In my previous article in this series, I explored the ship of the line, heavy frigate, and frigate plans that came back through the Ring of Fire to the 1630s via Howard Chapelle’s “A History of The American Sailing Navy.” This book was referenced as a core text the USE Navy had to work with within the mainline books, so it is important to have a resource for authors and readers that can give an idea of what was available, and which ones are worth using, as well as providing a little historical and operational context for the plans. With that article covering the larger ships, this one will include one of the more numerous and complex types in US Naval service, the ship-rigged sailing sloop.
The sloop of war evolved out of similar warships dating back to the mid-1600s, light warships fitted with a variety of different rigs and configurations. The name was never very exact, nor did it mean the same thing in different countries and times. Sailing sloops covered everything from tiny one- and two-masted vessels based on fishing boats and other lighter ships all the way up to razee and purpose-built three-masted sloops the size of frigates. These rigs featured square, fore-and-aft, lug, lateen, and other sails in multiple numbers of masts, in many different configurations. For this article, we are focusing on two rigs in particular, the ship-sloop, and the brig-sloop. They will be called hereafter the sloop and brig respectively.
Much of the foundation of the US Navy was wrapped around the frigate, a fast, medium-sized warship with a single deck of cannons and armed forecastles and quarterdecks. During the Revolutionary War, much of the focus was on an ambitious thirteen-ship frigate building program, but they were never very successful. Much of the real success lay instead with a few purpose-built sloops like the Ranger and Saratoga, and a whole slew of purchased vessels, mostly merchantmen. Ranger displayed most of the features of the mature ship-sloop, namely a full three-masted ship rig, an open gundeck, and a single deck of light cannons. She proved highly successful in service, capturing numerous British privateers and merchant vessels.
The Continental Navy was mothballed and decommissioned at the end of the Revolutionary War. The only ship retained for a short time was the frigate Alliance, which was sold into merchant service. Following tensions with the Barbary States, the decision was made to commence a new building program and starting a Federal Navy, the origin of the modern US Navy. This initial purchase was centered around six large, very powerful frigates. Though the tribulations of this program lie outside the scope of this article and will be dealt with in another, those ships were eventually built, and a new Navy was started. Unfortunately, a navy isn’t built on three, four, or even six ships, and there was a great need for more. The eventual solution settled on was similar to the war bonds of the Second World War. Organizations in cities all along the eastern seaboard raised funds from private donations to purchase new ships of war that were donated to the Navy. Most of these were smaller frigates, named after the cities that built them or popular figures, like the infamous Philadelphia and Essex and the ever-changing John Adams that probably had more configuration changes and re-ratings than any other US Navy warship in this era. Two of the subscription vessels were ship-sloops though, the well-sailing Maryland and Patapsco.
Other vessels were purchased, serving both in American waters and in America’s early international endeavors against the Barbary Coast. After the costs of that war, the new administration of the time, in an effort to curb naval spending, shifted focus to a navy built around large numbers of small gunboats armed with single cannons. They did authorize the construction of two large brig-sloops designed by one of the best designers in the country at the time, Josiah Fox. These two brigs are preserved in Chapelle in highly-detailed draughts full of extra minor detail like the rarely seen ventilation ports for the berthing deck, the gun deck sweep ports for large oars, and the davits to mount a boat over the stern of the ship, as well as detailed drawings of their spars, masts, and the platforms in the masts called tops. They were given two names that are still held in high-esteem in the Navy today and depict the annoying stinging the ships were intended to perform against foreign shipping: Wasp and Hornet.
These two brigs were intended to incorporate traits of English cutters, which were a hardy breed of small ship optimized for the rough waters of the English Channel, but Chapelle points out little survives of that except a sharper hull and more drag to the keel with the aft end deeper in the water. They were a decent size, measuring just over a hundred feet long on the gundeck and mounting a battery of sixteen 9-pounder long guns. They were equivalent in power and size to the standard British brigs of their type and were fast, hardy sailors. Though started as brigs, Wasp was converted to a three-masted ship before commissioning while Hornet was converted six years after being commissioned. The two acquitted themselves well in the War of 1812. Wasp famously captured the brig HMS Frolic before being taken in 1812 by the 74-gun ship of the line HMS Poictiers. She was recommissioned as HMS Peacock and served against her old nation until foundering at sea in 1814. Hornet took the brig HMS Peacock and sank the brig HMS Penguin. She survived the war, only to be lost in a storm off Tampico, Mexico, in 1829. Both ships operated successfully against enemy shipping, capturing or destroying many merchant vessels, privateers, and outright pirates.
With the war started, in 1813 Congress authorized six new eighteen-gun sloops as part of a wartime construction plan. Unlike the three heavy frigates that were also part of the program, the sloops did make it to sea in time to see combat. These were prepared in two different designs, with three ships in each, of which four plans are preserved in Chapelle. The two classes comprised Argus, Erie, and Ontario in one model, and Wasp, Frolic, and Peacock in the other. Both were intended to be bigger and more powerful than the previous Wasp and Hornet, about ten feet longer and armed with a full battery of 32-pounder carronades and a pair of 12-pounder chase guns for long-range fire. Though the two were designed by the same person, had the same dimensions and armament, and looked nearly identical above water, they were very different below. The most notable difference in the Argus-class was the drag of the keel. They were modeled after Baltimore clippers, and it was very extreme. As a result, the ship drew nearly five feet more water at the stern than the Wasps, and they also had steering issues due to the hull and rig. The class didn’t fare well in the war. Argus was burned on the stocks to avoid capture, while Ontario and Erie were blockaded and unable to make it to sea. They both lasted a long time, though. Ontario eventually became a storeship and survived to 1856, while Erie was lengthened in an early rebuilding in 1820 (this plan is also preserved in Chapelle and available) before becoming a storeship herself after she was deemed too small for war service. She was decommissioned in 1850, but not until after managing to take part in a capture of a schooner during the Mexican-American War in 1847.
