The powerful Iowa (BB-61)-class battleships with their 16-inch main batteries—all gone now—were a stark contrast to the U.S. Navy’s first shore bombardment vessels, those of 1805 and 1806.
The first bomb vessel in history may have been the French gáliote a bombe. Based on the Dutch galliot, it was short and beamy—an ideal gun platform. Five such vessels took part in a highly successful shelling of Algiers in 1682, in which the forts were destroyed and more than 700 people killed. The success of these vessels at Algiers, and against Genoa in 1684, started an arms race in the Mediterranean when the British built their own bomb vessels.1
The English called these specially designed vessels bomb ketches, bomb brigs, bombards, or, simply, bombs. In both the British and U.S. navies, they were named for volcanoes—Aetna and Hecla—or names expressive of their might—Thunder, Infernal, or Spitfire.2 The British deployed a few bomb ketches to America during the Revolutionary War.
The ketch was a two-masted square-rigged vessel; it looked like a ship missing its foremast. Bomb ketches were strongly built and fitted with more riders than other vessels to withstand the shock from the discharge of their heavy mortars. Originally of about 100 tons burden and 60 to 70 feet long on deck, they were shallow-draft vessels, drawing eight to ten feet, which allowed them to maneuver close to shore. Early 19th-century bomb ketches in the British Navy were about 300 tons, 92 feet on deck, 27.5 feet in breadth, and 12 feet in depth of hold. Loaded, they drew about 12 feet.3
The danger of explosions aboard bomb vessels led to special precautions in their construction: plank bulkheads between mortars and magazines, five-foot square wooden screens hoisted on a boom over each mortar to screen the flash as the mortar fired, and wetted tarpaulins lashed over the hatch ways to the magazines.4 Crews sometimes remained on tenders until needed on the bomb vessels; shells could be fixed aboard the tenders and brought to the bomb vessel in longboats.5
Sea mortars were short, large-caliber weapons, even heavier than those used on land. They were mounted on strong wooden beds, and were usually fixed at an elevation of 45°. The beds normally turned on vertical pivots but some mortars were fixed in place and the ship had to be turned to aim them. The mortars were high-trajectory weapons designed to fire over defensive fortifications and walls that masked the targets—often towns. Changes in range were achieved by reducing or increasing the charge. The shell was loaded by means of hooks, with the fuse always toward the muzzle.
The explosive shells were hollow spheres of cast iron with a fuse hole. In early practice, the fuse was lit first and then the propelling charge in the mortar was touched off, a dangerous practice as fuse times were often erratic. The French seem to have continued this procedure for some time, but the British and Americans relied on the fire from the propelling charge to escape around the shell and ignite the fuse as the shell left the bore.6
By the end of the 17th century, fuses consisted of a variety of substances—paper, wood, and iron; 19th century fuses were normally tapered wooden plugs inserted in the shell. Each plug had a hole running its length to within a short distance of the small end that was filled with a composition of gunpowder, sulfur, and saltpeter designed to burn at a given speed. Wooden fuses for 13-inch mortar shells were eight to nine inches long and an inch- and-a-half in diameter at their widest point. The fuses were ribbed, and each rib represented a set burning time—a fraction of the total available. Gunners used a hand saw to cut the fuse for a specific time. Today, artillerymen speak of cutting fuses; the mortarmen of long ago sawed theirs before driving them into the shell with a wooden mallet.7
During the War with Tripoli (1801-1805), the U.S. Navy in 1803 sent two iron 10-inch mortars to the Mediterranean as ballast in two brigs; Commodore Edward Preble estimated their weight at 3,878 to 4,592 pounds apiece. Their shells weighed about 86 pounds. With a five-and-one-half pound powder charge and 21° elevation, the 10-inch mortar’s range was 2,335 to 2,510 yards. With a charge of 9 pounds, 8 ounces, the range increased to 4,000 yards.8 The mortars were probably British.9 The 13-inch mortar was an even more formidable weapon. In British service it weighed five tons and, with its maximum powder charge of 20 pounds, could throw a 196-pound shell 4,200 yards.10
Like so much else in the new U.S. Navy, the first American bomb vessels were patterned after those of Great Britain. During most of the 18th century, bomb vessels in the Royal Navy were armed with one 13-inch and one 10- inch sea mortar. They also mounted eight six-pounder long guns and assorted swivels for their own defense. By 1810, bombs in the Royal Navy carried two 10-inch mortars and four 68-pounder carronades; later the 13-inch mortar came back into use and the carronades were removed."
