In the wake of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy was stagnant. Over the conflict’s four-year span, the service had grown from 42 operational ships to a fleet of 671. At the end of the war, ships were quickly stricken, rather than mothballed, and the seagoing Navy was soon at its prewar level.
The United States continued to be basically isolationist, and Navy policy bore that out. After 1865, Great Britain still was the primary adversarial power, and the war strategy against it relied on coastal defense—provided by forts and monitors of the Civil War type—and cruiser warfare against British commerce. Thus, little had changed since 1812—except technology.
Policy remained the same throughout the 1880s. Although iron armor was replaced by steel, and slow, ponderous muzzleloaders were supplanted by quick-firing breechloaders with rifled shells and improved propellents, the United States continued to construct harbor defenses and cruisers. Two “second-class battleships”—the Texas and Maine—were ordered in 1886, but they exemplified the type in name only. Both were obsolete before they put to sea. The New York (Armored Cruiser No. 2), ordered just two years after the Texas and Maine, put to sea in 1893 and was very successful for her type.
By the end of the 1880s, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theories were gaining traction, and he was able to convince Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy that the best method of coastal defense was by control of the seas and the destruction of the enemy as far as possible from American shores. The Navy’s thinking radically changed. So did its ship procurement.
Tracy first proposed a very ambitious 15-year program to construct 35 battleships (along with 167 lesser ships), of which ten would be blue-water vessels. The bill failed. His second attempt, which resulted in the Navy Act of 30 June 1890, authorized “three sea-going coast-line battle ships.” These became the Indiana class, the first U.S. battleships designated as such, although qualified as “coast-line.”
Just two years later, in 1892, Congress authorized a lone new warship of 9,100 tons. She was to be a one-ship class, a prototype for the divergence from the coastal philosophy. In his 1892 report, Tracy proudly reported: “Our new Navy, including all vessels built or authorized, now consists of the following vessels: One seagoing battle ship (first class): Iowa. Three coast-line battle ships (first class): Massachusetts, Indiana, Oregon. Two battle ships (second class): Maine, Texas.”
The Iowa also was referred to as “seagoing battleship No. 1” although she was officially classified as “Battleship No. 4,” which was later changed to BB-4 during the 17 July 1920 institution of the current hull classification system.
The Iowa’s advantages over the Indianas were highlighted by the addition of a forecastle deck “with increased freeboard forward, and all its attendant advantages.” Her battery differed only slightly from the Indianas, the principal change being the gained height of the forward guns. Four 6-inch guns were replaced by six 4-inch rapid-fire guns, and the main guns were reduced from 13-inchers to 12-inchers. This was primarily to facilitate loading by hand during emergency gun-laying operations.
The waterline armor belt length was increased by 25 percent, and splinter protection was provided on each side of the gun deck’s gun stations. Further, the maximum speed was increased to 16 knots. Despite being just a single-knot improvement, this involved a “considerable increase in horse power” provided by a pair of coal-burning, 11,000-horsepower triple-expansion reciprocating steam engines. To compensate for the weight changes, the armor plating at the sides and ends was reduced, but this was more than made up for by new Harvey face-hardening of the plates, which resulted in a greater effective thickness.
The Iowa’s keel was laid by William Cramp and Sons of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 5 August 1893; the ship was launched on 28 March 1896 and commissioned on 16 June 1897. Barely ten months later, the United States was at war with Spain, and the Iowa was on blockade duty off Santiago de Cuba under command of Captain Robley D. “Fighting Bob” Evans.
On Sunday morning, 3 July 1898, the Iowa’s crew spotted six Spanish warships—four armored cruisers and two destroyers—steaming out of Santiago Harbor in a southwesterly direction. Evans wrote, “I and my son were just finishing our cigars after breakfast when the alarm for battle sounded all over the ship.” A gun was fired from the lower bridge against the Spanish flagship Infanta Maria Teresa as Signal No. 250—enemy ships coming out—was hoisted. The Iowa, in Evans’ eyes, thus claimed the privilege of announcing the enemy’s escape attempt and firing the first shot of the battle. The cruiser Brooklyn almost simultaneously had fired a warning shot.
The Iowa, along with the Indiana, Texas, Oregon, and Brooklyn, chased the Spanish cruisers, engaging in a brief but intense naval battle off the Cuban shore. The Iowa set both the Infanta Maria Teresa and Almirante Oquendo aflame and drove them to the beach. Although the U.S. battleship received a number of hits, including one 6-inch shell that failed to explode, none were of any consequence.
When the Vizcaya exploded and beached, the Iowa lowered boats to rescue her crewmen from shark-infested waters. The battleship took aboard Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera and survivors of the Vizcaya, Furor, and Plutón. More than 1,600 Spanish sailors became prisoners of war in the wake of one of the two most significant naval battles of the brief Spanish-American War.
After refit, the Iowa served in the Pacific Squadron for two years, after which she returned to the Atlantic in 1902 to become flagship of the South Atlantic Squadron. She later sailed for New York, arriving in May 1903, and was decommissioned. Recommissioned in December, she subsequently joined the North Atlantic Squadron until placed in reserve on 6 July 1907. At Philadelphia, the Iowa again was decommissioned, on 23 July 1908.
The battleship was recommissioned on 2 May 1910, with a new cage-type mainmast, and served as an at-sea training ship of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet for U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen. Over the next four years, the Iowa made training cruises to northern Europe and participated in the Naval Review at Philadelphia in October 1912. She was decommissioned at Philadelphia Navy Yard on 27 May 1914.
Just prior to World War I, the Iowa was placed in limited commission, first serving as a receiving ship at Philadelphia for six months, and later at Hampton Roads for the duration of the war. There, she served as a training ship and performed guard duty at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. She was decommissioned for the final time on 31 March 1919.
On 30 April, the Iowa was renamed Coast Battleship No. 4 to free her name for one of six new South Dakota–class battleships, which later were canceled by the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. In her new life, she was fitted with additional radio gear and became the first radio-controlled target ship to be used in a fleet exercise. At the Philadelphia Navy Yard, workers removed the ship’s guns, sealed compartments, and installed water pumps to slow the sinking process and enable a longer target session. After trials in the Chesapeake Bay in 1920, with the battleship Ohio (Battleship No. 12) serving as control ship, she moved from Philadelphia to Hampton Roads, Virginia. She had no crew on board; the voyage was totally controlled from on board the Ohio.
In June 1921, Coast Battleship No. 4 was used in the joint Navy-Army bombing tests off the Virginia Capes to determine the efficacy of aircraft against warships. Given a 25,000-square-mile area to search, Navy aircraft took two hours to locate her. Of 80 dummy bombs dropped, only two hit the ship. The Army refused to participate in this test, with Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell complaining the use of dummy bombs had little merit.
In February 1923, the former Iowa, now reclassified as “unclassified miscellaneous auxiliary” and designated IX-6, went through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean to take part in Fleet Problem I. There, on 22 March, she was bombarded by the 5-inch batteries of the Mississippi (BB-41). This fusillade was followed by two bombardments of 14-inch shells over two days, three hits of which finally sank her in the Gulf of Panama on 23 March.