Saturday, February 28, 2015
Two navies, one ship
The War Department captured a great deal of booty following the Confederate surrender, including partially finished ships sitting in shipyards. One of the more famous examples was that of the CSS Ranger. Following the defeat in the Bahamas, the Confederate States Navy was reluctant to send out its remains ships in fleet strength. Instead, they preferred to send out smaller units to conduct hit-and-run raids against their enemies. The large battleships built after the turn of the century were not suited for this sort of combat. Instead, the Confederate Navy ordered a number of quicker battlecruisers constructed for the purpose.
On the day of Virginia’s surrender, workers in the Norfolk Shipyards did their best to destroy ships under construction, denying them to the Yankees. The Ranger was little more than a hull at the time and was ignored in favor of scuttling more complete ships. As such, the U.S. Navy took control of the wreckage at the end of the war and assessed the damage. The hulls could be used, though for what purpose they had yet to determine. The arms limitation treaty forced many of the new projects to be delayed or scrapped altogether.
In 1918, the hull of the Ranger sat in the shipyard, unused and slated for breaking up. That is, until Commander Eugene Ely happened upon the ship. The Great War saw an acceleration of aviation technology, from pusher aircraft that could barely match modern speed limits on a freeway to sleek, aerobatic biplanes and four-engine bombers. The U.S. Army was not the only institution interested in aviation.
The United States Navy organized its own air service. Airplanes were used in patrolling the coast, seeking out raiders and scouting for the fleet. A limited number of float planes saw service, carried towards the battle by modified cruisers and battleships. Hearing of Britain’s construction of an aircraft carrying ship, Ely and other naval aviators pressed the War Department to follow suit. It would make for an excellent scouting platform, and perhaps be used in an offensive manner. For admirals who spent their careers in search of bigger guns, the idea of aerial bombs sinking ships was laughable but it did not detract from the use of scouting.
To cut costs on the first aircraft carrier, Ely and his project team sought out first a ship capable of conversion but when he laid eyes upon the hull of the battlecruiser Ranger, he knew he found his ship. After securing funding, work on the U.S.S. Ranger began in earnest. With the low demand for a peace time navy, three years were spent constructing the aircraft carrier, with numerous U-turns in the design, including ripping out of the electrical system at one point in late 1919. It was not until 1921 that the Ranger was launched. Its first assignment was as a scout for the Atlantic Fleet.
Ranger served as a template for two more carriers, the Hornet and Wasp, launched in1926 and 1927 respectfully. Both were built from similar hulls as the Ranger, albeit constructed copies of the Confederate battlecruiser. The U.S. Navy did not have any purposely designed carriers until the 1930s with the launching of the Constellation, Constitution, Enterprise and Chesapeake. The Admirals complained loudly about the construction of these carriers as they diverted funds from their pet battleship projects. With the changing of America’s Congressional alignment, the budget also shifted to meet more pressing demands. Congressmen of the Labor and Republican Parties asked what was the point in building warship when there was no war on the horizon. It was a question that would come to haunt the United States after Reconstruction but that is another story.