Our Fleet Maneuvers in the Bay of Florida, and the Navy of the Future

Commodore Foxhall A. Parker, U.S.N

 

The howitzer-firing from the boats, however, on this occasion, was neither rapid nor well sustained, nor was the howitzer manipulated afloat as dexterously as it should have been. Ashore it appeared to better advantage, yet neither afloat nor ashore did this truly sailor arm compare favorably with the infantry.

 

Of the boat exercises in fleet maneuvers, the less said the better. They were decidedly a failure, and showed clearly how little importance had been attached to the study of fleet tactics by the navy generally.

 

On the 31st of January the rear-admiral commanding issued the following order:

 

The North Atlantic fleet is hereby separated into divisions as follows;

 

Van, or Right Division.—1. Congress; 2. Ticonderoga; 3. Canandaigua; 4. Fortune.

 

Center Division.—5. Colorado; 6. Wachusett; 7. Shenandoah; 8. Wyoming.

 

Rear, or Left Division.—9. Lancaster; 10. Alaska; 11. Kansas; 12. Franklin.

 

Reserve Division.—Monitors and torpedo vessels.

 

The senior officer of each division will command it, and will wear a division flag at his main. He will lead his division when the right is in front, and bring up the rear with the left in front. He will repeat the Admiral's signals, and, when all the vessels of his command have answered his signal, will hoist an answering pennant as an indication to the Admiral that the command are prepared to obey it. When all the divisional officers have hoisted their answering pennants, and the Admiral is ready, he will haul down his signal; the divisional officers haul down their signals and answering pennants at the same instant, and the signal is executed.

 

From the moment of sailing, each vessel will keep her distinguishing pennant hoisted until she comes to anchor, when she will haul it down.

 

When signal 413—Get under way—is hoisted with the preparatory over it and answered in the manner prescribed above, it will be hauled down, when each vessel will heave in to a short stay, and hoist her distinguishing pennant. So soon as all have their distinguishing pennants flying, signal 413.—Get under way—will be made by the Admiral, and when replied to as above directed, and the Admiral is ready, will be hauled down. All now weigh together.

 

When signal 824—Anchor—is hoisted, with the preparatory over it, and properly answered, it will be hauled down. At this instant the fleet will slow to three knots.

 

The Admiral will next hoist signal 824—Anchor—and the moment it is mast-headed each vessel "will stop her engine (without waiting for a signal from divisional officers), letting go her anchor the moment it is hauled down.

 

When the signal is made to "get under way," the fleet will move cut in "columns of vessels" with the v-an leading, unless another formation be signaled.

 

If not otherwise directed, vessels will "come to" with their starboard anchors.

 

All courses signaled are magnetic. Tactical signals at night will be made with Coston lights, and the moment of execution denoted by the discharge of a gun.

 

In conclusion, the Commander-in-chief calls particular attention to the "Explanation," U. S. Navy Signal-Book, Naval Tactics, 1874, whose precepts must be rigidly adhered to by Commanding Officers.

A. Ludlow Case,

Rear-Admiral U.S.N.

Commanding U. S. Naval Force, North Atlantic Station.

Flagship Wabash, 1st Rate, Key West, Fla., Jan. 31, 1874.

 

On the 3d of February the fleet (the reserve excepted), which had been lying in irregular order off Key West, shifted its berth to the "outer buoy," near Sand Key light, where it anchored in columns of vessels abreast by divisions, in natural order, heading south, the van division, commanded by Captain Rhind, being on the right At daylight on the following morning general signal was made to get under way, and as no formation had been prescribed, and the vessels were then heading S.S.W., the van division moved forward, while the centre and rear divisions obliqued to the right, until in the van's wake, when they steered S.S.W., thus forming column of vessels, which formation the fleet preserved very badly during the day, coming to anchor at night in line oil buoy No. 9, Dry Tortugas, by a movement analogous to the right into line of the army, the vessels heading N.N.W., and bearing from each other, reciprocally, E.N.E. and W.S.W., the Congress, flagship of th3 van division, having anchored first and furthest to the N'd and E'd.