The same can’t be said about the new Wasps. Three of the four plans in Chapelle are for these ships. They are the original building plan for the class, plans the Royal Navy made of Frolic (II) when she was captured, and lines the US Navy took of Peacock in New York in 1828 before she was broken up. They offer a fairly unique look at the class similarities and differences possible in ships of this era. With Wasp as the standard, Frolic showed a modified bow with an awkward-looking, almost straight stem. Peacock’s plan is different, showing the ship over a decade later, with a short quarterdeck and quarter-galleries added that weren’t there before, replacing the simple decorative badges the other two had.
The class had a mixed service record. Frolic was taken only two months after launch by a British frigate. She was recommissioned as HMS Florida and served out the rest of the war and for a few years after. Both Wasp and Peacock had plenty of successes. Besides many merchant and privateer captures, Wasp sank the British brigs Reindeer and Avon, while Frolic took the brigs Epervier and Nautilus (the latter released later because it was captured after the treaty ending the war was ratified). Wasp was unfortunately lost at sea, which shows how dangerous smaller ships could be, while Peacock survived until 1828 when she was broken up and replaced by a new Peacock. These ships were, along with the heavy frigates of the US Navy, the center of a controversy that continues to this day. In 1817, British historian William James published his “A Full and Correct Account of the Chief Naval Occurrences of the Late War Between Great Britain and the United States of America: Preceded by A Cursory Examination of the American Accounts of their Naval Actions Fought Previous to That Period.” That mouthful of a title concluded that the British defeats in the war, single-ship duels, were a result of overwhelmingly larger and more powerful ships on the American side and no American ship of equal power ever defeated a British one. One of the notable diagrams in the book compared the lines of the captured Frolic to one of their standard, smaller Cruizer-class brigs. This thread was picked up by future president Theodore Roosevelt, who published The Naval War of 1812 in 1877 as a direct rebuttal.
The end of the war left the American Navy with only a few sloops, particularly the powerful ones. Peacock, Hornet, Ontario, and Erie continued on for a long time. They were deployed worldwide, ranging from Mediterranean service to the West Indies and Pacific. USS Ontario was the ship that claimed Oregon for the United States in 1818. After seeing the utility and cost-effectiveness of the ships during the war, it is little wonder why the Navy showed a continuing interest in them.
By 1824, US interests and activities in the Pacific had been on the rise, and there was a need for more ship-sloops to reinforce the US Pacific Squadron that patrolled the west coasts of North and South America and the Pacific Islands. There were enough frigates available, but most of the other lighter ships were too small for the distant station. A few years earlier, in 1819, a ship designer named Henry Eckford designed a “corvette” of 22 guns and measuring 124 feet on the gun deck, about ten feet more than the previous Wasp class. Two other designs from this period were preserved in Chapelle, one by the designer Grice, and the other by Floyd. Compared to the Eckford design, Grice’s was smaller, only 119 feet long and also mounting 22 guns, while Floyd’s plan was quite a bit larger at 136 feet long and 24 guns. All three are interesting designs, plenty of deadrise and probably a good turn of speed.
Unfortunately, the budget and politics intervened on what should have been an easy building program. Samuel Humphreys, son of Joshua Humphreys who designed the original American heavy frigates in the 1790s, presented a compromise design. It was slightly larger than Eckford’s design but carried the heavier armament of Floyd’s design. Congress accepted this, and it was intended to build a large, singular class of them. Unfortunately, Humphreys was not the senior constructor. That was a man named William Doughty, who took it upon himself to produce his own modified version of Humphreys’ design. This happened yet again; a third constructor named Josiah Barker did his own version as well. For all of Congress’ desire for a single design, they were now building them in three similar, but different ones. All three of these designs are also in Chapelle, as well as spar plans and measurements.
The ships were intended to carry 24 new medium 24-pounder guns designed for the class. They were cone-shaped and lightweight, a unique design for the Navy. They were relatively weak, though, and condemned by the Inspector of the Ordnance in later years because they were unable to safely load double-shot. The intended guns overloaded the ships, and they were later reduced to 18 guns like the smaller War of 1812 ships, 32-pounder carronades and a pair of larger chase guns, either 24-pounders or 32-pounders.
Humphreys knew the ships were going to be heavy and probably too small for the armament, rigging, and other gear added on, so he built them very stout and full-bodied for maximum load-carrying capacity. Unfortunately, this had the expected result, and the ships were dull and slow at sailing, but they did sail well and safely. Coupled with the new carronade armament reducing their firing range, they proved wanting as cruisers, neither able to chase down an enemy ship nor engage it at long range.
