Kearsarge in its original appearance. The two double turrets, fore and aft, turned as one. The secondary battery, amidships, is prominent.
Bearing an already-famous name, Kearsarge as a member of President Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Great White Fleet’ became one of the best-known of American warships. But it also had a valuable later incarnation.
The first Kearsarge, a screw sloop, sank the Confederate commerce raider Alabama in the American Civil War on 19 June 1864. The next, BB-5 on the Navy List, was laid down on 30 June 1896 at Newport News Shipbuilding Co., launched on 24 March 1898, and completed on 20 February 1900. It cost $1,849,380.
The freeboard was 0.9m (3ft) higher than Indiana, showing that some lessons were being learned, but its nominal coal capacity was still only 453 tonnes (500 tons). The side armour was thickened to 381mm (15in) and the armoured deck sloped downwards towards the ends from the top of the main belt.
A long central casemate carried seven 127mm (5in) American-built guns on each side: its 152mm (6in) ‘Harveyised’ steel armour was intended to resist 152mm (6in) enemy shells fired from 914m (1000yd). Splinter bulkheads of 50mm (2in) steel separated each gun compartment within the casemate.
Among the ship’s innovations was 102mm (4in) bow armour. Another was the mounting of a powerful secondary armament, consisting of four 203mm (8in) guns. Their turrets were placed directly on top of the 330mm (13in) main turrets. While it resolved the problem of where to put them, it meant that both turrets could not fire at the same time. The advantages were a shared barbette and hoisting trunk, and control of both turrets by a single officer. But the disadvantages included heavy weight on the main turret bearings and the likelihood of all forward guns being put out of action by one hit. Though light guns would often be placed on heavy turrets in the future, the experiment of double-deck heavy and semi-heavy guns was not to be repeated. There had been ‘a long, scientific and sometimes acrimonious discussion’ (according to a contemporary newspaper) debate in Navy circles about the placing, as well as of the respective merits and deficiencies of 305mm (12in) and 330mm (13in) guns. But the bigger gun had a punch that was estimated by the Bureau of Ordinance as 30 per cent more powerful (the weight of a shell rises at least the cube of the increase in calibre) and in tests the 330mm (13in) gun pierced 356mm (14in) armour at 1372m (1500yd) while the 305mm (12in) shells failed to break through. To many foreign observers, American battleships continued to be over-gunned for their size. Kearsarge presented a rather austere appearance, with the long blank sides of the casemate and two tall thin funnels between pole masts.
American naval tradition fondly remembered the heavily armed frigate, packing a big punch within a relatively small hull, but more up-to-date considerations weighed with the naval planners. Relations with Mexico and other American states were of more concern than global strategy in 1900, and it was to make operations in shallow waters off Mexico possible that Kearsarge’s draught was limited to 7.16m (23ft 6in); though fully loaded, including coal to its maximum capacity of 1442 tonnes (1590 tons), the ship would undoubtedly have exceeded that. The restriction of draught was ultimately lifted, but it contributed to the double-turret design, as an attempt to save overall weight even if it imposed a heavy strain on the hull at these points. It was not until the 18,143 tonne (20,000 tons) Delaware class, laid down in 1907 and completed in 1910, that the draught of a US Navy battleship exceeded 7.47m (24ft 6in).
Years of activity
Kearsarge (incidentally the only US battleship not to be named after a State of the Union) was deployed as flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron. In the summer of 1903 it served as flagship of a special squadron on a goodwill visit to European countries, including Great Britain and Germany. On 1 December it left New York for Guantanamo, Cuba, for the formal handover of the US base there. Further goodwill visits were to Spain and Greece in June–July 1904. USS Maine took over as Atlantic flagship on 31 March 1905 but Kearsarge remained with the fleet until joining the ‘Great White Fleet’ which showed the American flag (and America’s new naval strength) around the world between 16 December 1907 and 22 February 1909.
In September 1909 a long modernisation process was begun at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and Kearsarge was not back in commission until 23 June 1915, again with the Atlantic Fleet, landing marines at Veracruz, Mexico, during an operation between 28 September 1915 and 5 January 1916. On reserve from 4 February until April 1917, it then served as a training ship while also patrolling the east coast between Massachusetts and Florida.
On 10 May 1920 Kearsarge was decommissioned and work began on converting it into a crane ship, its superstructure replaced by a giant 226-tonne (250 tons) revolving crane for dockyard work and salvage. ‘Blisters’ were built on to the hull to improve stability when lifting. In this capacity it raised the sunken submarine Squalus which had foundered off the New Hampshire coast on 23 May 1939. The name was transferred on 6 November 1941 to a new aircraft carrier, but as Crane Ship No. 1 it continued to serve after 1945, first at San Francisco, then at Boston, where it was finally struck on 22 June 1955, and sold for scrap on 9 August that year.
Length 114.4m (375ft 4in), Beam 22.02m (72ft 3in), Draught (as designed) 7.16m (23ft 6in), Displacement 10,469 tonnes (11,540 tons)
2 vertical triple expansion engines, 7457kW (10,000hp), 2 screws
4 330mm (13in) guns, 4 203mm (8in) guns, 4 152mm (6in) guns, 20 6-pounder and 8 1-pounder guns, 4 457mm (18in) torpedo tubes
Main belt 419–127mm (16.5–5in), Barbettes 381–318mm (15–12.5in), Main turrets 432-381mm (17–15in), Upper 279–15mm (11–6in), Conning tower 254mm (10in)
5556km (3000nm) at 10 knots