The term "ram ship" conjures ancient images from the Greek Battle of Salamis or the later Roman Battle of Actium or even the more recent 1571 confrontation between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire at Lepanto. Those battles elicit visions of hundreds of wooden ships propelled less by sail than by rows and banks of oarsmen and targeting the broadsides of other ships, hoping to pierce and sink them with their reinforced metal prows. But the rams had largely fallen out of favor by the late Middle Ages as muscle-and-oar propulsion was replaced by wind and sail, and the weapon of choice became a row of cannon instead of the ship herself.
But by the late 19th century, when H. G. Wells wrote of the fictitious HMS Thunder Child in War of the Worlds-"About a couple of miles out lay an ironclad, very low in the water . . . like a waterlogged ship"-the vessels were not simply a vestige of empires in the distant past, but a reborn reality of his era. They had, in fact, been developed or considered for years in Europe as well as in the United States.
Decades before Wells mentioned his ram ship, the U.S. Navy had emerged from the War of 1812 with the confidence to defeat foes in ship-to-ship combat and the capability to build frigates as well as larger second- and first-rate ships-of-the-line. Thus the Navy was more amenable to exploring emerging technologies, especially steam propulsion, for its warships. Although the latter would take time to embrace, even some of the age-of-sail captains who might have been resistant to the transformation began to accept the possibilities that steam power offered.
Between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, the Navy built traditional ships yet explored new technologies. Robert Fulton designed the first congressionally authorized steamship in the closing year of the War of 1812; his Demologos had two hulls with a centerline paddle wheel. Twenty years later, the 1,100-ton steam sloop Fulton was built based on Samuel Humphrey's 1831 design of a steam battery.1 Naval architect Robert L. Stevens, whose father began designing and building steamboats in 1804, designed a 250-foot iron-armored steamship in 1832.2 The commercial rivalry between Fulton and Stevens helped advance steamboat technology to the point that it had clear military applications, and the U.S. Navy took notice.
Barron's Ram Ship
The Navy's leadership-commodores of overseas stations as well as the Board of Naval Commissioners-consisted of seasoned veterans of America's early maritime conflicts. Among them was Captain James Barron, whose career had been marred by three black marks. In 1807 he commanded the Chesapeake when she was unexpectedly attacked and defeated by HMS Leopard (he was court-martialed and suspended without pay for five years). During the War of 1812, Barron was stranded in Europe and unable to return to the United States in time to contribute to the war effort. Finally, he killed Captain Stephen Decatur in an 1820 duel at Bladensburg, Maryland. None of these particularly endeared him to the naval establishment. But Barron persevered and continued to serve in the Navy.
In 1831, he became commander of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which enabled him to observe and manage construction methods and needs. As an inventor he owned several patents, including concepts for a windmill, floating dry dock, gun carriage, ship ventilation system, and a steam-driven side-wheel "prow" or ram ship.3 In November 1833, the U.S. Patent Office confirmed receipt of his specifications for the ram design.4
The next month Barron contacted Secretary of the Navy Levi Woodbury about the design, which the captain termed "a subject which I cannot but consider so important to the future protection of the inland navigation of this country. . . . Many officers and citizens of worth and talents have seen and inspired the modle [sic] . . . none of whom have made any objections by the probability of its success."5 Woodbury responded that Barron's desire to discuss the matter with Congress was "judicious to this Department," which "most cheerfully approves of you pursuing that course."6
Barron told Speaker of the House Andrew Stevenson that the vessel was for the protection of the entire inland navigation of the nation's seaboard and commerce. The steam prow ship could destroy all types of men-of-war in U.S. sounds, bays, and rivers. Her sole offensive capability would be her ram. Barron suggested the cost of his proposed ship "would not exceed that of a second-rate frigate."7 On 6 January 1834, Stevenson presented a memorial to his fellow Virginian, Barron, for his invention, a model of which was prominently displayed in the House Naval Affairs Committee's meeting room at the Capitol. It was nearly another year before Congress took up this proposal.