Since bomb vessels were intended for shore bombardment only, it is hardly surprising that the U.S. Navy had none until a need arose during the early 19th-century wars with the Barbary States. In his 1804 operations against Tripoli, Commodore Edward Preble employed two bomb vessels and six gunboats. Preble borrowed six of these from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, also at war with Tripoli. These small—30 tons— flat-bottomed vessels came from Messina and were armed with one 13-inch brass sea mortar. Each had twelve Neapolitan “Bombardiers, Gunners, and Sailors,” two of whom were “cannoneers most drilled in the use of the Mortars.” The remainder of their 40-man crews were drawn from the Nautilus. The importance of the borrowed bomb vessels was emphasized by Captain William Bainbridge of the Philadelphia, held prisoner along with his crew at Tripoli, when he wrote Preble in a secret letter: “I build my hopes on the effects of Bomb Vessels.”12
On 3 August 1804, the two Neapolitan bomb vessels took part in a two-hour long shelling of Tripoli by Preble’s squadron. He reported that “Our bombs threw several shells into the town with good effect.”13 They participated in three more attacks through 2 September.14 Although it was the land operation and the threat of renewed attack by more powerful American naval units, rather than Preble’s shelling of Tripoli that brought peace, the bomb ketches impressed the Americans.
In October 1804, Preble returned the borrowed bomb vessels and gunboats. Thanking the king for their loan, Preble expressed the hope that his successor, Captain Samuel Barron, might borrow six of them and a dozen gunboats the next spring, since “[gunboats and bomb vessels] cannot with safety be navigated across the Atlantic.”
The king declined, which Preble attributed to prodding from the French—then influential at Naples—who wanted to keep the United States at war with Tripoli. France was then at war with England and wanted U.S. ships in the Mediterranean near the key English port at Malta.15 It was the inability of the U.S. Navy to secure bomb ketches in the Mediterranean that led to their construction in the United States.
Captain Barron, commander of the Mediterranean Squadron, and Master Commandant Thomas Robinson, Jr., commander of the schooner Enterprise, purchased four gunboats and two trabaccolos (luggers with excellent seagoing qualities), at Ancona, Italy, in the spring of 1805. They sailed unarmed from Ancona on 24 June, No. I under command of Lieutenant James S. Higinbotham, and No. 2 under Midshipman Thomas Macdonough, but were too late to take part in the Tripolitan War and never were commissioned as combat vessels. They were laid up at Syracuse before being sold in August 1807. (The National Archives has a trabaccolo plan; undoubtedly the ships were intended as bomb vessels.16)
After Barron’s arrival in the Mediterranean, Preble sailed from Naples for the United States in December 1804. In March 1805, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith took advantage of Preble’s offer of continued service and ordered him to undertake at Boston and Portland the construction of two bomb vessels and two gunboats. While the gunboats could be built “more at leisure,” Smith asked that the two bombs (the future Etna and Vesuvius) be “built and equipped with all practicable expedition,” as they were “to proceed to the Mediterranean as soon as they shall be ready.” Lieutenant Charles Gordon and two midshipmen were detailed to assist Preble.