 

At eight a.m., on the 5th, the fleet weighed, and, forming column of vessels, followed the Congress through the passage between the Dry Tortugas and the Rebecca Shoal into Florida Bay. The direction of the head of the column was several times changed during the day, and at six P.M. the signal "Forward into line—left oblique!" was made, followed shortly afterwards by the signal "Anchor!"

 

On the 6th we moved to the eastward, and anchored a tug at the distance of twenty-five miles southeast from Key West, in which vicinity we remained for more than three weeks, in the almost daily exercise of fleet maneuvers. These consisted of the various line, column, and echelon formations laid down in the tactics, and in passing from one to the other, the column varying from single vessel to division front, the echelon being single and double, natural and inverted, and the line either single or double; the fleet moving alternately by the front, flank, and rear. After a few days' exercise, the various movements were performed with exactness, though with a slowness that was disheartening, since the greatest speed that could be maintained by the fleet as a unit was four and a half knots an hour.

 

As our anchorage was exposed to winds from the northwest, which, during the winter months, sometimes sweep with great violence over the Bay of Florida, the fleet always came to at night in columns of vessels abreast by divisions, heading east, and in this order, on February 9th and 10th, it rode out a northwest gale, without the slightest apprehension being felt on the part of the commander-in-chief for the safety of any of his command, since, being in echelon so long as the wind blew, no vessel could drive on the hawse of another.

 

On the 20th and 24th insts. the fleet, steaming in column of vessels (close order) at the rate of four knots an hour, was exercised in firing at a target, distant eight hundred yards; and on the 25th some exceedingly interesting experiments were made with spar torpedoes, each vessel exploding one or more of these, filled with from 80 to 150 pounds of powder, under or near a floating raft constructed of casks and spars.

 

On the 26th and 27th the fleet, in columns of vessels, abreast by divisions, was exercised principally in changing direction without altering formation, and on the afternoon of the latter day, the vessels being in column of divisions, with the van leading, and flagships on the left, heading east, and the Admiral desiring to anchor for a few hours for the purpose of communicating with the shore, and afterward to proceed west to the Dry Tortugas, from which direction the tide was then setting, signal was made to the van division, By the left flank, to the centre division, Slow, to the rear division, Forward into line—right oblique! So soon as the rear of the van division was clear of the left of the centre, signals were made to that division, by the right flank! Dress on centre division! By the time these were executed the rear division had gained its place, and, the whole fleet being now in line, under the Brooklyn's distinguishing pennant was hoisted 267; "Fleet—from the right and left of—on the vessel whose distinguishing pennant is shown above this signal, form double echelon inverted."

 

The moment this signal came down the wings moved forward simultaneously and formed a right angle with each other, of which the Brooklyn, of course, was the apex.

 

In this formation the fleet anchored, and, swinging head to tide, found itself, upon weighing anchor at eight p.m., in double echelon (natural order), with the Brooklyn carrying her guide-lights, leading and steering west. Midway between the two columns, on a line with the fifth vessel of each, was the Wabash, with her tenders, the Dispatch and Pinta, on either quarter.

 

During the night the vessels kept their stations perfectly. Certainly in unity and strength the fleet had gained greatly since the day when it had feebly groped its way out of the harbor of Key West, and, at irregular intervals and in straggling groups, made its way to the islands, whither in perfect order it was now returning.

 

At six A.M. signal was made to the divisional commanders to bear up for the anchorage previously assigned to them at the Tortugas, and the fleet maneuvers here ended.

 

A week later, and the reserve division of monitors was exercised for two days in squadron evolutions, and, contrary to what was expected, it maneuvered admirably; its speed, however, being limited to that which the slowest one of its number could maintain for any length of time, was but four knots an hour.

 

The distances and intervals of the vessels were remarkably well kept, and all but the Mahopac, which was evidently out of trim, steered well. The wind was light from the S'd and E'd during both days' evolutions, and on the first day the water was smooth. On the morning of the second a heavy sea was rolling in upon the Florida reef, on the outside edge of which we were, but by noon it had subsided to a gentle swell.