Barron, meanwhile, sought verification of his facts from other Navy experts. In the fall of 1834, he shared his design with Commodore Charles Stewart and other officers.
Stewart evaluated the character and probable effects "such an instrument of war would have in destroying enemy vessels of war," and noted that there would be "favorable opportunities in light winds and calms, at anchor in our waters so wind and tide bound as to prevent retreat" to which a blockading force would be subject. There was no question that at a velocity of 14 feet per second-a little over 8 knots-an enemy ship would be sunk or destroyed.8
On 4 February 1835, "a bill to authorize the Secretary of the Navy to cause to be constructed a steam prow-ship" was sent to the Committee on Naval Affairs.9 The panel reported favorably: "It seems as wisely and certainly adapted to its end as any plan of its kind." The report complimented the steam-powered vessel's many attributes: simplicity, mobility, comparative invulnerability, safety and small size of her crew, "certainty of operation," and low cost-the first could be built for a total of "no more than" $75,000.10 A fleet of rams could protect the coastline and inland waters for far less than the cost of fortifications, which, for the previous 15 years, had cost $25 million.
The committee reported that the ship "is so simple, so easily understood, and so capable of reduction to mathematical certainty, that it can hardly be denominated an appropriation for 'an experiment.'" However if it did fail, then "much valuable and needed information" would be obtained. "Experiments, for purposes like these in view, no private individuals or corporations are interested or able to make; this government is interested, able, and competent to make them." The crew size would be unlike any other: one engineer, one fireman, one helmsman, one pilot, and a few armed men.
The design of the ship was likewise unusual. Constructed of solid logs of light timber, she would be 250 feet long and 70 or 80 feet wide and have three hulls. The central hull would house the crew, engines, and ram. Side wheels protected by the two outer hulls would propel the vessel. The three hulls would also be covered by a tier of logs to protect the crew and machinery from enemy fire or boardings.
In his testimony to the committee, Barron suggested that the concept came not from a previous conflict but from another incident more than a decade before. In November 1820, a Nantucket-based whaling ship, the Essex, was struck multiple times by a whale.11 "The proof of the effects made by a whale on the ship Essex . . . are conclusive that no construction of a ship now known, could resist the shock by a vessel like the ram." The design may have been influenced by Fulton's work, since the trimaran concept appears to be an expansion of his twin-hulled craft with a centerline wheel.
The full House of Representatives, however, rejected the prow ship authorization bill. Refusing to admit defeat, Barron appealed directly to President Andrew Jackson, writing the Chief Executive that he was convinced he had "long been excluded from any participation in the concerns of the affairs of the Navy, and cannot but consider that [I have] been subject to an unnatural and cruel degree of persecution."He noted that his appeal was to "the heart of a hero" who would "know but how to appreciate the feelings of an officer."12 It apparently fell on deaf ears. Whether Barron's idea was too novel or costly for the Navy, or whether he was a victim of his own reputation for failing to serve during the War of 1812 and later killing a national hero, is not known.
Age of Transition
Barron's ram ship was not to be, yet other inventors, designers, and advocates rallied to its concept.13 Throughout the 1830s, despite the Navy's completion of the archaic ship-of-the-line Pennsylvania, designs for steam-driven warships were pursued as quickly as they could be within realistic bounds.14 In the latter part of the decade the first screw warship in the Navy's inventory, the Princeton, was authorized, closely followed by two Mississippi-class 3,220-ton steamers designed by Samuel Humphreys and John Lenthall, both of whom had worked on the Pennsylvania.
Naval architect John W. Griffiths, whose father was a New York shipwright, and who at 19 helped construct the frigate Macedonian, later became an early designer of clipper ships. He advocated the installation of rams on warships in 1835 and wrote about their design in his 1851 book Treatise on Marine and Naval Architecture, or Theory and Practice Blended in Ship Building.
