USS Indiana (BB-1)


USS BB-1 Indiana (1891)

The first class of U. S. Navy battleships were the Indianas (Indiana, Massachusetts, and Oregon, laid down beginning in 1891) and were specified by Congress to be “seagoing coast defense battleships,” presumably warships that could venture on the high seas but probably could not work their guns there. The Indianas displaced 10,200 tons and mounted two 13-inch main battery guns and four 8-inch secondary guns. Iowa (laid down in 1892) was an improved Indiana with a higher freeboard but only 12-inch guns to save weight, plus the same four 8-inch secondary battery. The contemporary Royal Sovereigns, by contrast, displaced 15,500 tons, mounted 13.5-inch guns, and, with refueling, could venture to any ocean. It was indeed fortunate that the first naval engagement of the new navy was against the feeble Spanish. The U. S. public was considered to be still anti-imperialist, so the Navy had to tread softly, calling for new battleships and cruisers-but nothing that could be interpreted as entangling the United States in major overseas ventures.

Indiana was constructed from a modified version of a design drawn up by a US navy policy board in 1889 for a short-range battleship. The original design was part of an ambitious naval construction plan to build 33 battleships and 167 smaller ships. The United States Congress saw the plan as an attempt to end the U. S. policy of isolationism and did not approve it, but a year later the United States House of Representatives approved funding for three coast defense battleships, which would become Indiana and her sister ships Massachusetts and Oregon. The “coast defense” designation was reflected in Indiana’s moderate endurance, relatively small displacement and low freeboard, or distance from the deck to the water, which limited seagoing capability. She was however heavily armed and armored; Conway’s All The World’s Fighting Ships describes her design as “attempting too much on a very limited displacement.”

Construction of the ships was authorized on 30 June 1890 and the contract for Indiana-not including guns and armor-was awarded to William Cramp & Sons in Philadelphia, who offered to build it for $3,020,000. The total cost of the ship was almost twice as high, approximately $6,000,000. The contract specified the ship had to be built in three years, but slow delivery of armor plates caused a two-year delay. Indiana’s keel was laid down on 7 May 1891 and she was launched on 28 February 1893, attended by around 10,000 people, including President Benjamin Harrison, several members of his cabinet and the two senators from Indiana. During her fitting-out in early March 1894, the ship undertook a preliminary sea trial to test her speed and machinery. At this point her side armor, guns, turrets and conning tower had not yet been fitted, and her official trials would not take place until October 1895 due to the delays in armor deliveries.

The U. S. Navy had earlier constructed two dwarf turret ships that might be termed battleships, Texas (to a British design) and Maine (laid down in 1888 and 1889, respectively). Texas displaced only 6,650 tons and mounted only two 12-inch main battery guns. Maine, even less promising at 6,315 tons, mounted four 10-inch main guns and was actually originally designed to carry a small spread of sail. Both battleships carried their main armament in the now-discredited echelon sponsoned arrangement to give ahead-fire-again, presumably for ramming.

The Indianas and Iowa (but not the new monitors) fought in the Battle of Santiago during the Spanish-American War. The mysterious destruction of Maine in Havana Harbor was the precipitating event of that conflict.

When Spanish governor-general Ramon Blanco y Erenas in Havana learned of the defeat on San Juan Heights, he directed Admiral Cervera to leave Santiago de Cuba immediately. Cervera opposed this order, recognizing that he had little or no chance of escaping through the strong American blockade. Blanco persisted, however, and Cervera resigned himself to the probable catastrophe that lay ahead. He rejected a nocturnal departure, which might have allowed him to achieve surprise, because of navigational difficulties in the narrow channel. At 9:00 a. m. on Sunday, July 3, in broad daylight, his vessels began to pass in single file through the channel to the open sea.

By unlucky chance Admiral Sampson absented himself from the blockade that morning, having steamed in his flagship, the New York, eastward toward Siboney to confer with General Shafter. This circumstance left Commodore Schley, the commander of the Flying Squadron, in his flagship Brooklyn in charge when the Spanish squadron made its appearance. Sampson reversed course and joined the battle in its final phase but made only a minor contribution.

As the Spanish vessels exited the channel, they came under heavy fire from the blockading squadron, which that morning included seven ships (the battleships Indiana, Oregon, Iowa, and Texas; the armored cruiser Brooklyn; and the converted yachts Gloucester and Vixen). An equal number of vessels was absent, including the flagship New York and two accompanying gunboats, the battleship Massachusetts, two cruisers, and a tender.

Nevertheless, the remaining vessels reacted effectively. All except the fastest of Cervera’s six vessels, the armored cruiser Cristobal Colon, were sunk or forced to beach on the coast shortly after clearing the channel one after another and immediately coming under fire. Only the speedy Cristobal Colon managed to slip past the blockaders. It fled on a westerly course toward Cienfuegos with Schley in hot pursuit. The Brooklyn, which turned away from the Spanish warships at the beginning of the battle, a serious mistake, led the pursuit. The Spanish ship eventually ran out of good coal and lost headway, allowing the Brooklyn to approach within range. The commander of the Cristobal Colon then beached his ship about 50 miles west of Santiago de Cuba. The naval battle at Santiago de Cuba ended like the one at Manila; the American ships destroyed the entire Spanish squadron.

The outcome of the naval battle had profound consequences; the Spanish government decided to seek a cessation of hostilities. To this end it recalled Admiral Camara’s squadron, which had finally begun its voyage to the Philippines, and soon inaugurated peace negotiations with the United States through the good offices of the French government.