As such a significant portion of the US Navy for over a decade, the sloops saw plenty of action. They served in every theater of operations the Navy was in at the time. Vandalia was one of the ships in Perry’s Expedition to Japan in 1853 that forcibly opened it up to the world, while John Adams (officially the old frigate rebuilt) served as flagship of the Africa Squadron attempting to suppress slave-ships off West Africa. One of the more notable ships was Vincennes, which served as flagship in the globe-spanning US Exploring Expedition at the end of the 1830s. As the flagship, she traveled around South America on both coasts, sailed across to Australia and made attempts to reach the furthest southern point in Antarctica, before sailing up all the way to Oregon to survey and chart the Columbia River. The collection and notes brought back from that Expedition became the original core collection of a new scientific institute opened in Washington, DC with money bequeathed by the British scientist James Smithson. Maps made by the men on that ship were still in use as late as the Pacific War in the 1940s due to a lack of more recent surveying in the area.
Several of the ships were wrecked and others broken up, but several survived long enough to see service in the American Civil War, where they mostly served in blockade duty. Almost all the survivors were sold in the decade after the war, but the USS St. Louis, lengthened in the 1840s, survived as a receiving ship until 1907. The ships were far from ideal, but they managed in service, and they were desperately needed as the older sloops were over a decade or two old by this point and desperately needed replacing.
Construction funds were scarce in the post-war era. The Navy saw a way around that: by classifying several building programs as “rebuilding,” they could operate under the Navy’s repair budget, with less oversight. This program extended over the entire range of Navy warships, from the ship of the line Franklin through various frigates and into the sloops as well. As mentioned earlier, one of the earlier frigates was “rebuilt” into a sloop and now they were going to do the same to the only surviving Wasp-class sloop in service. The old Peacock had just been on a Pacific cruise under Thomas ap Catesby Jones, uncle of the future first officer of the CSS Virginia, Catesby ap Roger Jones, and she had struck a rock, severely damaging the fifteen-year-old sloop. She was surveyed and taken to pieces in New York, and a replacement was constructed in the same place. The new sloop was designed by Humphreys, and it has to be seen as a reaction to his previous sloop design, as the new sloop was still roughly the same size as the old Peacock but had very sharp ends in an attempt at speed. She was unfortunately very overloaded and slow and unstable with her armament of 32-pounder carronades. Peacock later accompanied Vincennes in the Exploring Expedition, proving a much better and faster sailor with a heavily-reduced armament, but was unfortunately lost at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon during the survey.
It was nearly a decade before the sloop question was revisited. The ten ships of the Boston class, the old Erie, and Ontario, and the rebuilt Peacock were all in service, so there was little need before then. Construction started on a new pair of larger sloops (also called corvettes) in 1837. The pair were named after prize ships from the War of 1812, the sixth-rate post ship HMS Cyane (which had been employed in the US Navy as a small frigate), and the sloop HMS Levant that had been immediately recaptured by the Royal Navy. This lent a certain arrogance to the Navy’s claim it was a rebuilding! These new ships were an enlarged version of Humphreys’ 1820s sloops and, after two tries, he finally got it right. They were nearly the same size as Floyd’s old design from fifteen years before, and had sharper lines compared to the Bostons, leading to a greater turn of speed and better sailing, but large enough to handle the armament of carronades and later small 32-pounders and 8-inch shell guns they were equipped with. The new ships were also notable for being the first ones in the US Navy to carry spencer masts, a second smaller mast attached to the back of each of the three masts, carrying a fore-and-aft rigged gaff sail and allowing the ship to sail closer to the wind like a schooner could. These proved popular in US service and were fitted to many of their square-rigged vessels after that. Levant was lost in the Pacific in 1860, while Cyane continued to serve in that theater until 1887 when she was sold in California. They were heavily involved in the Mexican-American War and seized the key California locations of Monterey Bay and San Diego respectively.
With the two new excellent sloops coming into service, the Navy and Congress immediately turned to working on a new type. Whereas Cyane and the others had grown bigger and bigger, there was now a gap in the same size category as the old War of 1812 sloops. An original design by Grice was lightweight and only 111 feet long and is in Chapelle’s book, as is the design finally chosen for the Dale class. The new ships were almost identical to the old Wasps in terms of dimensions but had a much fuller and heavier displacement hull. Unfortunately, they were overloaded with armaments and gear, carrying too many spare spars, ship’s boats, and other things that added weight in peacetime. They were armed with eighteen guns, mostly carronades but for a pair of chase guns, with two of the carronades removed in peacetime to lighten the ship a bit. They were good, strong sailors, easy and safe on the wind, but on the slow side and very weakly armed. Indeed, these ship-sloops, which were most often deployed to the Pacific Squadron, were outgunned by some of the British brigs they encountered. They still managed excellent records, however. As a result of their economy, most of the class lasted in secondary roles and foreign stations, and they were very popular as sail training ships, as they maintained a full ship rig like a larger ship would have. The first of the class, USS Dale, lasted until 1884 as a training ship at the US Naval Academy for that very reason. It then served in a variety of roles with the US Navy, the Maryland State Militia, and finally the US Revenue Cutter Service, where she served until 1921 when she was sold for scrap after the better part of a century.