In 1837 Commodore Matthew C. Perry witnessed a collision on the East River in New York between the steamship Fulton and Montevideo. Like Barron being influenced by the whaler Essex, the accident revealed naval warfare potential to Perry. For him it was "the renewal of an ancient practice by the application of power unknown in early times and, as many believe, in the beginning of its usefulness." Perry proposed a ram ship to the Secretary of the Navy, but in Washington his report was permanently shelved.15
Action at Last
Ram-ship proposals died out over the next decade until well after the Mexican War. If that conflict did not support the construction of ram ships, which were seen as coastal platforms rather than offensive overseas weapons, another war with Europe might. After observing operations in the Crimean War, an American engineer, Charles Ellet Jr., suggested ram ships to Russia and its allies. He argued that accidents and collisions-especially several commercial collisions-proved that a ram could sink a modern warship.16
In April 1855, Ellet wrote to Secretary of the Navy James Dobbin about converting 2,000-ton steamers into unarmed floating battering rams. Later that year, he submitted a 16-page pamphlet to Congress titled Coast and Harbour Defences, or the Substitution of Steam Battering Rams for Ships of War, noting the threat of steamships to U.S. coastal cities and the government's inability to recognize or respond to this new threat.17 Although the French and British built ram ships in the late 1850s, in the United States the proposal was shelved in the absence of a conflict demanding such a platform.
The Navy, the nation, and Ellet had only six years to wait. During the Civil War, the U.S. and Confederate navies were ripe for ram ships. The first six ships sunk in "modern" combat by ramming occurred during the war. The nature of the conflict did not require the rams, designed less for blue-water operations than inshore service, to make a lengthy and dangerous ocean crossing. With no viable deep-water Navy, the Confederacy concentrated on ironclad rams particularly for use on the Mississippi River, and the large number of navigable rivers in the South and West provided other opportunities for rams. Having already offered suggestions on the provisioning of Fort Sumter, Ellet approached Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles with his steam ram ship idea a month after the start of the war. In the summer of 1861, he wrote the chairmen of the House and Senate naval committees pleading his case.
Ellet received little response until January 1862, when Edwin Stanton became Secretary of War. Almost immediately, nine Ellet ram ships were ordered. Stanton was not only an advocate of the untried vessels, but he also placed Ellet in his own chain of command rather than that of the Navy. The rams were built and deployed along the Mississippi River and by March would see action, in theory coordinated with Captain Charles H. Davis' Western Gunboat Flotilla. Unlike Stanton, Davis was wary of the technology, the hierarchy, and Ellet. When ram ships and their crews captured Fort Pillow and Fort Randolph, Davis did not mention their role in his official report.
As they steamed toward Memphis, Ellet's rams and Davis' ironclads and gunboats operated as separate units, with Davis remaining uncooperative and obstinate regarding the rams. Without coordinating with Ellet, on 6 June 1862 Davis led his ironclads' assault on Confederate Commodore James Montgomery's River Defense Fleet, which had lost six of its ships in April. The remainder of Montgomery's force comprised eight rams with mounted guns. Their bows were cladded and thought to be shot-proof. No consideration was given to retreat. As long as his boats faced the enemy, Montgomery believed they could not be seriously damaged.18
Despite Davis ignoring Ellet, the latter brought his rams into action against Montgomery's hybrids. The Confederate General Lovell exposed her vulnerable beam to the Queen of the West, which rammed her. Shortly afterward, the USS Monarch rammed and disabled the General Price, then the Beauregard, and ended her assaults only after forcing the Little Rebel to ground near the shore. Montgomery's overconfidence in deploying his ships and exposing their less-protected and more vulnerable beams had in part led to his Confederate rams being routed.