 

And now the "great drill," as the New York Herald had styled our exercises, being ended, what was the lesson it had taught? That a naval force, no matter of what elements composed, possessed but little strength unless properly organized and thoroughly exercised in tactical maneuvers, every officer who had witnessed our evolutions was willing to admit; but, apart from all this, it became painfully apparent to us that the vessels before us were in no respect worthy of a great nation like our own; for what could be more lamentable—what more painful to one who loved his country and his profession—than to see a fleet armed with smooth-bore guns, requiring close quarters for their development, moving at the rate of four and a half knots an hour? What inferior force could it overtake, or what superior one escape from, of any of the great naval powers of the earth? Did it rely, in the latter case, upon its spar torpedoes for defense, what Don Quixote of an admiral was going to run upon them, when, having "the legs" of his adversary, he could concentrate upon his van or rear or upon one of his flanks, and, choosing his distance, coolly cut him to pieces with his artillery?

 

And, in truth, what reliance could be placed upon our torpedo system afloat for either offence or defense?

 

After many days' preparation, seven of the eighteen torpedoes used on the 35th of February had failed to explode, while of those that did explode not more than four were submerged under the target.

 

If, then, on a beautiful, calm day, with nothing to disquiet us, such was the result, what would have happened had the fleet at the time been exposed to the disturbing influences of an enemy's shot and shell? Take, for example, the Wabash, whose battery consists of forty-four nine-inch guns. Now, while she is approaching an enemy (supposing such a thing possible) with the design of torpedoing him, she will either be using her artillery or not using it.

 

In the latter case her enemy, having simply a target to fire at, would riddle her completely, and cut all her torpedo-gear away before she could get within a hundred yards of him.

 

In the former, how, in the name of practical common sense, is the operator at the electric battery, amid the confusion and din of battle, and the smoke of his own guns, to tell the instant to "close the circuit"? For he has but an instant, remember, and no more. If, however, the object struck is itself to close the circuit, how are you to be assured that, after the melee has once commenced, this object will not be one of your own vessels?

 

The Franklin, the Colorado, and the Lancaster, leading their respective columns, and the Wabash in the centre of the fleet, looked warlike and formidable indeed, with their powerful batteries, as artillery ships; but with their booms rigged out as torpedo vessels they were simply ridiculous. "But," remarks the torpedo officer of the Wabash, in his official report of March 9—which is little more than an apology for the many failures of February 25—"to say that it is useless for these old wooden ships to even try to use torpedoes or have them is, in my opinion, a mistake; for, if they ever can get alongside of vessels of superior force and speed, either by surprising them at anchor in the night or in any other way, they can destroy these vessels with torpedoes when it could be accomplished in no other possible manner."

 

The plain answer to this is that men-of-war do not suffer themselves to be surprised at night by large bodies moving slowly. The proper way to attack a vessel lying at anchor is with, small boats fitted with torpedoes, as Cushing attacked the Albemarle; for if you run at her with your own vessel, and her commanding officer be not a fool, you will probably find yourself journeying toward the stars long before your pole can be brought into requisition; since in this torpedo warfare on soundings the advantage is decidedly with the defense, and it is not to be supposed that a vessel would remain long at anchor without surrounding herself with floating or submerged torpedoes, or a cordon of boats fitted with torpedoes, inside of which it would be impossible for a large vessel to penetrate. Or, if without torpedoes, her captain might not unwisely follow the example of one of our old officers of farming propensities, who, being obliged to remain many weeks at anchor off our southern coast during the civil war, quietly fenced himself in, and then, taking care that the gate of his sea-yard was closed at sunset, he slept peacefully every night, undisturbed in the slightest degree by torpedo visions.

 

The exercise of the torpedo in Florida Bay was of great service to us, however, since for the intelligent use of any weapon it is as important to know what cannot as what can be effected by it. It is one thing to promise great results on paper, and another to obtain them in actual practice; and it is clear to my mind now that, rigged out on a pole attached to a large vessel not possessing very great speed and turning power, the torpedo is alike harmless to friend and foe.