Smith expressed complete confidence in Preble, asking only that he send him a copy of the plans.17 In February 1803, Congress had authorized fifteen gunboats, intended for Mediterranean service; an additional twenty-five were provided for in a bill passed in March 1805. Only 16 were built from this second authorization, and the remaining funds were used to pay for the four bomb vessels that were built, purchased, and modified in the period 1805- 1806.18 The U.S. Navy eventually employed nine bomb vessels prior to the Civil War.19
The first two American-built bomb vessels were designed by Jacob Coffin and Commodore Preble based on Preble’s own experience and possibly on plans for “mortar boats” that James Cathcart, Navy Agent at Leghorn, Italy, sent Preble in 1804.20
In early April 1805, Preble wrote that he would not “be able to have the Bomb Vessels built in season to reach the Squadron in the Mediterranean before the last of August,” and asked for authorization to purchase “two sloops or schooners of about 80 or 90 Tons,” and fit them out as bomb vessels with a ketch rig, assuring Smith that they would be strong enough to mount 13-inch mortars. Smith concurred, and, on 25 April 1805, Preble purchased the merchant sloop Spitfire, built in Connecticut in 1803, and the merchant schooner Vengeance, built in 1804—also in Connecticut. The Spitfire was hauled at the Boston Navy Yard, relaunched on 13 June, and in commission by 23 June. Her dimensions are unknown, but she displaced 92 tons; the Vengeance weighed 102 tons.
Preble planned a 30-man complement for each ship, exclusive of officers, which would “not be too many,” as he intended to arm each ketch with two long 9-pounders and four 24- pounder carronades for their protection. The guns were already on hand at the Boston Navy Yard, and he ordered their carriages modified for use on the ketches, whose main armament was a single 13-inch sea mortar. By late May, Preble had 60 carpenters at work on the two ketches in order to ready them for sea as quickly as possible.21
A shortage of mortars and howitzers to arm the new bomb vessels prompted Secretary Smith to request a loan from the War Department in March 1805, and, that same month, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn transferred to the Navy one brass 13-inch mortar with bed; one iron 13-inch mortar with bed; two brass 8-inch howitzers; 500 13-inch shells; and 500 8-inch shells; two brass 5.5-inch howitzers, 500 5.5-inch shells, and 1,500 fuses.22
In May, New York Navy Agent Beekman shipped to Boston two 13-inch mortars with their beds, two brass 8-inch howitzers and 229 13-inch shells.23 Preble estimated that not more than 5% of the shells sent by Beekman were serviceable. Later that month, Navy Agent Brown borrowed 500 13-inch shells from the State of Massachusetts.24 Secretary Smith hoped to send everything out with the ketches so that they might “proceed to join the Squadron off Tripoli without being detained. . . .”25
Smith had promised Lieutenant Gordon command of one of the bomb vessels, but his poor health kept him ashore. The Spitfire, considered the better of the two ketches, went to Lieutenant Daniel McNeill and Midshipman William Lewis got the Vengeance. Each was authorized a master’s mate as second officer.26
The two ketches left Boston for the Mediterranean in June 1805. Each had a crew of 25, including officers, and mounted a 13-inch mortar and two long 9-pounders. The vessels carried provisions for eight months, as well as 500 shells and 76 barrels of high-proof powder. Because the mortar beds took up so much space, the carronades were left behind.27 The War with Tripoli ended while the two bomb vessels were crossing the Atlantic but both ketches served with Commodore Rodgers’ squadron and were at various times off Malta, Syracuse, Tunis, and Algiers.
Meanwhile, Preble was supervising construction of the other two bomb ketches. The Etna (also spelled Aetna), the first of three bomb vessels in the U.S. Navy to bear that name, was built at Portland, Maine, by William Moulton. Although ready for launching in October 1805, she and the Vesuvius spent the winter on the ways. The Etna was launched on 18 June 1806, with sails bent, ready to get under way in 24 hours. Her contract specified the following dimensions: length—83.5 feet; beam—24 feet; depth of hold—eight feet.