Charles Ellet was unable to savor the victory of his creations for long. Having been shot in the leg during the battle, he succumbed to infection within two weeks. Perhaps to justify his back-channel support for Ellet and his unorthodox ships, Stanton gave him credit for the capture of Memphis.19
Captain David Farragut, who was leading a U.S. naval force up the Mississippi, either recognized or was willing to accept the ram ships' utility in a coordinated, multiplatform force, integrating the rams, ironclads, and gunboats during the Vicksburg campaign. Rear Admiral David Porter, Davis' replacement, would later advocate staffing the ram fleet with naval officers and a reporting chain of command within the Navy's hierarchy.
Throughout the Civil War, both sides converted ships into rams or built them from the keel up. In some cases they were built overseas. The Confederacy, for example, had two ram ships-to be named the North Carolina and Mississippi-constructed in England. A senior naval officer was sent to England to take command of the ships, but the British government seized the rams in October 1863 and held them for the duration of the war. The Confederate officer assigned to the mission was Samuel Barron-nephew of the man who had designed a ram ship three decades earlier.
Twilight of the Ram Ship
A year after the Civil War, on 20 July 1866, Italian and Austrian naval forces met off the island of Lissa in the Adriatic Sea in the last battle using ram ships. But the lessons learned from the fight, which built on the Civil War success of the CSS Virginia against the USS Cumberland, were wrong. British naval theorist Vice Admiral Philip Howard Colomb later wrote in the paper "Lessons from Lissa" that "the serious part of a future naval attack does not appear to be the guns but the rams." This belief was echoed throughout Europe and the United States. Royal Navy Commander Gerard Noel, who would rise to the rank of Admiral of the British Fleet, wrote, "There can be little doubt of the prominent part that 'Rams' will play in the next naval battle."20
Construction of these platforms continued for the remainder of the century. The Royal Navy built HMS Polyphemus (1881) as a torpedo boat equipped with submerged torpedo tubes and a ram. Because ramming was considered a viable tactic, rams or ram-shaped bows were carried by many warships of virtually all navies. Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov, perhaps 19th-century Russia's greatest naval officer and tactician, devoted an entire chapter of his 1890 book Discussion of Questions in Naval Tactics to ram ships.
The U.S. Navy even built a pure ram ship, the 2,155-ton Katahdin. Hopes had been high for such a vessel, leading her designer, Rear Admiral Daniel Ammen, to predict, "the time is not distant when the marine ram will take the place of the enormously expensive armor-plated gun-bearing ships of today."21
Originally funded in Fiscal Year 1890 and intended as the prototype for a large class of harbor defense ships, her keel was laid the following year; she was launched in 1893 and commissioned in 1896. Original cost estimates were $500,000 per ship, but the one and only Katahdin-class ship built cost $930,000.22 This was at a time when contemporary ironclads cost nearly $4 million.
The Katahdin was known as the "Ammen ram ship," after her designer, and she was "based upon the personal experience of the admiral in the use of and the defense against rams in our civil war."23 Ammen noted that "if the Marine ram will not fulfil [sic] all the expectations . . . the sooner we become aware of its defects the better . . . if we find it all that we anticipate, the sooner we have the advantages of a practical development through construction, the sooner we will be prepared to meet any contingency."24
While the Katahdin was still under construction, New York Times headlines touted her as a "new type of marine architecture" that was "meant to sink anything afloat."25 With a complement of 97, she had a length of 205 feet and beam of 43 feet, and triple-expansion engines capable of generating 5,500 horsepower powered her twin-screws. She also mounted four defensive six-pounder guns for repelling torpedo-boat attacks. The Katahdin's sole offensive armament was her steel prow.
Despite being hailed by Scientific American as "the most important vessel ever specifically designed and built for this purpose" and Harper's Weekly as a "value for coast defense [that was] undoubted," the Katahdin was decommissioned in 1897 for not meeting her contracted speed of 17 knots. She achieved 16.11 knots in her trials.26 The ram briefly rejoined the Fleet at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War for service along the eastern seaboard.