 

Nevertheless, for our long line of seaboard the torpedo is invaluable, and the submarine mine of the engineer, supported by forts, and aided, as it would be in time of war, by monitors, tugs, and launches, has almost hermetically sealed our harbors to a hostile fleet, while a rigid blockade of any of them would be next to an impossibility, harassed incessantly, at the blockading force would be, by improvised rams and torpedo-boats, and by infernal machines of every conceivable device and construction.

 

It is true that the blockading admiral, supposing him to be a man of energy and resolution, would endeavor to overcome the torpedo with the torpedo, the mine with the countermine; yet, taking into consideration the ingenuity and enterprise of our people, and the disadvantage under which both armies and fleets operate at a distance from their base of supplies, the defeat of the blockaders might be relied upon, I think, with almost absolute certainty.

 

Shall we, then, because secure in a great degree from the attacks of hostile fleets upon our shores, conclude with Mr. Boutwell that ships of war may be dispensed with, and let our vessels rot alongside of decaying wharves?

 

Is the great Republic so beloved by all mankind that its citizens are safe in every land and its merchantmen on every sea?

 

We know that such is not the case, and surely all experience should teach us that nothing is so galling to a gallant nation as to be obliged to submit to insult because utterly unprepared to resent it. Unfortunately for the peace-makers, the millennium has not yet come, and whatever may be the indications of it in the heavens above, there are none whatever on the earth below. Nation is still rising against nation. Europe is a vast military camp, while the fleets of the great naval powers surpass all that the world has yet seen of mighty armaments upon the deep. Turkey, with fifteen iron-clads, forty-four screw frigates, and a disciplined army, is not dead yet; China, with her vast hordes, imports modern artillery and improved rifles; Japan, destined to bear the same relation to Asia that England bears to Europe, has one or more dock-yards and an iron-clad squadron. What, then, is there in the condition of any of the four quarters of the globe to lead to the belief that wars in the future will be less frequent than in the past? At the risk of being accused of intellectual blindness, I emphatically reply, nothing whatever. I am forced, then, to the conviction that, for the maintenance of our national dignity at home and abroad, the protection of our commerce upon the high seas and our citizens in foreign lands, a sea-going fleet is absolute necessary for us—not a large fleet like that of England, but one which shall be complete in itself, and serve as a safe nucleus to rally around when the hour of trial comes. Let us consider now of what elements this fleet should be composed.

 

If the object to be kept in view were simply the encountering of a hostile force at sea, the ram would alone, in my opinion, suffice for our purpose, fully convinced as I am that, for fleet-lighting, it is the most terrible engine of war that a navy can possess. The fire of artillery may be withstood, the contact of the torpedo guarded against; but that there is no withstanding the shock of the steam-ram the battle of Lissa, the sinking of the Cumberland, and daily collisions on the ocean bear witness. For attacking forts, however, guns must be brought into play; and for creeping stealthily upon a large vessel at night, in thick weather or amid the smoke of battle, there is nothing equal to the low torpedo-boat; consequently, to be prepared for all the service that may be expected of it, the fleet of to-morrow must consist of rams, torpedo-boats, and artillery-vessels, all of which should be steamers of great speed, having auxiliary sail power, and, if not propelled by twin-screws, some mechanical contrivance to enable them to turn short around with celerity; for turning power is essential to every man-of-war, and especially so to a ram, which must always keep her head turned towards the enemy. In storms the dependence of these steamers for safety should be on their engines, and if never required to make sail with the wind forward of the beam, their masts might be telescopic (as proposed by Rear-Admiral Boggs some years since), and their spars and sails so light as to be easily handled and sent below; so that an artillery-vessel would have nothing but her lower masts, and a ram and torpedo-vessel nothing at all, left standing above decks when steaming head to wind or going into action. All that I have said above refers to the fighting-vessel. For cutting up an enemy's commerce ships of the Alabama and Shenandoah type will be required, having a long-range pivot gun forward, two steam torpedo-cutters, and a Gatling battery, and every admiral in time of war should be supplied with a number of extraordinarily fast steamers to carry despatches and act as lookouts.