There had been a growing cabal of Navy officers who argued for bigger, stronger sloops as a backbone of the fleet. Among other things, they pointed to the economy of a sloop over a frigate of identical size. Indeed, the US Navy had even reduced the famous old Constitution to a sloop by disarming her upper decks and putting her under the command of a commander instead of a captain, saving money in her operating costs. In the early 1840s, the first of a new type of sloop, the Saratoga, was commissioned. The new ship was an enlarged Cyane, ten feet longer, heavier, and as modern as they could make it, incorporating things as diverse as the spencer masts in the rig, an elliptical stern that eliminated the traditional weak point on the stern of a ship, and a brand-new battery of modern 32-pounder cannons and 8-inch shell guns. She was very much a success: sharp-ended, fast, powerful, and a good sailor. She could operate globally and was strong enough to act both independently and as part of a fleet. Saratoga lasted until 1907, serving in the African Squadron fighting slavers, the Mexican-American War, the East and West Indies Squadron, and accompanying Perry’s Expedition to Japan, as well as the American Civil War.
Following the good example of Saratoga, the US Navy ordered a set of slightly bigger sloops. Each of these was in the same rough class as Saratoga, with identical ratings, crew, and armament, but they each had a unique design and each of them, plus Saratoga, are in Chapelle and very useful ships to choose from, being economical and powerful. Most of the designs were relatively uniform, averaging around 150 feet long, the size of a War of 1812-era frigate. One exception was Jamestown, which was thirteen feet longer, but narrower than the others, leaving a slender, longer ship that, while fast, proved challenging to trim correctly. Plymouth and Jamestown were the only two built with an additional unarmed spar deck above the gun deck. This provided better protection from the weather for the gun crews, while also keeping the men serving the guns in battle and the men handling the rigging from interfering with each other, not to mention servicing ship’s boats stored at the waist, which were a constant hassle on open gundecks. Most of the others of the class received spar decks during refits, including Saratoga. Most of the ships also had quarter-galleries and the new elliptical sterns. Only St. Mary’s and Albany lacked the former for their whole careers. While all the ships were relatively sharp and fast, Albany was the oddball of the group. She was built along extreme clipper lines, with a very sharp V-shaped hull and a conventional, flat transom stern. She was originally intended to be constructed as a bark, with no square sails on her mizzen mast, but was completed with a ship rig. Despite the new rig, Albany’s masts still maintained the rake back from the bark rig. That rig is presented in a sail plan in Chapelle, while Albany’s ship-rig is represented by spar dimensions in the back of the book.
Unfortunately, Albany suffered a fate common to many extreme vessels; she was lost at sea in the Caribbean in 1854 with all hands. The rest of the class lasted appreciably longer though. Portsmouth, Jamestown, St. Mary’s, and the Saratoga mentioned earlier saw extensive use in the Civil War-era Navy and beyond, serving mostly as practice vessels and other secondary duties at sea and in port. Portsmouth lasted until 1915 when she was burned to recover the iron used in her construction, as was Jamestown in 1913. St. Mary’s had served as a school ship for decades and was sold a few years earlier in 1908. Plymouth and Germantown were less lucky.
Plymouth deserves particular focus as she is most likely the model for Gustav’s Swedish sailing ironclad in 1633. In the book, the ironclad is described as being based on a US Navy sloop of war, and her dimensions match the stated ironclad’s dimensions the closest, minus a deeper hull and taller bulwarks. Plymouth was designed and built in Boston by the naval architect Samuel Pook, father of the famous clipper ship designer Samuel Hart Pook. The elder Pook later developed the City-class river ironclads during the Civil War, which were commonly nicknamed “Pook Turtles” and are a likely starting point for the USE’s timberclads. The new sloop was styled along the lines of a packet ship, an advanced, new generation fast-sailing and handy cargo ship, but had sharper ends for higher speed. As Chapelle points out, she was an “exceptional ship,” very fast, stiff, and a good sailor in all weather. Many in the Navy considered her the best sloop of her type globally.
The ship lasted less than two decades but saw plenty of activity in that timeframe. After commissioning, Plymouth served for a year in the Mediterranean Squadron, two years in American waters, then three years in the Pacific Squadron, stationed in Hong Kong and sailing to Edo Bay as part of Matthew Perry’s Expedition to Japan. While there, she was ordered to Shanghai to relieve the American consul during the Taiping Rebellion. Sailors and Marines from Plymouth landed and attacked the Chinese camp, pushing the Chinese force back. Notably, her captain was the only surviving officer of the sloop Wasp (II), who had been away from the ship commanding a prize when she foundered. Plymouth finally returned home in 1855 and served in the Atlantic, operating as a midshipman training vessel.
In 1857, she took on what was probably her most important assignment. Commander John Dahlgren was an ordnance officer in the US Navy who was designing a new generation of heavy shell guns of advanced, futuristic design. There was resistance in the conservative Navy, including questions about the ability of a crew to handle heavy cannons at sea, particularly in bad weather. Dahlgren persisted and convinced the Navy to assign Plymouth to the test as an experimental gunnery ship. Her usual armament of 32-pounder cannons and 8-inch shell guns was removed and replaced by four of Dahlgren’s 9-inch shell guns. These were mounted in a new, special two-wheeled carriage that allowed the crew to easily aim the piece from side to side as well as shift it across one side of the ship to the other even on a heaving deck. This meant that the sloop could operate all four 9-inch guns on either side at any time. An additional 11-inch Dahlgren gun was installed in a pivot on the spar deck, and the ship also carried several small brass boat howitzers and a load of rifle-muskets all to Dahlgren’s design (the latter came to be known as ‘Plymouth Muskets’).
