‘Our New Cruisers” was how the U.S. Naval Institute announced the news in 1883. The ten-year-old organization had been founded by a group of naval officers concerned about the stagnant state of the Navy. But now the service was taking a huge leap forward by building its first modern, steel ships—three cruisers (the Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago) and a dispatch vessel (the Dolphin).
The Institute’s Proceedings recognized the momentous occasion with a special issue whose sole article was written by a participant in the nautical resurgence: Assistant Naval Constructor Francis T. Bowles. An 1879 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who’d earned an advanced degree from Britain’s Royal Naval College, the young officer served as secretary of the advisory board responsible for the new shipbuilding plan and is often credited with designing the Atlanta and Boston.
Bowles’ in-depth examination of what became known as the “ABC cruisers” was complemented by numerous foldout drawings that profiled the ships down to their boilers. Also included were charts of other navies’ 1883–84 “Ships of War Building,” which highlighted how far along they were in constructing modern armored vessels. During the previous 17 years of tight budgets and unimaginative leadership, the U.S. Navy generally had made do with wooden ships that mainly relied on sail power.
In an appeal to maintain the shipbuilding momentum, Bowles wrote: “There is no doubt that by adding to our navy more of the classes of cruisers just laid down . . . we shall supply the most pressing need of the department; but it should not be forgotten that in order to take rank as a naval power, or to hold the sea against a naval power of fourth rank, for instance one of the South American governments, we must have armored seagoing vessels.”
Cruisers, therefore, heralded the advent of the modern U.S. Navy, and they’ve been workhorses ever since. Norman Friedman’s cover story, “The Fleet’s Ambiguous, Versatile Warships,” chronologically examines the ship type from a mission-centric perspective. The author explains how the early Steel Navy cruisers inherited from their Age-of-Sail antecedents, frigates, the key roles of attacking merchant shipping and battle-fleet scouting. Bigger, more powerful cruisers could fight alongside battleships, and with the onset of the Pacific war the ships acquired the mission of protecting carriers from air attack.
Roger Barr next describes just how durable a Baltimore-class heavy cruiser could be in “The Pittsburgh’s Typhoon Battle.” Barr’s father was belowdecks in the forward part of the cruiser closing hatches and doors when Mother Nature inflicted the ship’s grievous wound. The shipfitter avoided being swept to sea by mere seconds.
The author of this issue’s third cruiser article, Ensign Richard Belt, enlisted in the Navy in 1937 and later entered the U.S. Naval Academy via a fleet appointment, graduating in the accelerated class of 1943. Several months later during the Allied invasion of French North Africa, he was on board the Augusta helping control the heavy cruiser’s gunfire.
Fortunately for posterity, Belt kept a personal journal during the operation that his daughter, Nancy Belt Wilson, submitted to Naval History last year shortly after her father passed away. An edited version of the previously unpublished journal appears here as “On Board the ‘Augie’ at Casablanca.” Captain Belt retired from the Navy in 1972 after duty that included service in submarines and destroyers, as well as the Augusta, and on the staff of the chief of Naval Operations.
Richard G. Latture