 

At present our vessels are adapted to the days of Paul Hoste rather than to the age of steam, loaded down as they are with immense spare and rigging, which, in a general action, would infallibly be shot away, and, trailing after them, foul their screws, thus rendering them utterly helpless; for woe be to that vessel, in future naval battles, whose propeller refuses to turn after the melee commences. Not many minutes can elapse before an enemy will be upon her, steaming at full speed, and, striking her in a vital part, send her to the bottom. It becomes, therefore, all important that the motive power of a steamer should be protected from injury, and certainly nothing could more imperil it than the masts and rigging as at present arranged.

 

At first sight it might seem a very expensive matter to keep up a purely steam marine; but when the high price now paid for surplus masts, spars, rigging, and cordage is deducted from the bill, I think it will be found that an efficient steam navy can be maintained at a cost but little exceeding that of our present nondescript one. I know that our Benbows of the present day, young as well as old, will cavil at this; for with them not to "talk rope" is not to be a seaman. These men still delight in dissertations upon the hauling down of a jib and the brailing up of a spanker, and dwell fondly upon the legends of the good old times when, however potent cotton might be on land, flax was certainly king upon the sea; but the great majority of naval officers are, I am sure, looking forward to a higher order of things, and will agree with me in the opinion that the tar of the past, although a glorious follow in his day, it would by no means be desirable to resurrect for the navy of the future.

 

A ram should be purely a ram, a torpedo-boat be restricted to the use of torpedoes, while an artillery-vessel, for offence and defence, should place all her reliance upon her battery, not turning out of her way to seek an opportunity for ramming, though not, of course, failing to take advantage of one, should it chance to offer.

 

For the man who has several weapons to choose from may hesitate, in action, which to avail himself of, while he who has but one will be quite sure to use that one effectively.

 

Whether or not our artillery-ships should be iron-clad is a vexatious and much-mooted question; but as the duel between iron-plating and artillery has already resulted in favor of the latter, if we may believe the reports of experiments in England and Germany; as powder is still being improved, so that, without greater strain upon the gun, it will exert more force upon the projectile; and as the ram and torpedo have no more respect for the costly iron-clad than the comparatively cheap wooden vessel, I should prefer converting our iron into guns rather than into armor. As to what these guns shall be, whether rifled or smooth bored, our able Chief of Ordnance is a most competent judge. By the world generally the former is considered in every respect superior to the latter, yet I confess to not being entirely convinced of the justness of the decision,

 

I was for a long time intimately associated with the late lamented Admiral Dahlgren, who, without disparagement to any, I may safely say was the greatest ordnance officer our navy has yet produced, and up to the day of his death he was firmly persuaded that for "close action" and no naval battle has ever yet been decided at long range—the smoothbore possessed decided advantages over the rifle. In the experiments initiated by him against iron-plating at 400 yards, while the rifle bolt went through the target at every discharge, the spherical projectile fell dead apparently at its base for three or four or five fires; but then, suddenly following the report of the smooth-bore, came a crashing sound, and it was found that the target had been shaken to pieces. It must be borne in mind that these trials were made against plating of less than half the thickness of that now used in England, and, therefore, do not afford a fair test of the relative merits of the two guns at this time; but I submit that recent experiments on the other side of the water have not been exhaustive in this regard, and are, therefore, neither satisfactory nor conclusive.

 

Placed side by side, with the full power of each developed against targets at short range, the gun which shall be found to have produced the greatest effect after twelve rounds have been fired in quick succession will, it appears to me, be the best for general purposes, whatever may be the merits of the other for special service; for in assembling vessels to attack forts or fleets you could in one lire have the concentrated effect of these twelve rounds many times repeated. In saying this let it not be understood that I am an advocate of the smooth-borne; on the contrary, all that I have read of late inclines me to prefer the rifle, and that which has most influenced me in its favor is a remark of Captain Jeffers, that from it you "get greater explosive effect for same weight"; but I do think that, before substituting one system of armament for another, we should test the matter ourselves to the "bitter end," and I trust that Congress will see the wisdom of making a liberal appropriation for this purpose.