Preble estimated that the vessels would displace about 120 tons. He expected both would “be fast sailors” capable of crossing the Atlantic “in the Winter season with safety, and when not wanted for Bomb Vessels will from their great strength carry 8 or 10 heavy guns and make excellent cruizers for shoal water coasts.” He felt the Etna was “as well-built and handsome a vessel of her size as ever floated.” He planned for each to carry a 13-inch mortar for shore bombardment and two 8-inch howitzers, two 24- pounder carronades, and two long 12-pounders “for defence and protection.” When commissioned, however, the Etna was armed with one 13-inch iron mortar “weighing upwards of 5 Tons,” two 8-inch brass howitzers, and eight long 9-pounders. Secretary Smith named Lieutenant George Washington Reed as her first commander, but he entered the merchant service, and Lieutenant Jacob Jones assumed command28
The Vesuvius was launched on 31 May 1806. Built at Newbury Port, Massachusetts, by Jacob Coffin, her dimensions were: length—82.5 feet; beam—24.5 feet; draft—eight feet, four inches; and displacement 145.5 tons. She carried one 13-inch mortar and eight long 9-pounders in broadside; but she had two 24-pounder carronades in place of the Etna’s two 8-inch howitzers. Lieutenant James T. Leonard became her first commander.29
The copper-bottomed vessels were rigged like the English bomb ketches, crossing a royal on the main mast but with only a square topsail above the spanker on the mizzen.30 Both were completed too late to take part in the Mediterranean fighting, and so were sent to New Orleans in August 1806.31
Bomb vessels were no longer needed after the Barbary Wars ended and the four were shuffled around, although based chiefly at Norfolk, New Orleans, and New York. During her passage to New Orleans, the Vesuvius was driven on shore near the island of Abaco in the Bahamas during a severe gale and her commander “was reduced to the necessity of throwing her guns overboard.” In March 1807, the Navy ordered the two New Orleans- based bomb ketches laid up.32 The vessels spent most of their time as receiving ships, although, in April 1810, the Vesuvius, commanded by Lieutenant Benjamin F. Reed took the French corsair L’Epine for violating the March 1809 Non-intercourse Act.33
In January 1811, the Etna was at New Orleans, exposed to “all weathers” and “going fast to decay.” Captain John Shaw, commanding that station, felt that, unless he was authorized to repair her, she would be “completely destroyed” by the next summer. Nature took care of that. On 17 August 1812, a hurricane struck New Orleans and the vessel, reported at the time to be a hulk, was “driven from her position by several large Merchant vessels, sunk, and had Two men drowned.”34 In poor repair and no longer needed, the Vengeance, Spitfire, and the Vesuvius were broken up in 1818, 1820, and 1829 respectively.35 A second Etna was purchased and rebuilt at New Orleans in 1813. She was a 220-ton vessel, 83.5 feet long with a beam of 24 feet. She was configured to mount twelve long guns—6- or 9-pounders—as well as a 13-inch sea mortar. In September 1813, she was ordered to Mobile to reinforce four gunboats there. At one point she was armed with two long 6-pounders and two 7.5-inch howitzers.36 She did not have a long career in the Navy; by May 1815, she was in poor repair and Captain Daniel T. Patterson recommended she be sold.37 She was condemned at New Orleans in 1817.38
In 1846, during the Mexican War, four vessels were purchased and fitted as bomb vessels: another Etna— the third one; the Stromboli; a second Vesuvius-, and the Hecla. They ranged in size from 182 feet to 239 feet in length and from 182 to 239 tons burden. A National Archives drawing (RG19, #107-15-4A) shows the internal arrangements of the Etna as she was fitted at the Boston Navy Yard in February 1847 to carry a 10-inch flat- trajectory columbiad gun on a pivot; the gun weighed 15,000 pounds.39 The Navy sold all four of the Mexican War bomb vessels in 1848.40
During the Civil War, the U.S. Navy took delivery of at least 200 large 13-inch iron mortars that weighed 17,200 pounds and could hurl a 200-pound shell to a maximum range of 4,200 yards.41 These were mounted aboard barges and used against Island No. 10 and during the Vicksburg campaign; they also were placed onboard converted schooner gunboats for the bombardment of Forts Jackson and St. Philip at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
1. Peter Goodwin, The Bomb Vessel Granado, 1742 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989), p. 7. James Phinney Baxter, Introduction of the Ironclad Warship (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933), p. 18.
2. MajGen. B. P. Hughes, British Smooth-Bore Artillery (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1969), p. 111.