Ram designs were not simply consigned to the class of smaller ram ships. Most of the major U.S. Navy ship classes were built with pointed bows. Nevertheless, the efficacy of the ram had begun to receive criticism. In 1894, the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings published a study of 74 cases of attempted ramming in what was then modern warfare. Of those, enemy ships were sunk or disabled in only 15 instances. In 42 contacts there was damage to one or both ships, and in seven cases the ram ship did as much harm to itself as to the ship being rammed. In seven other instances, the rammer received more damage than the target.27
Despite the type's failure, the development of the ram ship in the U.S. Navy demonstrated that second-generation naval officers, who came of age during the Quasi- and Barbary wars, were willing to adapt ancient platforms and tactics to new technologies. So, too, were the more visionary Civil War leaders such as Ellet, Farragut, and Porter who were willing to explore the ram's utility and adapt it to changing conditions. But by the end of the 19th century, rams appeared to be simply unique naval curiosities, unrealized in their proposed potential.
2. Rear Admiral George Preble, USN (Retired), A Chronological History of the Origin and Development of Steam Navigation (Philadelphia: L. R. Hamersley & Co, 1883).
3. Claude Berube and John Rodgaard, A Call to the Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the USS Constitution (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005). Stewart is credited with the design of the ram ship. Although he concurred with the design, it was Barron's creation.
4. James Barron Collection, Special Collections Research Centre, Swem Library, College of William and Mary (hereafter referred to as "Barron Collection"). Letter from John D. Craig to James Barron, 12 November 1833.
5. Barron Collection, Barron to Woodbury, 30 December 1833.
6. Ibid., Woodbury to Barron, 31 December 1833.
7. Ibid., Barron to Stevenson, 4 January 1834.
8. Barron Collection, Stewart to Barron, 25 October 1834. This letter is also available in the American State Papers series.
9. American State Papers, House of Representatives, Documents, Legislative and Executive of the United States, 23rd Congress, 2nd Session, Naval Affairs, Volume 4, pp. 704-711.
10. $75,000 in 1835 would be $1,538,983 in 2007 dollars.
11. Although a member of the Essex's crew, Owen Chase, wrote of the attack, sinking, and subsequent survival of a few crewmembers, a more recent account is Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (New York: Penguin, 2001).
12. Barron Collection, Barron to President Andrew Jackson, 5 January 1836.
13. A review of Register of Debates of Congress found no mention or discussion about why the full House did not support the ram ship portion of the Naval Appropriations Bill.
14. Claude Berube, "Battling Budgets, Interest Groups and Relevancy in a New Era: The Ship-of-the-Line USS Pennsylvania," Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2008, pp 62-68.
15. William Elliot Griffis, Matthew Calbraith Perry: A Typical American Naval Officer (Boston, MA: Cupples and Hurd, 1887), p. 120.
16. Gene D. Lewis, Charles Ellet Jr.: The Engineer as Industrialist (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1968).
17. Charles Ellet Jr., Coast and Harbour Defences or the Substitution of Steam Battering Rams for Ships of War (Philadelphia: John C. Clark and Son, 1855).
18. Chester G. Hearn, Ellet's Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), p. 30.
19. Ibid., p. 42.
20. Commander Gerard H. U. Noel, RN, The Gun, Ram, and Torpedo: Manoeuvres and Tactics of a Naval Battle in the Present Day (London: J. Griffen & Co, 1874).
21. Rear Admiral Daniel Ammen, Brassey's The Naval Annual, 1887, pp. 109-110.
22. William Gibbons, "The Marine Ram as Designed by Rear Admiral Daniel Ammen," Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1882, p. 215.
23. Scientific American, vol. 68, 18 February 1893, p. 97.
24. Gibbons, p. 219.
25. New York Times, 31 March 1895.
26. Scientific American, vol. 71, 20 October 1894, p. 249; and Harper's Weekly, vol. 40, 11 January 1896, p. 31.
27. W. Laird Clowes, "The Ram in Action and in Accident," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 1894, p. 85.