Georgia.

These assignments reflect the type’s ability.  Instead of standing off Charleston harbor, these gunboats covered the shallower inlets along the coast (and as I’ve mentioned in other posts, these were not quiet assignments).

But the success of the Unadilla-class was not complete.  These vessels were a compromise in order to meet the rushed requirement.  By mid-war several shortcomings diminished the 90-gunboats’ value.  The landlubber version – the ships were too slow and rolled too much in moderate seas to handle the main guns.  Salty sea version?  I direct you to Volume one of Donald L. Canney’s The Old Steam Navy.  The Unadilla-class could make 9 knots, maybe 10, in good trim.  But by 1863, custom designed blockade runners could best that by two or three knots.

In response came the more refined, larger Kansas-class gunboats, of which the USS Nipsic was a member.  For comparison the Unadilla herself was 156 feet long and displaced 691 tons.  The Nipsic, on the other hand, was 180 feet long and displaced 836 tons.  The added length, along with about two feet of beam, ensured the Nipsic did not draw much more water.

And that added space was used for boilers and more efficient machinery.  The Unadilla’s steam engine was rated at 400 horsepower, while the Nipsic’s was at 670 horsepower.  That of course translated into greater speed.  The Nipsic reached 12 knots on trials and in service.

The other advantage to the longer, wider hull was the handling of weapons.  Recall the Marblehead fought on Christmas Day 1863 with one XI-inch Dahlgren, one 20-pdr Parrott, and a couple of 24-pounder boat howitzers.  By contrast, the Nipsic mounted two IX-inch Dahlgrens, one 6.4-inch Parrott, a 30-pdr Parrott rifle, and four boat howitzers.  The 30-pdr rifle sat on a forward pivot position on the foredeck.  As seen in the photo below, the big Parrott was on another pivot just forward of the main-mast.

The Dahlgren IX-inch were on the broadside.  The howitzers were mounted aft.

With more deck space, the handling of the guns was at least a little better than the Unadilla.

Earlier, when the Nipsic arrived at Charleston in November, Dahlgren expressed his positive assessment of the vessel, though with a couple of concerns:

After seeing her in motion, hearing the reports of her performance, and making an examination, I consider her class a valuable addition to the Navy.  She is very fast under steam (11 knots) and steers well.  Her armament is also powerful, the only defect being the contiguity of the mainmast and the two IX-inch guns, which might be avoided.

I would also advise a close adherence to the 10-foot draft, as a matter of great convenience in many of the inlets along the coast. The Nipsic draws 11
512 feet, though with two-thirds amount of coal will come to 10 feet.  The vessel pleased me much.

And, like any vessel, once the “new” wore off there were more decided criticisms.  In April 1864, Lieutenant-Commander A.W. Johnson commanded the Nipsic and filed this observation:

I have to report that on the 4th instant, off Cape Romain Shoals, the Nipsic encountered a heavy gale from the E.S.E. and S.E., this being the first trial of rough weather she has experienced.  Her behavior therein confirmed the opinion that her present armament should be reduced in weight…. The vessel labored so heavily that I was compelled to keep her up to the sea, as the wind changed its direction, which, fortunately, a sufficiency of sea room enabled me to do….  I do not regard her altogether a safe vessel in heavy weather with the battery now on board.

All that said, the Nipsic was still very useful in its wartime career, spent almost entirely in the South Atlantic squadron.  As Dahlgren felt, the Navy could have used several more vessels of the type.

But the Nipsic was almost a “one of a kind.”  Only two other vessels of the Kansas-class received the same machinery and boilers as the Nipsic.  And those two, the USS Shawmut and USS Nyack, were not commissioned until late in 1864.  The remainder of the class received machinery different machinery (in some cases unconventional and unique machinery) or boilers arrangements.  Most reached trial speeds of over 11 knots.  But only the three “as designed” ships offered the reliability and economy desired.

One more note on the Nipsic – this going into the post-war era.  After many years of service, the gunboat underwent “great repair” in 1873.  This was a late 19-th century way of getting around limited naval shipbuilding funds.  In 1879, the “repairs” were complete resulting in a ship 185 feet long displacing 1,375 tons.  It was that USS Nipsic which confronted German gunboats (and an observing British corvette HMS Calliope) in Apia harbor, in the Samoas in March 1889.  When a cyclone struck the harbor on March 15, the “repaired” Nipsic suffered worse than her predecessor.

That’s the Nipsic in the center.  A black-eye for U.S. interests to say the least. But an embarrassment which figured prominently in the public call for modernization of the US Navy.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 101, 215, and 403.)

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