Plymouth sailed for Europe in June, 1857, training and practicing hard with the new armament on the way. It was soon proved that not only could the crew handle the 9-inch and 11-inch guns by hand easily, they were also highly accurate, and the ship managed the weight well. The sloop docked at several cities during the European tour, including Lisbon and Chatham, and was well-noted by the European maritime press. She returned to American waters that autumn, but then deployed to Cuba in May of the following year to help stem off harassment of American shipping in the area by British warships. She served in the Caribbean for the rest of 1858, becoming involved in disputes over guano island control with Haiti and diplomatic service with the American counsel in Vera Cruz. The cruise was a success and proved the ability of the heavy guns to be handled at sea, especially the 11-inch gun and especially in bad weather.
Following that return, Plymouth was assigned to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, serving as a cadet training ship. Many of the junior officers in the Civil War on both sides served on her during this period. She was caught in Gosport Navy Yard by Confederate Forces in 1861 and she and her sister-ship Germantown were set on fire by retreating Union Forces. The ship was little damaged by the fire, and the Confederates planned to install a steam engine in her and convert her and Germantown into casemate ironclads similar to Merrimac’s conversion into the ironclad Virginia. Union Forces returned the next year and, despite attempts to tow the two sloops to Richmond, they were unable to make it up the river and were scuttled by the Confederates in 1862.
By the 1840s, most of the frigates employed by the US Navy were the heavy two-decker model. Only two smaller frigates were still in service, the ancient Constellation and the newer “rebuilt” Macedonian. Macedonian was cut down and her upper battery removed, along with several hundred tons of wooden icebreaking reinforcing taken out of her bow that dated back to her construction, when she had been earmarked to lead the globe-trotting US Exploring Expedition. The ship had turned from a second-class frigate into a new first-class sloop of war that was bigger and stronger than even the Saratoga and her sisters. Macedonian initially carried as a frigate first 18-pounders and then a mixed battery of 32-pounders and a small number of 8-inch shell guns. As part of the rebuild, she now mounted a powerful armament of mostly 8-inch shell guns with a few 32-pounder chase guns, and a pair of heavy pivot guns in the bow and stern, initially 10-inch shell guns, but other weapons like 100-pounder Parrott rifles were also mounted there. As a razee sloop, Macedonian excelled in the Expedition to Japan, served in the Pacific and Mediterranean Squadrons, did war service for the first two years of the American Civil War, and then from 1863 to 1870 served as a school ship for midshipmen at the US Naval Academy. She was sold then, and by 1900 her timbers had been used to build the Macedonia Hotel on City Island in the Bronx.
An even larger frigate was also cut down to a sloop around this time, the heavy frigate USS Cumberland of the Brandywine class that made up the backbone of the US Navy’s frigate force at that time. She was huge compared to the rest of the sloops in service, 175 feet long and heavier-built than the lighter, swifter sloops. The cutting down enabled an incredibly powerful armament for a sloop, with a main gundeck battery of twenty-two 9-inch Dahlgren cannons in broadside mounts, a 10-inch Dahlgren pivot gun, and what’s likely an 80-pounder Dahlgren rifle (commonly called a 70-pounder rifle in sources). This formidable armament was similar to the new steam frigates coming into service but without the upper deck of lighter guns. The new, heavier guns becoming available meant that fewer, bigger guns could do the same work a full double-banked frigate required. Cumberland was an effective, although large and heavy ship. She was popular in service and served as flagship in several squadrons before the Civil War broke out. While at Hampton Roads in 1862, Cumberland and the frigate Congress were attacked by the new Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, converted from the steam frigate Merrimac. Cumberland was rammed and sunk, taking Virginia’s ram with her, as well as damaging the ironclad with close-range cannon fire from her heavy shell guns.
One final sailing sloop design was prepared by the Navy in the 1850s. It also proved to be the last US Navy sailing warship built and survives to this day, the first-class sloop USS Constellation. The new ship was more massive than the old frigate, as long as the heavy frigates and Cumberland instead. Constellation was ordered as a new sloop built to the general dimensions of the razee like Cumberland, but instead of being a conversion, she was a purpose-built, optimized sloop design. She was deep-hulled like Cumberland, but quite a bit narrower and lighter-built, making her appreciably faster and easier to handle than the converted ship. Like the frigate she replaced, Constellation was armed like her equivalent Macedonian, with a mix of 8-inch shell guns and a few 32-pounder cannons, and a pair of 10-inch shell guns as pivot weapons. She was powerful and a good sailor, altogether a fitting end of both the American sailing sloop and the American sailing navy as a whole. The ship only lasted ten years in active service, half of which was spent in the Civil War. After the war, she spent time as a receiving ship, a sailing training ship, and a gunnery training ship, during the last of which she was armed with a mix of 9-inch Dahlgren broadside guns, a 100-pounder Parrott Rifle, and an 11-inch Dahlgren pivot gun. Her last significant service was during WWII, where she served as fleet flagship (moored) for Admirals King and Ingersoll. Following that war, she was decommissioned and turned into a museum ship in Baltimore, where she still floats.
