Union Wartime Production

MikeyB

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Was curious, what kind of output were Union shipyards capable of when they hit their stride? How much did the Navy grow during the war? Were a lot of those ships scrapped or mothballed after the war? Did the Navy return to pre-war levels like the army?
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Was curious, what kind of output were Union shipyards capable of when they hit their stride? How much did the Navy grow during the war? Were a lot of those ships scrapped or mothballed after the war? Did the Navy return to pre-war levels like the army?

They were capable of more capacity than was asked of them-- a New York shipyard built two ironclads for export to Italy during the war.

I posted a graph some time ago that gives an idea... I'll see if I can locate it.

A substantial portion of the U.S. Navy's growth was consciously temporary-- many of the 'converted' gunboats and contracted transports returned to civilian use after the war. There were indeed a lot of scrapped and mothballed vessels, though.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Found it!

UnionNavyVesselsStatus.jpg
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Two things to point out here: you'll see that in late 1861, the proportion and number of ships in "fitting/refitting" status balloons, but not because of building-- this was the period where the principal growth in the navy was in civilian vessels being acquired and converted for wartime use. You will also notice that in the "nosedive" in 1865, a lot of ships are disappearing from "active commission" but the "decommissioned" and "mothballed" categories are not growing proportionately-- much of that is civilian conversions being sold back out of the navy, some to resume civilian careers, others for scrapping.*

I'll have to dig that spreadsheet up; I recall that I fiddled around with several different ways to portray the data.

_________________
* This is another reason why the often-quoted "biggest navy in the world" is highly misleading. A large proportion were civilian conversions not really suitable for combat; for an example of what can happen when these ships meet a real warship, see Hatteras v Alabama.
 

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
To my mind to look at the actual building capacity of the US shipyards during the war we need to lay out conditions. I would say the following are appropriate:

- The ships should be separated out by type. A heavy frigate is worth much more than a gunboat.
- The ships should be ships which were actually built for war during the period. Converting civilian ships as gunboats is not nothing but the results are not true warships.
- We should use a consistent measure of when a ship becomes available, for example, when a ship is commissioned and available for service in a finished state. A ship which has undergone commission but which still needs work to be done to make her sail in a straight line is not strictly speaking available yet, because she was not truly finished.
- Conversions to ironclad are substantial enough that it is often reasonable to consider them as a new ship, but not always.
- If comparing to another contemporary navy that was not on a maximum war footing, then we should not measure that other navy's ships by commission (for example if they go straight to reserve, or spend years fiddling around with the sail plan before formal commission).


With that in mind:

- Heavy warships (frigates). The USN built none during the war.
- Medium warships (sloops). The USN built fifteen during the war, with several others suspended part complete.This is a rate of about four to six per year depending if you count "% of ships built" or "number of ships completed".
- Light warships (gunboats or what the RN would call gunvessels). The USN built on the order of 60-70 during the war (this number is probably incomplete as I haven't gone through all their commission dates and haven't caught the lot).
- Ironclads. The USN built roughly two dozen during the war, mostly monitor types. The larger ironclads tended to take significantly longer and many were partly finished at the end of the war.


The picture that I get overall is that the USN was able to build light ships in fairly large numbers, especially gunboats, but struggled with/had little capacity for heavy ships and over time ran into significant bottlenecks with ironclad vessels (particularly the ability to deliver the heavy plates used by the more powerful broadside ironclads such as the New Ironsides and the Webb Frigates).
 

Saphroneth

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No, actually, the USN had little need for heavy vessels-- since the Confederacy had very few, what the Union needed was many smaller vessels for blockading and riverine/littoral operations. The building of larger vessels (such as the USS Franklin) was mostly put on hold.
Though when Union shipbuilding tried to produce larger vessels during the war (the Webb frigates, the Dictator, the Puritan) it took quite a while; the steam frigates begun in 1854 took just under two years for the fastest and they weren't all built in parallel.

I think I'd say that the USN had no demonstrated capability to build large numbers of heavy ships or to build them with rapidity, and that for it to build heavy ships it would have to reduce the amount of building it was doing on light ships.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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The US government had no obvious reason to push the Webb ships along; that was a private speculative deal. (And if Welles thought he needed those big broadside ironclads, you can bet that the Lincoln administration would have had no compunction about seizing them.) The Dictator and Puritan were the subjects of considerable debate and redesign, with Ericsson himself at the heart of most of the wrangling; the steam frigates of 1854 were prewar builds, and not done at full speed due to funding (limited) and philosophy (the 19th and early 20th century Navy effectively believed in a policy of building prototypes but not going into full production without an emergency, as there was no support for a large standing Navy until the early 1900s).

I'll reiterate that the USN, for the most part, built the type of ships it needed for the war it was fighting; there was no need for (line of) battleships when the enemy had none, and the blue-water areas where large warships operate was not where the action was. It was most decidedly a gunboat and logistics war, and that's what production and conversion concentrated on.
 

Lubliner

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How does the Vanderbilt fit in with the uses of ships; battle, supply, convoy? I also was wondering, being it was an Army requisition if it would be considered in the Naval Histories.
Lubliner.
 

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
I'll reiterate that the USN, for the most part, built the type of ships it needed for the war it was fighting; there was no need for (line of) battleships when the enemy had none, and the blue-water areas where large warships operate was not where the action was. It was most decidedly a gunboat and logistics war, and that's what production and conversion concentrated on.
But at the same time, if the USN had wanted to build large warships in any kind of numbers then the assets it would be using for that would not be assets useless for small warships (being mostly engine manufacture, men, slips and raw materials, all of which could be used for small warships).

If the USN had wanted large warships in any kind of numbers, it would have to sacrifice sloops and gunboats in greater numbers (and comparable tonnage). If the USN had wanted more than a couple of broadside ironclads it would have had to develop better armour manufacture capabilities (that were not needed for the comparatively crude armour of the Monitor types).
 
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