3. William Falconer and William Burney, A New Universal Dictionary of the Marine (London: T. Cadell and W. Davis, 1815), p. 51. See also Goodwin, op. cit., a lavishly illustrated study of a mid-18th century Royal Navy bomb vessel.
4. Hughes, op. cit., p. 111.
5. Falconer and Burney, op. cit., p. 51.
6. Edward P. Hamilton, “Colonial and Revolutionary Artillery,” The Bulletin of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum, XII, No. 5 (December, 1969), pp. 315-316; Edward Simpson, A Treatise of Ordnance and Naval Gunnery, Compiled and Arranged as a Text book for the U.S. Naval Academy (2nd ed. revised and enlarged; New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1862), p. 257; and Hector Straith, Treatise on Fortification and Artillery (6th ed.; London: W. Allen and Co., 1852), II, p. 126.
7. LtCol. Henry W. L. Hime, The Origin of Artillery (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1915), pp. 211- 212; Straith, ibid.; John A. Dahlgren, Shells and Shell Guns (Philadelphia: King & Baird, 1856), p. 133; Hamilton, op. cit., p. 316; Sir Howard Douglas, A Treatise on Naval Gunnery (3rd ed. revised; London: John Murray, 1851), p. 315.
8. Letter from Preble to the Secretary of the Navy, 3 June 1803 in U.S., Navy Department, Office of Naval Records and Library, Naval Documents Related to the United States; Wars with the Barbary Powers, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1940), II, p. 437.
9. Proof of this is the publication in Falconer and Burney’s work of 1815 of an identical charge of 9 lb., 8 oz. and range of 4,000 yards for the 10-inch sea mortar. Falconer and Burney, op. cit., p. 381.
10. Hughes, op. cit., p. Ill; Falconer and Burney, op. cit., p. 381.
11. Robert Simmons, The Sea-Gunner’s Vade-Mecum; Being a New Introduction to Practical Gunnery (London: Steel and Co., 1812), p. 113; Falconer and Burney, op. cit., p. 51; Hughes, ibid.
12. Cathcart to Preble, 14 May 1804- Preble to SecNav, 30 May 1804- Bainbridge to Preble, 8 July 1804. Preble to SecNav, 18 September 1804. Library of Congress (LC), Edward Preble Papers, Vols. XXV, XXVI, and XXVII.
13. Preble to George Davis at Tunis, 4 August 1804. LC, Preble Papers, Vol. XXVI.
14. Christopher McKee, Edward Preble (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1972), pp, 272-277, 286-294, and 299-303.
15. Preble to King of the Sicilies, 15 December 1804; Preble to Barron, 22 and 23 December 1804. LC, Preble Papers, Vol. XXVII.
16. A letter of March 1805 from Barron to Robinson authorizes him to purchase two vessels “proper for the purpose of being converted into Gun Boats” and to fit them out. National Archives (NA) RG45, Ml25, Reel 1. U.S. Navy, Register of Officer Personnel United States Navy and Marine Corps and Ships Data 1801- 1807 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1945), p. 86.
17. Smith to Preble and Gordon, 9 and 25 March 1805. NA, RG45, Ml49, Reel 7.
18. Howard I. Chapelle, The History of the American Sailing Navy, The Ships and their Development (New York: Bonanza Books, n.d.), p. 209.
19. See George F. Emmons, The Navy of the United States. From the Commencement, 1753 to 1853; with a brief history of each vessel’s service and fate as appears upon record (Washington: Gideon and Co., 1853).
20. Preble wrote Cathcart on 5 July 1804: “I have received your plans of the Gun &. Mortar boats and thank you for them.” LC, Preble Papers, Vol. XXVI.
21. Preble to SecNav, 25 April 1805; 18 and 25 May 1805. NA, RG45, M125, Reel 1. U.S., Navy Department, Register of Navy ..., pp. 78-79.
22. Smith to Preble, 15 March 1805. NA, RG45, M149, Reel 7. Ibid., RG 45, M124, p. 101.
23. Beckman to Preble, 9 May 1805. LC, Preble Papers, #3277.
24. Newport Historical Society, Samuel Brown Papers, Box 152.
25. Preble to Smith, 29 March, 24 May, and 6 June 1805. NA, RG45, M125, Reel 1. Smith to Preble, 31 May 1805. Ibid., M149, Reel 7.