Much ink has been spilled over the identity of the surviving Constellation. Was she the original sailing frigate (thus making her the oldest ship in the Navy afloat, which was a funding issue in the 1930s) that was built in Baltimore? Was she the sloop of war of the 1850s, both the last US sailing ship commissioned and the only US Navy sloop-of-war to survive, and the only trace of the Antebellum-era US sailing navy to survive? It is a very contentious issue in naval and local history circles. Chapelle was right in that battle, arguing that the ship was the new sloop of war and not a rebuild. A book was even published about it, “The Constellation Question,” featuring Chapelle’s argument and a counterpoint by Leon Polland. The issues of the US Navy’s administrative rebuild program are numerous for modern naval historians, but this particular ship seems to be clouded in more mystery than the others.
Jumping back to the late 1700s, there are three plans for sloop-like ships that I left out of this article so far for various reasons. Two of them are unidentified. Chapelle includes a 20-gun and an 18-gun ship of unknown name, but naval style, both plans later being lost. The 20-gun is in the style of a miniature frigate, including several guns on the quarterdeck and forecastle, quarter-galleries, and a full naval head and bow. With her small size, no larger than the original Hornet and Wasp, and a sharp hull, she should theoretically be quite fast, and it makes more sense to fit her in with these ships than the frigates. The other unidentified vessel, the 18-gun one, is even more of a mystery. She is ten feet longer than the 20-gun ship and has an unarmed gun deck and raised quarterdeck cabin like a merchant ship, but an upper tier of gunports above it. Unlike most merchant ships, she also has naval quarter-galleries and a full head just like the 20-gun ship has as well. A very strange design indeed, but one that could be useful when a mix of armament and firepower in a small package with cargo capacity is needed such as a heavily armed supply ship or transport.
The last plan we will look at is that of the captured British post ship HMS Cyane, which was taken into service as USS Cyane after being captured by USS Constitution. Chapelle presents a plan in the book that he attributes as being Cyane’s “as-designed” plan but modified by him with raised bulwarks and other small details to approximate her appearance later, during the war. The only problem is he got the wrong ship.
The real HMS Cyane was a 22-gun Banterer-class sixth-rate ship commissioned in 1806. She was 118 feet long, with a tonnage of 539 tons builder measure, and an armament of 22 x 32-pounder carronades and a mix of 9-pounder cannons and 18-pounder carronades on the quarterdeck and forecastle. The ship Chapelle presented and modified was the previous Cyane, an 18-gun Bittern-class quarterdeck ship-sloop commissioned in 1796 and laid up a decade later. This smaller ship was 111.75 feet long, 423 tons bm, and only carried 18 x 6-pounder cannons and a mix of 12-pounder carronades and a pair of 6-pounder chase guns on the quarterdeck and forecastle. That class did later replace the 6-pounders on the gun deck with 32-pounder carronades like the Banterers.
The real Cyane was classified as a 32- or 34-gun frigate by the US Navy and served for two decades in that capacity. Eckford proposed that they cut her down to a flush-decked sloop, but that was never done. She served in squadrons from Africa to the Caribbean, Brazil, and the Mediterranean, until sinking at her moorings at the Philadelphia Dockyard in the winter of 1835. She was raised and scrapped the following year, and a new Cyane, the sloop mentioned earlier, commissioned in 1837.
The primary difference between a classical frigate and a sloop was the lack of an armed forecastle and quarterdeck above the gundeck. Many sloops had an open deck again, meaning that there was no structure at all above the gundeck, just open air. This is not ideal, however. The movement of the sail handlers, the boats stored in the waist, and the guns in the middle of the ship all tend to interfere with one another. Additionally, in a ship without a forecastle, the sea in rough weather comes up over the bow and washes over the deck. An open quarterdeck means that there is no cover over the ship’s helmsman and steering gear, whether it be a wheel or a tiller, and also created another busy area in the stern with gun crews, the helmsman, sailors controlling the mizzen mast, and other activities. One compromise with smaller sloops was a small unarmed forecastle platform that both gave room for sailors to handle the forward sails and also made the deck and sections below dryer in a rough sea. A small unarmed quarterdeck was also often seen, commonly called a poop in these situations. More importantly for the officers, this allowed the installation of a great cabin for the captain, allowing him to be quartered on the gun deck like a frigate’s captain, restoring the berth deck wardroom quarters to the other officers. As sloops got longer, these raised sections of the superstructure were connected together by a pair of gangways across the waist from the forecastle to the quarterdeck. These eventually widened until there was essentially a continuous, unarmed deck above the gundeck. This provided a place to handle the sails, store the ship’s boats, and provided more protection from sun and rain to the gundeck below, but it was the storage of the ship’s spare spars on this deck that led to the name spar deck. During battle it kept debris such as falling rigging and yards from coming down on top of the gun crews. Later sloops were often designed with these from the start, but many had enough free tonnage to support the extra weight of the light deck and received them in refits.
Sloops were light warships from the start, beginning with guns in the 4- to 6-pounder range. This may not sound like much, but against period lighter ships they were perfectly fine. The carronade represented a quantum leap in firepower for most sloops, instantly more than doubling or tripling the weight of a sloop’s broadside compared to conventional cannons. There were some sloops that kept the long guns, preferring the range advantage when hunting other vessels. Later, larger sloops regained the use of cannons of various longer lengths but maintaining the heavy firepower of 32-pounders like the carronades. The next major shift in armament was the introduction of the shell-firing cannon, which added explosives to the mix. Most American sloops carried up to a half-dozen of the 8-inch guns to supplement the 32-pounders. Large pivot guns in the 9- to 11-inch could be used against distant land and naval targets, and a scattering of small carronades and howitzers intended to be used on the ship’s boats and ashore rounded out the usual armament.