 

As to the calibre of the guns, notwithstanding what has been said to the contrary in an exceedingly forcible prize essay, which has met with general favor in England, I espouse the American idea—"the bigger the better"; depend upon it, with Yankees to serve them, the shot of mammoth guns will not be thrown away. They have a saying "out West" that it is "bad manners to draw a pistol unless you intend to use it"; and, though it may not be ill-mannered, it is certainly unwise to hit a ship at all unless you do her some damage, for men get a contempt for that which docs not hurt when it strikes them. With a fleet composed of the three classes referred to above, an admiral, informed by his lookouts of the approach of an enemy, would signal such a formation as he should deem best, always, however, keeping his artillery in the centre of the fleet, and his rams nearest to the enemy, and well in hand, in readiness to begin the attack. No order of battle could be laid down which would suit every occasion, and the effect of adopting any one order as absolute would be to give your enemy the advantage of knowing how he should find you, and laying his plans accordingly, while you would be left in doubt up to the last moment as to what his method of attack or defence would be. A fleet should be so drilled as to be enabled to assume any formation with readiness, and it should be a unit of force acting under one head. Nothing could be more fatal to us than the acceptance of the idea that it may be separated into groups, each group being, to some extent, independent of the other.

 

For at sea, as on the land, "war is nothing more than the art of concentrating a greater force than the enemy upon a given point," and Commander Noel's plan of battle would simply afford one's adversary, in my opinion, a chance of surrounding his detached groups one after the other with a superior force, and thus whipping the whole fleet in detail.

 

I may remark here that in our new tactical signal-book the signal "From the centre of threes, fours, fives, etc., form double echelon" (natural or inverted), affords us the means of throwing our whole fleet, or any division or squadron of it, into groups offensive or defensive of any required depth, each group, however, being closely supported by all the others.

 

Opening the ball with artillery-vessels "passing each other, at a combined speed of twenty knots," could only result in one of those indecisive actions which every commander-in-chief should aim to avoid; for three-fourths of the projectiles fired would fall into the sea, while the smoke of the guns on both sides would so obscure the vision as to render the attack of the rams of no avail.

 

In my judgment, the rams should begin the action by charging the enemy, and throwing him into confusion or bringing him to a stand; then the artillery-vessels would open with same effect, and the torpedo-boats, under cover of their fire, proceed stealthily but swiftly to complete the work of devastation inaugurated by the charge.

 

After charging through the enemy, the rams should reform and charge back, or, if unable to do this, pass around his fleet, attacking everything in the way, and, after regaining their own lines, take their position with the reserve, in readiness to act with it when the "supreme moment," as the French term that Instant when victory or defeat hangs in the balance, has arrived. This is the time, too, to "put in" every boat fitted with torpedoes that the condition of the sea will permit to be lowered.

 

It would seem useless, perhaps, for us to talk of the assembling of fleets when our flag scarcely floats from the mast-head of a merchantman upon the sea, and the city of New York, our commercial metropolis, seems so far indifferent to the national misfortune as actually to take pride in the number of foreign steamers which daily leave her wharves; yet I cannot but believe that the great Republic will awaken from her lethargy ere long, and once more put forth her strength upon the deep.

 

When that day comes, when our commerce is again extended to the remotest corners of the earth, I have faith that a navy will be created for its protection worthy of a great people, whose fleets some of you, gentlemen, will be called upon to command.

 

This you can prepare yourselves to do intelligently only by devoting yourselves zealously to the study of your profession; and let me advise you, above all else, to read diligently the naval history of the past and the present, and to imitate Nelson in his close study of naval tactics; for depend upon it that in future naval battles, other things being equal, victory will belong to that fleet which is most skillfully maneuvered.

 

In conclusion, let me repeat what I have so often said before—namely, that a man-of-war, without speed and turning power, is as useless as "a painted ship upon a painted ocean," no matter what her armament or armor; and let me beg of you, in opposition to the doctrine of dividing fleets into independent detachments, to adopt for your motto: The ships of our Union and the union of our ships: may they he like our States, "one and inseparable."

 

 
 

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