26. Preble to Smith 2 May 1805. NA, RG45, Ml25, Reel 1. Smith to Preble, 11 and 18 May 1805. NA, RG45, M149, Reel 7. U.S. Navy Department, Register . . . (Washington: GPO, 1934), pp. 31 and 34. The latter gives McNeill’s rank as Midshipman; Smith refers to him as lieutenant, and senior of the two.
27. Preble to Smith 6 June 1805. NA, RG45, Ml25, Reel 1. Preble to Smith 24 June 1806. LC, Preble Papers, #3362. NA, RG45, El 71, pp. 148 and 150.
28. U.S. Navy Department, Register . . . (Washington: GPO, 1945), p. 72. Smith to Preble, 29 April and 17 May 1806. NA, RG45, M149, Reel 7. Preble to Smith 13 July and 19 October 1805; 13 April, 10 May, 1 June, 18 June 1806. Ibid., M125, Reels 2, 3, 4 and 5; M124, Reel 11. Letter from Preble [no addresses], May 16, 1805. LC, Preble Papers, #3287. There is a full list of dimensions for the two bomb vessels in a contract drawn up by Preble, unsigned and undated (but marked in the upper right hand comer, 1 July 1805.) See LC, Preble Papers, #3379. A signed contract with Moulton is dated 3 December 1805. Ibid., #3638. Preble to SecNav, 7 September 1805, Ibid., #3522. SecNav Hamilton to Congressman Joseph B. Vamum, 6 June 1809, American State Papers, Naval Affairs, 196. The howitzers may have been produced by Revere.
29. U.S. Navy Department, Register . . ., pp. 72, 79-80. NA, RG45, E171. Preble to SecNav, 10 May 1806. NA, RG45, Ml25, Reel 4. The contract with Coffin is in LC, Preble Papers, #3636. See also Ibid., Vol. 51: Accounts, 1805-1807. Newport Historical Society, Samuel Brown Papers, Box 153.
30. Preble to SecNav, 7 May 1806. NA, RG45, Ml25, Reel 4. Chapelle, op. cit., pp. 209-210. For a list of “Articles allowed for U.S. bomb ketch Vesuvius” see LC, Preble Papers, Vol. LI, 1805-07.
31. LC, Preble Papers, Preble to Capt. Decatur, 31 July 1806, *3978.
32. Report of SecNav on defenses of New Orleans, 3 January 1807. American State Papers, Naval Affairs I, 162. Smith said that two ketches—Spitfire and Vengeance—each armed with one 13-inch mortar, two long 9-pounders, and four 24-pounder carronades, were available to be sent to New Orleans if needed. SecNav Smith to John Shaw, 23 March 1807. NA, RG45, M149, Reel 7. Ibid., E171, p. 182.
33. Porter to SecNav, 22 April 1810. NA, RG45, M124, Reel 36.
34. Shaw to SecNav, 23 August 1812. NA, RG45, M125, Reel 24.
35. Emmons, op. cit., p. 10.
26. Shaw to SecNav, 12 June and 11 September 1813. NA, RG45, Ml25, Reel 29; Ml24, Reel 58. Also RG45, Entry 170.
37. Patterson to SecNav, 12 May 1815. NA, RG45, M125, Reel 44.
38. Emmons, op. cit., p. 10. Chapelle, op, cit., pp. 210, 539.
39. William N. Jeffers, A Concise Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Naval Gunnery (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1850), Plate VI; also a drawing in the National Archives entitled “Plans of the Bed and Carriage of the Columbiads as Fitted on Board the U.S. Bomb Vessels Etna and Stromboli, Navy Yard Boston, March 1847.” NA, RG 74.
40. Emmons, op. cit., pp. 16-17.
41. John D. Brandt, Gunnery Catechism as Applied to the Science of Naval Ordnance (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1864), pp. 120 and 134.