In the new post-Ring of Fire timeline, that is still a solid basis for a ship’s armament. The availability of newer weapons provides several interesting possibilities. The first are more advanced rifled guns than the ones normally carried on period sloops. We already have the presence of advanced breechloading 8-inch cannons in USE naval service thanks to 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies. One or two of these would be lighter than the original pivot guns and fit well in those positions. For a more advanced sloop, perhaps a steamer, down the line, four 6- or 8-inch breechloaders mounted on protruding sponsons for much larger fields of fire, would be effective and futuristic. The impending Hotchkiss guns, in the lightweight naval 37mm version, would also make useful close-in tertiary weapons for any sloop. They are able to be mounted on bulwarks in almost any location, up in the fighting tops in the rigging, deployed on ship’s boats, or landed ashore on field carriages. This makes them good combined arms weapons, used as a force multiplier for the ship’s soldiers, for close combat, and providing a mobile defensive screen when the ship is anchored.
Another potential upgrade to sloops to look at is steam power. None of the ships presented in Chapelle’s books are steamers. They all rely exclusively on sail power, but that does not mean they cannot be converted. Many early steam warships were converted from conventional sailing vessels and there are suitable examples in Chapelle to use as a base. Several sloops in the book were considered for conversion in real life, including Constellation and Plymouth. Either a paddlewheel or screw propulsion conversion would be suitable, with an increase in length providing both buoyancy for the new engines as well as space for the coal bunkers. Even an already-constructed sloop can be converted, literally slicing it in half and adding in the new section with the engines. Paddlewheel conversions would be easier and have their own advantages like increased maneuverability, but screw propulsion has perks, too, despite the difficulty in designing and building the propeller, prop shaft, and reconstructing the stern of the ship.
The sloops might not have captured the imagination the same way Old Ironsides and the other American frigates did, both at home and abroad now, but at the time the victories of Wasp, Hornet, and others were just as known as Constitution and United States. They were generally larger and more heavily armed than their British counterparts, that navy requiring larger numbers to fight more global commitments. The sloop proved to be the sweet spot of cost, ability, effectiveness, and power and formed a vital part of the fleet for the entire nineteenth century. With the advent of newer, heavier guns that sloops could carry more easily than frigates, they had an ever-increasing role. By the time of the Civil War and for over a decade afterward, most of the major steam warships in the US Navy were sloops. These included the massive USS Niagara with her armament of pivoting 11-inch Dahlgren guns, to the Hartford and Kearsarge that provided the basis for Eddie Cantrell’s USS Intrepid and USS Courser in 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies.
The sailing sloop in the 1632 novels has already made an appearance early on in the mainline books with Gustav’s ironclad being built to the modified design of one, but they would be good candidates to be used on their own—far cheaper than a frigate like Constitution, but even more powerful. They are a good candidate for heavier, more advanced cannons, allowing fewer guns to do more damage on hulls of that size. A good example is Plymouth and her successful cruise with an armament of four 9-inch and one 11-inch Dahlgren cannons, a devastating amount of firepower in that era or even more so over two centuries earlier. The versatile ship-sloop would enable cost-effective ships that can carry that firepower anywhere in the world, comfortably crossing and operating in distant stations on the other side of the planet for extended periods of time. At the same time, not only are they cheaper to operate, they are more affordable and easier to build than the larger and more robust heavy frigates. With the wide variety of ship-sloop designs in Chapelle, covering just about fifty years and a variety of sizes and armaments, there are plenty of good options for any navy in post-Ring of Fire Europe for any niche. Perhaps in this timeline, the sloop of war will finally get the recognition and widespread adoption it deserves.
List of Ship-Rigged Sloop of War plans in Chapelle’s “The American Sailing Navy.” Plans marked with an asterisk (*) also include the ship’s sailing plan or spar dimensions. Ships marked with (II) are administrative rebuilds (actually new construction).
- Wasp class (I)
- Argus class
- USS Argus
- USS Ontario
- USS Erie (including rebuild in a separate plan)
- Wasp class (II)
- USS Wasp
- USS Frolic
- USS Peacock (I)
- Eckford Corvette
- Grice Sloop
- Floyd Sloop
- Humphreys Sloop
- USS Boston
- USS Concord
- USS Fairfield (possibly Barker design)
- USS John Adams
- USS St. Louis
- USS Vandalia
- USS Vincennes (possibly Barker design)
- Doughty Sloop*
- USS Natchez
- USS Warren
- USS Lexington
- Barker Sloop
- USS Peacock (II)
- Cyane class
- Dale class
- USS Dale
- USS Decatur
- USS Marion
- USS Preble
- USS Yorktown
- 1840s Heavy sloops
- USS Saratoga
- USS Albany*
- USS Germantown*
- USS Jamestown
- USS Plymouth*
- USS Portsmouth
- USS St. Mary’s
- Razee Sloops
- USS Macedonian (II)
- USS Cumberland
- USS Constellation (II)
- Miscellaneous Sloops
- Unidentified 20-gun Ship
- Unidentified 18-gun Ship
- HMS Cyane (I)
Specifications for a selection of sloops of war from Chapelle’s book.
War of 1812 Sloop (USS Peacock I)
Dimensions: Length 119′ between perpendiculars, beam 31’6″, Depth of Hold 14’6″
Tonnage: 509 tons
Armament: 2 x 12-pounder chase guns, 20 x 32-pounder carronades
Small Sloop (USS Dale)
Dimensions: Length 117’7″, beam 33’10”, Depth of Hold 15′
Tonnage: 566 tons
Armament: 16 x 32-pounders (other mixes of 32-pounders, 8″ shell guns, and 20/30-pounder rifles possible)
Medium Sloop (USS Plymouth)
Dimensions: Length 147’6″, beam 38’1″, depth of hold 17’2″
Tonnage: 989 tons
Armament: 4 x 8″ shell guns, 18 x 32-pounders, or 1 x 11″ Dahlgren shell gun, 4 x 9″ Dahlgren shell guns
Large Sloop (USS Constellation)
Dimensions: Length 176′, beam 42′, depth of hold 19’3″
Tonnage: 1265 tons
Armament: 2 x 10″ pivot guns, 16 x 8″ shell guns, 4 x 32-pounders.
The following are not in Chapelle, including the two canon ships from 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, but provide examples of possible development for steam sloops.
Notional Small US Steam Sloop (USS Kearsarge)
Dimensions: Length 198’6″, beam 33’10”, depth of hold 15’9″
Tonnage: 1031/1550 tons
Armament: 2 x 11″ Dahlgren shell guns, 4 x 9″ Dahlgren shell guns, 2 x 20-pounder rifles
Notional Large US Steam Sloop (USS Lancaster)
Dimensions: Length 235’8″, beam 46′, depth of hold 18’6″
Tonnage: 2462/3250 tons
Armament: 2 x 100-pounder rifles, 16 to 24 x 9″ Dahlgren shell guns
Notional US Paddle Sloop (USS Saginaw)
Dimensions: Length 155′, beam 26′, depth of hold 4’5″ (light)
Tonnage: 453/508 tons
Armament: 1 x 50-pounder rifle, 1 x 32-pounder, 2 x 24-pounder boat howitzers
Notional UK Paddle Sloop (HMS Gorgon)
Dimensions: Length 178″, beam 37’6″, depth of hold 23′
Tonnage: 1110/1610 tons
Armament: 2 x 10″/84-pounder shell guns, 4 x 32-pounder broadside
Notional UK Screw Sloop (HMS Jason)
Dimensions: Length 225′, beam 40′ 8″, depth of hold 24’2″
Tonnage: 1711/2468 tons
Armament: 20 x 8″ shell guns, 1 x 110-pounder rifled breechloader pivot. Later 16 x 64-pounder ML rifles in place of shell guns.
Notional Advanced Wooden UK Sloop (HMS Vestal)
Dimensions: Length 187′, beam 36′, draft 17′
Tonnage: 1081/1574 tons
Armament: 2 x 7″ rifles + 2 x 64-pounder rifles, or 9 x 64-pounder rifles
Book canon from “1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies”
SSIM Intrepid (Quality I Class), enlarged USS Hartford
Dimensions (Hartford): Length 225′, beam 44′, depth of hold 17’2″
Armament: 2 x 8″ pivot guns + several broadside 68-pounder carronades
Armament (Original Hartford): 2 x 100-pounder rifles, 18 x 9″ Dahlgren gun, 1 x 30-pounder rifle
SSIM Courser (Speed I Class), modified USS Kearsarge
Dimensions (Kearsarge): Length 198’6″, beam 33’10”, depth of hold 15’9″
Armament: 1 x 8″ pivot gun + several broadside 68-pounder carronades
Armament (Original Kearsarge): 2 x 11″ Dahlgren gun, 4 x 32-pounder cannons, 2 x 20-pounder rifles
Brown, David K. Paddle Warships: The Earliest Steam Powered Fighting Ships 1815-1850. Oxford: Conway Maritime Press, 1993. Print.
Canney, Donald L. The Old Steam Navy: Frigates, Sloops, and Gunboats, 1815-1885. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1990.
Chapelle, Howard I, and Leon D. Polland. The Constellation Question. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1970.
Chapelle, Howard I. The History of American Sailing Navy. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1990.
Dahlgren, Madeleine V. Memoir of J.A. Dahlgren, Rear-Admiral United States Navy. Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1882.
James, William. A Full and Correct Account of the Chief Naval Occurrences of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States of America: Preceded by a Cursory Examination of the American Accounts of Their Naval Actions Fought Previous to That Period : to Which Is Added an Appendix with Plates. London: Printed for T. Egerton, 1982.
McLaughlan, Ian. The Sloop of War: 1650 – 1763. Barnsley: Seaforth Publ, 2014.
Roosevelt, Theodore. The Naval War of 1812, Or, the History of the United States Navy During the Last War with Great Britain: To Which Is Appended an Account of the Battle of New Orleans. United States: publisher not identified, 2011.
Silverstone, Paul. Sailing Navy 1775-1854. S.l.: Taylor & Francis, 2016.
Toll, Ian W. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2008.
Tucker, Spencer. Arming the Fleet: U.S. Navy Ordnance in the Muzzle-Loading Era. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1989.
Winfield, Rif. British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714-1792: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. St. Paul, Minn: Seaforth Publishing / MBI Publishing, 2007.
Winfield, Rif. British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1793-1817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Barnsley: Seaforth, 2010.
Winfield, Rif. British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1817-1863: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Barnsley: Seaforth, 2014.